Sports Psychology - Game of Life
by Roozbeh Gazdar
How coaches can build character through sportso Create and enjoin an attitude towards sports that promotes core ethical values such as respect, caring, compassion, honesty and dedication
o Define values clearly and specific behaviour as
Every game is an opportunity to measure yourself against your own potential
- Bud Wilkinson
August 1936. The 11th Olympics were being held in Berlin. Meant to foster goodwill and equality amongst nations, the Nazi government under Adolf Hitler, hosting the event, was hell-bent upon infusing it with the dissonant hues of racial prejudice and brazen jingoism.
Intent on dazzling the world with its power, the German government had constructed a stupendous Olympic village with a massive sports complex. Its centerpiece: an impressive Olympic Stadium built of stone that could seat 110, 000 spectators. It had a special seating area at the top of the stadium, from where the fuhrer and his ranks would sit to view the competition.
The excessive pomp and pageantry had a purpose. In the larger arena of world politics, signs of a more ominous match of power were brewing. In a situation fraught with suspicion and muscle-flaunting among the powers-to-be, the German agenda was clear. By emerging a winner, the German team, effectively purged of Jews and other 'inferiors', would be the perfect propaganda for its ideology of Aryan superiority.
The Germany athletes did win many medals, but the real hero of the 11th Olympics turned out to be a sinewy black American, grandson of a 'Negro slave'. Winning four gold medals, Jesse Owens not only carved a niche in sporting history, but in his friendship with his German competitor Lutz Long - fair-skinned, blond and blue-eyed model for Hitler's superior race theory - spectators saw the ultimate humiliation of the chagrined fuhrer.
What happened that day is today veritable sporting legend. When Owens failed to qualify in the first two rounds of the long jump, Long consoled him and gave him advice. Acting upon this, Owens cleared the final round by jumping a whopping 8.06 meters, a new Olympic record. As a cheering German audience gave Owens the warmest ovation of his life, Long, it is said, rushed over to congratulate him. He held up Owen's hand to the crowds, thunderously chanting, "Ja-zee-oo-wenz", after which, both athletes walked, hand-in-hand, towards the dressing room.
Stripped of the embellishments conferred by successive retelling, the story, as it actually happened, may have been less dramatic. But Owen's victory, that cocked a snook at the megalomanic fuhrer and the friendship that spawned between him and Long, remains part of the history of human heroism.
When Long later died fighting during the Second World War in Sicily, it was widely rumored to have been Hitler's revenge, though, to be fair, there is no evidence to suggest it. For his sportsmanship, Long was posthumously honored with the Pierre de Coubertein medal.
Owens, and, of course, Long, are just two of the larger-than-life heroes from the world of sport. What is it about sports, that forges out of ordinary men and women, personalities of such compelling power and magnetism that we shower adulation on them, worship them, and seek to emulate them?
Part of history since the earliest of times, sports probably evolved as a reflection of the human urge to conquer and achieve mastery over forces greater than one's own, be they nature, animals or other humans. They might have been the earliest of rituals enacted to ensure the development of healthy bodies and courageous spirit that survival required.
Archery, fencing, wrestling and various forms of athletics were designed to maintain troops in optimum form and in readiness for the eventuality of war. Hand-to-hand combat, in the days before machine guns and missiles, was governed by codes of conduct that reverberated noble values such as valor and chivalry, and sport hearkened to these ideals during peacetime. Take the jousting tournaments described in King Arthur's legends, where, engaging in mock combat, the winner won fame, wealth, even the hand of the fair, maiden, without unnecessary bloodshed.
The closest association between sports and development of human character is found in the 'gymnasiums' of ancient Greece. Originating from 'gymnos' or naked, gymnasiums were originally a place for exercise, bathing and social exchange, but soon came to refer to public institutions where young boys were offered training in physical exercise as well as academics. All-round development, for the Greeks, had as much to do with physical prowess as with intellectual brilliance.
Says Tom Fakehany, Instructional Chair for The California Central Collegiate Volleyball Officials Association, in an article on the internet, "Great coaches…(who) honor the traditional spirit of sport as the pursuit of team and individual excellence, are inevitably character builders. They are, first and foremost, teachers who measure their success not in victories or records but in their ability to help youngsters reach their highest potential. Sure, they teach techniques and strategies, but by their words and actions they also teach vital life skills and virtues …associated with good sportsmanship. The people they coach not only become better performers, they become better human beings."
Quest for Excellence
Imagine the perfect body-mind coordination of a gymnast performing on the bar. Easy and fluid, her gravity-defying movements come from a lifetime of single-minded practice. The refined fluency of a golfer swinging his club, the unshakable mastery of the archer as he draws the bow, are the culmination of patient honing of one's skills.
The core of sports practice remains the attainment of excellence. Even if you are playing against others, the real competition is against your own limitations. As national level yachting champion, Shibani Sachdeva, explains, "While sailing we are exposed to the elements such as strong winds and the stormy sea. It teaches us to remain calm and focussed even as we conquer adversity."
National sprint champion Adil Sumariwala elaborates, "Sports training brings about a complete transformation in you. All your faculties get sharper. It makes you think faster, react faster, analyse your situation instantly, take decisions and act upon them immediately."
In fact, numerous studies suggest that children who are into athletics perform better in academics. For instance, research conducted over a three-year period in the North Carolina high school put the average Grade Point Average (GPA) for athlete-students as almost 23% higher than that for non-athletes.
Elaborates Kiran Bedi, director general, home guard, herself a former tennis champion, "You play to win and learn from losing. But most of all, you play to be physically and mentally strong and to be happy and enjoy the game. Play to compete within. And you always learn to come back, not with jealousy, envy, anger, but with determination and will power and preparation to do it better for one's own self."
How often do we hear the phrase, "It's just not cricket", referring to something that's not quite 'above board'? Originating way back before 'match-fixing', on the lawns of the nobility, the English stiff upper lip considered decorum, dignity and adherence to protocol as most crucial to a game well played. Universally, true sportsmanship has always had at its heart, the conviction to always 'play fair'.
"Practice and contest conduct cannot be two different standards ," writes Andy Gillentine, an assistant professor of health, physical education, recreation and sport while referring to the ethical values.
Sachdeva, who coaches the under-15 yachting team, explains inculcation of ethics as an important part of the coach's job. "As a coach I teach kids about not getting ahead through cheating, not cutting corners, not being envious of competitors. No amount of sermonizing in a moral science class can teach you important lessons about goodness and teamwork, the way sports can," she asserts.
Contends Sumariwala, "On the field, the killer instinct is necessary. But true sportsmanship requires that you express it in the right spirit, within the rules and norms of conduct required by the sport."
Tennis coach, Abid Ali, agrees, "The desire to win is definitely important. However, coaches should encourage players to focus more on the competitive 'spirit' of the sport rather than solely on winning. Also, emphasis should be laid on learning from mistakes, which is the best way in which to accept defeat in a sporting manner."
Players of Life
View the turf - with all its pressures to perform, call to excel, victories, defeat, exultations and heart breaks - as a microcosm of the playing field of life and you begin to see why accomplished sportsmen often display superhuman mettle.
Ali refers to the famous sportsmen who have mastered their fates. "Despite suffering from cancer, Lance Armstrong has won cycling's toughest endurance race, the Tour de France, a record seven times. He also started the Lance Armstrong Foundation for Cancer Research by the popular name LIVESTRONG, very popular, with children all over the world who sport its yellow wristband. Then there is Ian Thorpe, Olympic gold medalist swimmer, who is suffering from severe bronchitis and asthma. Every time he enters the pool, he battles not just his opponents but also, severe chest pain, which he compares to being stabbed by hundreds of knives in his lungs."
According to Kiran Bedi, sport is a 'practical' means to character building, not merely about concept or theory. She says, "Sports incorporate within one a sense of fair play, justice, merit, value of preparation, mental tenacity, will power, transparency, discipline and the ability to handle stress. As a sportsman, one makes all these traits a habit and they become part of your character. These then enter your life, wherever you are and whatever you do."
Adds Sumariwala, "To be a top level sportsman, just practicing is not enough. I believe that only perfect practice can make you a winner. If you follow this rule you can be a perfectionist in any area of your life."
Again, just as in sports, in life too we find a complex heterogeneity of aptitude, capacity and talent. "Top level sports are comparative. And you just have to accept that everyone can't win prizes all the time," says Sumariwala. Adds Sachdeva, "No one in sports has been exempt from the pain of defeat, and it teaches you to accept defeat with grace. You learn to take success and failure lightly, without strongly identifying with either."
Is it all work and no play then? Says Sachdeva, "Ultimately, when you play you are not always serious. Sports is also about celebration, about playfulness. This is the greatest lesson that sports teaches you - to play for the love of the game rather than for personal gain."
Ali says, "By telling them to acknowledge their opponent's abilities and try to improve their own game level and be better players, I also encourage my students to put in their best effort without worrying about winning or losing, all the while enjoying the game and having fun."
As a coach, Sachdeva marvels at the transformation brought about in eight-year-olds who come to her. "They are total novices, often afraid of water, anxious about peer pressure, with fears such as of the boat capsizing. It is surprising how, with just a little instruction, and some gentle cajoling, they grow up to be not just able sportsmen who will represent the country, but also completely calm and composed human beings, physically, mentally, and emotionally evolved."
Kiran Bedi makes an insightful revelation, "But for my tennis I would not have made it to the IPS as intensively as I did. For I had learnt to take the pressures of public accolades as well as its brickbats. For me it was a transition from the sports page to crime page."
She adds, "Sport is a friend for life. It's worth having."
The Spiritual Realm
For the ancients, sports were intimately associated with religion. Whether the Mayan ritual of human sacrifice, where victims were selected from amongst losers in a primitive ball game, or the Olympic games of ancient Greece that were a tribute to their gods, sporting experiences were bridges to a higher realm.
"I am a meditator as well as a sports person and for me sailing is an equally spiritual experience," says Sachdeva. She explains, "Sports are a great leveler as they teach you detachment from your actions. They teach you the power of the present moment; when you are competing you cannot anguish about the past or speculate about the future. You are completely one with the action, you remain an impassive witness," she says, adding that they bring about a complete synthesis of body and mind in the same way that yoga does.
What Sachdeva is describing is a suspension of everyday realities that athletes, absorbed in the peak of their performance, experience. Known in sporting parlance as being in the 'zone', it is a state of expanded consciousness similar to the 'oneness' with the Self, experienced through meditation and other spiritual practices.
Writes Andrew Cooper in Playing in the Zone, Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports, "Although an accomplished performance is anything but instinctual, … there is something about it that makes it feel that way. That something is immersion.
"What feels like instinct is the absence of the fear, doubt, worry and unnecessary deliberation that result from self-consciousness. But whereas instinct is a regression to a level of functioning prior to the formation of self-consciousness, what we see in sport is a highly refined mode of intuitive functioning that transcends self-consciousness. It is a harmonization of the faculties of body and mind, each doing the task that is appropriate to it, and a full trust in the knowledge that years of work have made second nature. There is, in Zen terms, 'nothing extra' - no ego standing apart from the action encumbering it with useless commentary. Or, as an Italian proverb has it, 'Learn how to do it, then forget you know how.'"
As former National Football League player, David Meggysey, says, "The zone is the essence of the athletic experience, and those moments of going beyond yourself are the underlying allure of sport."
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