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After Mustafa Ghouse announced his retirement from all forms of professional tennis in 2008, he found himself at a crossroads. His expected career options were either coaching or training other athletes, something he wasn’t interested in.

“I had never really thought about life beyond tennis. It took me some time to come to terms with the harsh reality," says Ghouse, 39, who won a bronze in the 2002 Asian Games.

It was a chance conversation with fellow sportsman Mahesh Bhupathi that led him into sports management, where he joined the “other side" of managing athletes, sponsorships and marketing.

He discovered that he not had the passion for it, but also the required grit, thanks to the skills he had acquired as a professional tennis player. “Nothing teaches you how to deal with losses and how to bounce back better than sports," says Ghouse, who’s now the chief executive officer of JSW Sports, a sports management vertical run by the Jindal family.

Athletes prepare for all kinds of mental and emotional duress, developing a set of skills that don’t just serve them in the sports arena but also make them effective leaders who can go on to create sustainable businesses. They have taken calculated risks, learnt how to be calm in a stressful environment, taken quick decisions, bounced back from failure and scrounged for sponsorships.

“This is what makes sports a perfect training ground for self-motivated, efficient leaders," says Ghouse.

Focused on a single goal

Sports is a training ground for success in most careers, especially as an entrepreneur, believes Darshana Rajaram, 40, a startup founder and former swimmer who represented Karnataka and India in freestyle events as a teen.

At the age of 18, frustrated with biases in professional swimming, Rajaram decided to quit and pursue a management degree. What she did not know was that swimming, which she had been doing since the age of five, had already taught her several business lessons. “I knew how to focus, work hard. I could work in a team, set a goal and, most importantly, had an ability to deal with failure. I believed in myself," she says.

After 20 years of working in the corporate world, with the last three as the founder of an education startup in Bengaluru, Rajaram gives credit to her first career for making her resilient and ready for all challenges, be it political, mental, physical or financial. “None of my professional successes could have happened without the strong foundation that sports set for me," she says, adding that she’s seen her former swimming teammates also turn into successful and effective business leaders.

Ghouse has also seen his peers create careers in entrepreneurship, family business and corporates. He himself climbed the ladder of his alternate career pretty fast. Within a year of getting into sports management, in 2012, Ghouse had become the head of JSW Sport. As a leader there, Ghouse has set up three professional sports league teams and currently manages a team of athletes training for Olympics 2021.

Ankita Raina in action during the second qualifying round against Czech Republic's Tereza Smitkova
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Ankita Raina in action during the second qualifying round against Czech Republic's Tereza Smitkova

Perhaps the most important lesson that athletes learn is to stay focused on a single goal, day after day, putting their mental, physical and emotional ability into one single task, says Ankita Raina, 27, a professional tennis player and the current India No. 1 in both women’s singles and doubles. “I eat, sleep and dream tennis," she says. She adds that it’s this focus that has helped her do well in sports and it would also come in handy in case she decides to become an entrepreneur later in life. “Athletes turn out to be good entrepreneurs," she says.

If you’ve played on the field, nationally or internationally, you know a thing or two about handling pressure. “Athletes are trained professionally to handle pressure and become good at problem-solving," says Abhishek Mishra, 27, a former hockey player.

The skills Mishra learnt in the seven years that he played professionally (from 2007-14) have helped him navigate multiple careers—as a manager in the aviation industry and as an entrepreneur of a digital marketing business. “Playing teaches you to focus, be determined and disciplined," he says. It is this skill, of being focused, that Mishra now passes on to his students, as a hockey coach in Surat.

Risk-taking is another skill you learn early on in sports. Raina, for instance, started travelling independently to tournaments in India and abroad by the age of 13. This taught her how to navigate the world around her, she says. “It gave me confidence, an ability to decide fast and made me independent at a young age," she explains. This in turn, she believes, reflected on the tennis court, where she is calm and composed during matches, especially as pressure increases.

Another important lesson is that of working towards a goal, as a team, even if you are in an individual sport
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Another important lesson is that of working towards a goal, as a team, even if you are in an individual sport

IT’S a group effort

It’s this quiet self-assurance that Gurugram-based para-athlete Devika Malik, 29, wants to inject in people who are differently abled. Since 2015, Malik has been running a non-profit, Wheeling Happiness, which works on social inclusion of differently abled people.

“As a sportsperson, I realize that sports can enhance self-reliance in a person with disability and I want to focus on building this confidence," says Malik, who has won eight national and three international medals for India in long jump.

Another important lesson is that of working towards a goal, as a team, even if you are in an individual sport.

“As an athlete, every victory is a victory for your nation," says Malik. A victory for an athlete is a validation of their team, including the coach, trainer and physiotherapist.

Ghouse agrees. His past as a tennis player has turned him into a better manager, as he values his team members and their abilities towards a shared goal. “Being an athlete in India is extremely hard, competitive and challenging," he says. “After you have made it, everything else you do in your career, feels easier."

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