That’s right, you read it correctly.
Pullela Gopichand, the legendary badminton player-turned-coach was a marquee speaker at WCIT-NILF where he articulated this fascinating idea. Some people will always be #2 (do they remain contented?) but will never quite reach the pole position, ever. Make no mistake, they are incredibly smart, hard-working and to be found in all walks of life. Quite capable too, but something holds them back and they are unable to take that final lunge to knock off the breast-tape. And yet, there’s a rare breed of individuals who are “born to win.” Perhaps, very little separates the two but it’s the latter that history remembers.
Keshav Murugesh – the WNS boss, who most adroitly chairs the fireside chats with sports celebrities at NASSCOM events – ran past us an overwhelming list of Gopichand’s achievements; not least being a special mention of awards such as Arjuna, Dronacharya and Padma Bhushan. His students have gone on to break great records themselves, thus bequeathing him with a cult-like fan following in sports circles. Inasmuch, his academy is regarded as a temple of sorts by young aspirants and their equally ambitious parents.
Surprisingly, badminton was not Gopichand’s first choice at the age of 10, but cricket. Thankfully, it was lack of facilities which weaned him away to badminton and then on there was no looking back - like the proverbial duck taking to water. In 1996, Gopi (as he is fondly known) became the national champion, and later in 2001, he became only the second Indian player to have won the All-England Open (Prakash Padukone being the other).
When he started the academy, he took on a huge risk. Financial liability was not the only burden because failure at that point would have dealt a body blow to his reputation as well. However, he chose to listen to his inner voice and was guided by his soul’s calling. He hails from a middle-class South Indian family which puts a premium on education (his elder brother is an IIT alumnus) so the pressure earlier on to excel in academics, is understandable. Today’s generation may not fully comprehend the hardship of yesteryears, especially with success stories abounding, but back then (30 years ago) things were very different for those who aspired to take up sports as their chosen career. As expected, Gopi’s iron will prevailed.
Coping with Failure & Excruciating Physical Pain
In the year 1994, Gopi was the reigning #1 in India and things couldn’t have been better. A freak collision with his partner on court left him with a damaged left knee which was to plague him throughout his career – often costing him major championship wins. In the next four years, he had to undergo three surgeries with alarming regularity (94, 96 & 98). Till 1994, his focus had always been on beating others but afterwards, the physical pain would be so excruciating (and often crippling) that Gopi learnt how to focus on himself instead. It dawned on him, a revelation of sorts that others’ performance did not matter anymore.
All in Good Time
The big stage was set - Olympics 2000. He had trained incredibly hard and his mind was just as agile – an integral aspect of sports training. Yoga, visualization techniques et al, he had left nothing to chance. And then the unthinkable happened!
The toils of playing on a concrete court in Sydney took a massive toll on his knee. The next day he was down with fever and had to forego the hope of winning an Olympics medal. Understandably, this left him in a state of despair for months afterwards. The heart-breaking anguish refused to die down and would often give vent to a morbid cry within: “I will never again expect anything.”
Life, of course, had other plans. The very next year (2001) Pulella Gopichand became the second Indian player in history to win the All-England Open! He says, “You will be tested. If you keep trying it will happen. You need to push, push, push, push and push some more. Often, it’s that last push which will suddenly get you results.” Is that how we overcome the “fear of winning?” That zone is but a step away from despair, and yet there are many who continue to miss it. His profound wisdom left us in awe: “It will happen not when we want but when we deserve it.”
Mind Power & State of Calmness
Naysayers are too quick to pass judgements: Why is the guy still trying? Careless and insensitive remarks can be extremely hurtful, but to great champions like Gopichand, it’s often motivating enough to keep pushing and proving them wrong. Someone else’s opinion does not matter but what really does is what the mind believes in. For that, one has to lie still, be calm and observe (even) the breathing patterns. Often the most productive ideas come out when the mind is in a state of calmness. As competition keeps humans on their toes, the habit of winning gets ingrained in their DNA.
The Role of Tech in Sports
With hawk-eyes, copious analyses, sensors etc. tech has gotten ahead. Undeniably, the assistance provided to sports medicine and nutrition has been rather extraordinary which has benefitted in extending careers by 6 – 8 years at the very least. However, he strongly believes that AI at present is not yet a viable substitute for human intervention in badminton.
On Motivating Athletes
Hanging on to or dwelling on mistakes does no good. The coach must encourage the player to let go and move on to the next phase of the game. Having said that, subtle changes in training may be required to address the issue at hand. It has been his observation that athletes often come back and open up on their own. Just as there is success, failure is also a part of life. It’s unavoidable. It’s important to make the other person feel that committing a mistake is not a criminal offence. Gopichand had a special word of praise for the modern generation which really believes that it can win major tournaments across the globe. Perhaps a departure in thinking from players of the past, who may have been no less talented and hardworking, but lacked self-belief and were often contented with propping up the also-ran tag at major global events. Those who are able to retain their enthusiasm for hard work even after crippling losses and monotony, are likely to go the distance.
Quick Grabs – Pearls
- We are always judging people whether they are talented or not. The truth is, humans are talented and as leaders we will have to find the right fit. Humans deserve respect.
- India has grown tremendously in terms of intellectual capital but not equally so in sporting achievements. What we need right now in India is Physical Literacy.
- Most Cherished Title – the All-England Open.
- The most important woman in his life – mother!
- A sportsman he looks up to – Roger Federer.
- Gopi the father or Gopi the coach – without even blinking: FATHER!
- Life’s lesson: Competition is within yourself.
- What would he like to change? Nothing, he believes he has had the best life he could have imagined.
- As a coach, he is always mindful of the fact that flaws in a player need to be discussed in a way so as not to break the individual.
Finally, Keshav Murugesh asked him what keeps him humble. To which he added philosophically, “It lies in the knowledge that our ideas (which we are often hasty to claim as our own) aren’t really ours. It emanates from nature, from God even. That’s probably why he unfailingly prays before every match and after.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s Pullela Gopichand for you. A super-achiever but humble to the core and always sensitive to fellow humans around him. The audience simply went berserk and gave him a standing ovation – one of the very few speakers at WCIT-NILF to have been accorded the honour, and deservedly so!