Ever since India won its first gold medal in Athletics through the stupendous performance of Subedar Neeraj Chopra in the men's Javelin throw on the last day of the Tokyo Olympics, 2020, the country has been witnessing unprecedented celebrations for the spectacular success of our Olympians that won a record number of medals. Several views and perceptions are being projected through articles, videos, and debates in context with our recent performance with comparisons being drawn with our past performances during pre- and post-independence India.
Clearly, the entire nation seems to have realised the importance of winning a medal in Olympics and why it means so much to the nation. Seeing the present euphoria in the country on account of our sports achievers at Tokyo triggered me initiate a debate in the country on the subject:
"After Winning Gold Medal in Javelin Throw in Men's Athletics at Tokyo Olympics, is India finally at the cross roads of excllence in international sports? What is the reality and the way forward?"
The Trigger for this debate was a response below from Professor Kamlesh: "As an academician, I have lived through more than six decades of the march of physical and sports in the country and seen, felt and understood the ups and downs in these vital aspects of human life from the viewpoint of first health and fitness of the individual and the nation and second, culture.
Myriad things can be said, discussed and debated more genuinely and seriously than what so-called experts, media and political authorities and officials are doing - just churning waters foolishly expecting to obtain the bowl of nectar as Gods and Demons mythologically are mentioned to have done in the past. Each one of them is smartly politicking and gets the share of the victory, which in comparison to other nations is simply trivial.
Money is vital these days in sports but this is not the factor, out of four factors - devotion, dedication, determination and discipline - the last one is the anchor which neither we, as individuals and as nation - have. Defence forces have it in abundance but it is a forced one, not coming from within. In the prime of youth I was a physical training instructor in the National Discipline Scheme (1954-65) for seventeen years and I fully understand what discipline means and it means to be disciplined if you wish to achieve anything in life.
Those who lived a disciplined life have performed and achieved, rest all is secondary. One gold medal winner now will receive 10 crores or so from various sources, chiefly political, but if sports persons participating in Tokyo Olympics had won 50 gold medals, then what would have happened? Unless we improve the quality of physical education, which is milk, at school, we shall never ever have a good quality butter called sport. There is much to be said on the subject but I have constraints on my time."
After receiving the above response from Professor Kamlesh I earnestly requested him to send us a very comprehensive piece on this very interesting and complex subject on what it takes to train for excellence in competitive sports. Professor Kamlesh obliged and sent me a very well researched comprehensive article that was written by him 3-4 years back for one of the national conferences that he attended.
The article which gives 'a scientific perspective for producing champions in sports with connected managerial problems' is reproduced below with the aim of enriching the knowledge of its readers. All sportsmen, trainers, coaches and managerial staff have a lot to gain from it. Happy reading!
What is common among Roger Federer - the Swiss Ace, Michael Phelps - the Gold Fish, Carl Lewis - the American Express, Edson Arantes De Nascimento (in short Pele) - the Smiling Assassin, Donald Bradman - the Don, Nadia Comaneci - the Perfectionist, Michael Jordan- His Airness, Lance Armstrong- the true fighter, Muhammad Ali – the “Greatest”, Saina Nehwal – the Giant Killer, Vishwanathan Anand - the intellectual prowess incarnate, Michael Schumacher - the Ruthless, German efficiency, Sachin Tendulkar - the cricket god, and countless others like George Best, Tiger Woods, the Khans, Jansher and Jahangir, Giacomo Agostini, Mick Doohan, Alain Prost, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Zinedine Zidane, Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain, Rod Laver, Sergey Bubka, Jesse Owens, Sugar Ray Robinson, Diego Maradona, Rafael Nadal, Usain Bolt, Valentino Rossi, Martina Navratilova, etc.? They are champions - the iconic sport personalities.
We often wonder what is so special about them? What is it that allows them to reach the most elite levels of sporting events? Are they all alike in characteristics as champions or different? If so, on what account. Were all of them destined to be champions by fate (birth) or shaped by the environment in which they were born and brought up?
Is it possible to produce a champion in a sport sheerly on the strength of the external inputs? Can a champion be genetically cloned? Why have some of them become accomplished, but never brilliant? Are humans born with talents that make them particularly suited to certain pursuits? All these and possibly many more questions like these are simply mind-boggling or intriguing. The reason?
Only a few concrete aspects of an athlete's personality can be researched, measured, and evaluated. This is in no way adequate to explain the point either way. It is but impossible to dive deep into the genetic makeup of an individual to know what powers and potential he or she has been blessed with for developing into a champion.
Still more intriguing is the idea of understanding and evaluating quantitatively and qualitatively the interaction between a person's genetic make-up and his environment, whose role in champion development is more critical than that of heredity and environment singularly.
Research on personality dynamics at various levels of performance has revealed many secrets about how outstanding athletes can be produced by following highly scientific methods and means and also conventional approach but a champion typically continues to be an enigma - an unsolvable riddle of national talent and environmental inputs inextricably intertwined.
The Athletic Champion - Born or made?
The assertions that Olympic athletes are “a special breed” (Cofer & Johnson, 1960) or “a breed apart” (Guttmann, 2006) have a strong intuitive appeal though not supported by much empirical data. The genetic and anthropological studies on Olympic athletes during the late 1960s and early 1970s impress on us to believe that “a rare combination of genetic endowment, generally good environment, and a very special training can produce an Olympic athlete” (de Garay et al., 1974).
The question whether champion athletes, irrespective of the sport they play, are born or "produced" has been a matter of serious debate and discussion in the scientific and academic circles for decades, and the arguments for and against the proposition have been equally powerful, but unfortunately leading to nothing conclusive.
Both sport scientists and sport academics (coaches, physical educators, and talent-hunting experts) concede that this tricky tangle that has direct reference to the undefined roles genetics and environment play in the making of a genius in any field human interaction, much less sport.
Those who aspire to produce champions in sports must take cognizance of two important but inter-related facts about human development and personality as related to performance. First, genetics, the hardware of personality, is a closed, fixed, and unmodifiable system, but is predisposed to certain physical, mental, and emotional states. We are what our inheritance has made us e.g., tall, short, bony, skinny, intelligent, stupid, temperamental, emotional, extrovert, neurotic, aggressive, daring, or fearful.
No one knows what stuff we have inherited from our family lineage enabling us to grow into a scientist, an athlete, a performing artist, or a technologist. Certain hardware issues, for sure, are significant in certain activities. For example, if you are very, very short you are unlikely to become a top basketball player and if you don’t have sufficient number of fast-twitch muscle fibres, you are not going to become the world’s greatest sprinter. The revelations about our potential to be this or that gradually come to us only as we have a close combat with the environment.
Ayaz Memon, a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters, refers to the following excerpt from the speech of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave during the Beijing Olympics in 2008:
I remember still, almost 45 years ago now, running in my first competitive race at my school sports day. I remember the running track, grass freshly mowed. A sunny day. The race was over 440 yards. Four times round our small track. I settled in behind the lead runner, calculating to overtake him on the last bend before the straight run to the finish. The race went (according) to plan until just as I reached the bend, I tried to sprint forward. Suddenly, my legs just didn’t have the energy. The mental-will was there. The physical capacity was not.
I remember that feeling of shock and disappointment now as clear as I did then, the disconnection between desire and ability. I still have my silver cup for coming second. But silver was not what I wanted. I wanted gold.”
The conclusion Blair draws has universal truth value: “What makes a champion? We must start with an uncomfortable truth: Natural talent helps.” Some people may not agree to the hardware (genetics) being the limiting factor.
Second, environment, comprising skill learning. education, opportunity, practice, good coaching, parental involvement, social recognition, etc., is an open system - highly flexible, modifiable. It may include specified and unspecified social and cultural influences. Matthew Syed - a journalist and former table tennis champion - argues that academic research has ruled out the idea of innate talent. This view, he says, may be radical and subversive too but evidence backs up his assertion.
Spartak Moscow, a tennis club in the Russian capital has produced more top 20 female players than the whole of the United States. A very small area of the Western Riff Valley in Kenya has produced a very high proportion of the world’s top distance runners. This is not genetic. The pattern of success is environmental. When you dig down into the histories of these top performers and it is done in a scientific, controlled way, what we find is that the players who get to the top are those who practice the longest amount of time and with the most voracious appetite.
Enough evidence exists favouring the software to be the limiting factor, not hardware. For example, Lionel Messi is an English soccer star but not the greatest soccer player in the world because he is faster than everybody else; Federer is not the best tennis player in the world because he is faster or stronger. What they have is acquired mental representations that enable them to play in the most efficient way.
So, for example, Lionel Messi can discern the pattern of players around a football pitch which enables him to select the right pass into an on-running team-mate whilst avoiding the defenders. That is pattern recognition facility that is built up over time; he was not born with it.
Similarly, Roger Federer: the reason he can return a fast serve is not because he has faster reactions than you or I, it is because he can anticipate where the ball is going before it has even been hit by decoding the pattern of movement of his opponent, and we know that from the very detailed scientific evidence that is available, these kind of innate attributes that we often think are implicated in top success very rarely are.
How do we explain this?
Knowing nothing about their innate athletic abilities, let us take Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and Sachin Tendulkar, as the representative cases of perceived environmental influence. These sport celebrities are unquestionably regarded champions par excellence in their sport, each one of them being uniquely different from others in one quality or the other.
One has this, the other has that; the third one has neither this nor that but something else and the fourth one stands apart in everything that goes to make a champion. All of them undoubtedly possess the game, the heart, and the mind as essentials of unmatched sporting excellence. And yet it is hard to explain the source of their uniqueness - the single-minded quality that puts them on the top.
Genetics may seem to play a charismatic role in creating champions in any field of life, but environment nevertheless is more capable of springing surprises. If you dig down into the narrative histories of anyone who has reached a high level in virtually any task with a certain level of complexity, what you seemingly find is they have spent many, many hours, many months, many years building up to that level by dint of hard practice, sweat and blood.
There is no shortcut to the top, even if sometimes we look at young performers and it seems as if they have short-circuited that long road to excellence, when you actually find out about what they did, you find that they started super-young.
Tiger Woods as a two-year-old, the Williams sisters at three-year-olds, Mozart, who was dazzling the aristocracy with piano skills at six and a half. His most eminent biographer assesses that he had already practiced 3,500 hours. Mental skills that people have to develop to get to these elite levels in sport and music is one of the great mysteries of sport.
The process of ingraining excellence is long-term, but what the evidence suggests is that almost all of us who are healthy have the potential to get there, provided we are willing to stick at it for all those many hours. The amazing case of Sachin Tendulkar stands testimony to this. No one has quite captured the imagination of the world as Tendulkar has in the past quarter of a century.
The fact that he made his debut at 16, continued playing at 36 even, and has amassed fame and fortune to last several generations obviously makes him a terrific role model to emulate. Bewitched by his stupendous success, millions of parent’s throng cricket coaching centres across the country hoping that their young one will be the next big thing in the game, but obviously not everybody becomes a Sachin.
If champions were so easy to drop from Heaven, why would there be a need for elaborate coaching systems, sports academies, playing facilities, etc.? The failure rate is phenomenally high and heartache for children and their guardians is highly common. In Ayaz Memon's view, much of the onus of our becoming a genius or a champion in any field of human activity shifts to environment but not without the limitations imposed by our heredity.
What goes into the making of an Athletic Champion?
In his Basic Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, R. Harris of Loughborough University, UK, rightly points out that the difference between winning and losing at the top in sport is so small that even the slightest edge can make the difference. The one capable of maintaining that "slightest edge " turns out to be the champion. Even to qualify for an Olympics requires certain qualities, but those that make an Olympic champion often go beyond what is found in other elite athletes.
There is no single set of attributes (but many) that go into making a winning athlete in a sport e.g., archery or gymnastics or an athletic event such as marathon race, long jump, or hammer throw. Each Olympic Sport or event is very different and often suite different qualities better. Notwithstanding a sport, the individual also matters a lot; he is highly important.
People of very different character have become champions in the same sport, and what may work in favour of one athlete may not suite another. Developing the qualities that make a champion can often take many years, even a whole career, it can even take the careers of several athletes, each influencing the next, to produce a champion.
Champions in a sport and across sports share many qualities but differ in a few of them; for example, in skill and achievement Bradman and Tendulkar almost equalled but differed in body build and several qualities of mind; both lived through different times of climes of cricket. Based on huge data on personality-performance relationship generated over the decades, it is not very difficult to highlight qualities that are apparent in producing some champions, but perhaps not all.
There is a long list of psychological qualities needed to be present in champion including self-confidence, determination, dedication, devotion, commitment, ability to risk failure, mental toughness, receptivity to training, ability to learn from failure, hard work, and many more. The core ones are only a few.
At the outset, no doubt physical ability (the muscle. the strength, vigour, verve, the body build, the health, the fitness, etc.) is key in any champion. However, the exact physical requirements will be highly varied and also specific across sports e.g., volleyball and basketball players need to be taller and gymnasts just moderate in height; they need to be well-built and very muscular too. Data, however, show great variations somatotypes of Olympic athletes both intra-sport and inter-sport. Basic material of physical ability is inborn while strength and fitness components are influenced by external factors.
Natural talent is also a key part of a champion. Many people like Journalist and former table tennis champion Matthew Syed may not subscribe to this view but the heredity impact cannot be ruled out at all even tough hard data are difficult to produce. At times, it is difficult to distinguish what is genetic and what is environmental, e.g., right-handedness or left-handedness, various coordinative abilities.
However, if that were not the case, then only the gyms and coaches would have produced champions in millions. Even if genetic influence on a particular trait is just 10 percent, it is significant and fixed which makes a sportsperson have an edge over the other(s). Although we can alter the body through training to be more suited to perform different physical tasks, there are genetically determined restrictions that we cannot overcome.
This can be anything from a person’s height to their muscle composition, body type or heart size. There are also elements of natural talent that are not physical and are undefined, but nonetheless seem evident in the very best athletes. Having natural talent for a sport is usually a requirement of a champion.
Opportunity is also key and is arguably the most important in why someone becomes a champion. Ever more so, having access to suitable facilities and the best coaches is vital in developing initial talent into a champion athlete, and is becoming critical at increasingly younger ages. Although opportunity in sports is widely increasing, due to increased access and sharing of knowledge and expertise as well as increased funding for development, whether you have the opportunity to become a champion in a particular sport is still highly linked to where you come from.
If you ask any athlete what helped them to become a champion, somewhere in the answer you will find aspects of social support (which could be positive or negative). Whether it comes from family, friends, coaches, mentors or other individual and groups, the support that people close to an athlete give are crucial to enable an athlete to reach the top.
You will often hear athletes talk about how a negative experience has driven them on even more to be the best, and it is this complex and personal combination of social experiences that is highly important in producing an Olympic champion. While it can be argued that this is quality of an athlete; to produce and develop good social relations, it is in a large part beyond the control of an athlete.
The most important quality for a champion athlete is enjoyment. Having fun and enjoying their sport must be part of champion’s makeup. It is not possible to sustain and come through the stresses and pressures of training and competition if an athlete does not have both an intrinsic enjoyment of the sport that they do and also enjoy the competitive environment that they place themselves in.
Sportspersons come from varied Backgrounds
Champions are no property of a race, a religion, a country, or an ethnic group. There is no skew on these lines. They come in all shapes, sizes, colour and from any part of the world. Tendulkar and Don Bradman (cricket), Muhammad Ali (boxing), Tiger Woods (golf), Diego Maradona (football), Roger Federer (tennis) and Michael Phelps (swimming), as representative sample of champion in different sporting events, cut across a cross- section of sports (individual and team), continents, race and a 90-year period to make the study wide-based.
Social status and economic wellbeing are found to play a significant role in sports like tennis, golf, and swimming but not quite with cricket or football. The case is altogether different with track and field athletics or more rugged sports like field hockey and basketball. Federer, for instance, comes from an upscale background; his father was an executive with a multinational pharma company which enabled the young boy not only access to facilities, but also expenses for coaching, etc.
Ditto with Phelps in swimming and Woods in golf. But Bradman’s background was modestly rural middle class, while Tendulkar’s was modestly urban middle class. Ali, in contrast, was the son of a poor (in the American context) signboard painter from Louisville, while Maradona was even more underprivileged - he was the son of a bricklayer and came from the slums of Villa Fiorito outside Buenos Aires, Argentina.
So, if nationality, race, and money are not necessarily important constituents, is there some other kind of trigger that can spark the pursuit of sporting excellence? Again, it is a yes, no, may be. Bradman, Tendulkar, Maradona, and Federer were products of an environment in which their preferred sport already enjoyed mass popularity. Phelps took to swimming almost as a family thing, because his two elder sisters were already into pool training. Woods was pushed into golf from an early age as an aspirational quest by his parents.
Of all the athletes under discussion, only Ali had a cathartic experience of sorts which took his passion for boxing into overdrive. In 1954, when he was 12, Ali’s bicycle was stolen when he had gone to an auditorium. Beside himself with rage, he vents his spleen on a police officer, Joe Martin, who advised the youngster to learn boxing before he could even think of bashing up the thief in revenge. Shortly after that, Ali began serious training and dreamt of becoming a world champion. So, where, and how does genius get uncovered, and what takes it to actualization, is difficult to precisely pinpoint.
These are the aspects where the athletes mentioned above appear to find common ground. Without exception, all of them started pretty early in choosing their sport. Once that was done, their passion took over, and the rigour of practice became so relentless as to become manic obsessive. All these stellar performers paved the road to excellence with hours, days, months, and years of blood, sweat, toil and tears: There is clearly no short cut to such high success.
Perhaps more fascinatingly, all of them not only exhibited a razor-edged competitive streak from an early age, but also set benchmarks for themselves: In that sense, they also competed against themselves, constantly striving to improve, move further away from the pack, as it were. Obviously, this requires a high level of commitment, energy, physical endurance, mental toughness - not forgetting ego. None of them ever wanted to lose.
The Scientific Approach
de Coubertin - Father of the modern Olympic Games - did not favour "building athletes on the crutches of science"; he wanted sport to be as natural as it was played centuries ago in Greece - pure and simple for enjoyment. But in the dramatically changing times intrusion of science in sport could not be resisted for long. Consequently, the International Olympic Committee had to recognize the importance of science in developing athletes. The IOC Sport Administration Manual of the IOC (1999, p. 385) reads:
As technology, medicine and science increasingly turn their attention to sport and high-performance athletes, there are enormous quantities of new information available for the preparation of athletes for competition. These fields are becoming so complex, specialist scientists and physicians are working with those teams that have resources to spend these areas.
Today, the athletes run faster, throw farther and jump higher, as the Olympic motto goes; and they do so more efficiently economizing on their energy, than their predecessors could. These improvements, feels Michael Meyees of the West Texas A & M University, USA, could be attributed to several science-based inter-related factors such as (a) smarter nutrition, (b) a greater understanding of biomechanics of sport movement, (c) better training techniques, (d) advances in psychological support, and (e) improvement in coaching education.
The sports science areas identified to be critical to athletic performance in any sport include the following:
• Anthropometric variables (height, weight, body-composition, somatotype)
• Physiological variables (cardio-respiratory parameters, energy metabolism, reactivity to stress etc.)
• Nutrition (diet, frequency of meals, quantity, and quality)
• Talent Identification (processes and procedures of identifying and grooming of tomorrow's star performers)
• Training methodology (use of rational and scientific approaches to training athletes at all rungs of their performance)
• The Indian psyche (fads, economics, motivation, attitude, aptitude)
• Sport Medicine back-up (injury prevention, management, and rehabilitation)
• Doping (testing, education of athletes, supervision)
Champions share several characteristics
• The courage to risk failure, they lessons learn from the setbacks
• They use an event to gain greater self-knowledge and feedback on physical improvement
• They train their thought processes as they train their bodies
• They understand their athletic weaknesses and maximize their strengths
• They actively create a life of balance, moderation, and simplicity
• They view competitors as partners who provide challenge and the chance to improve
• They understand performances are like a roller coaster, with many ups and downs accepting good and bad of performances as natural
• They enjoy sport for the simple pleasures it provides
• They have vision; they dream of things that haven't been and believes they are possible. A champion says, "I can."
• They never give up or quit even though in pain
• Their determination, dedication, devotion, commitment and hard work are unparalleled. The mental toughness and the ability to perform goes beyond that purely of competition or even the actual sport itself.
A few of the attributes that go into the making of a champion, would be: (a) passion, (b) energy for robust practice and hard work emerging from will power, (c) capacity to learn quickly and keep learning constantly, (d) strong competitive streak, (e) gumption to do things differently, if only to prove a point to themselves and, (f) extraordinary capacity to cope with setbacks and failures through a strong mind.
Mental skills that people have to develop to get to the elite levels both in sport and music is one of the great mysteries of sport.
In the present state of euphoria in the country one needs to actually see and understand our true ranking of 48th position in the overall rankings of participating countries at the Tokyo Olympics, 2020. A small country like Hong Kong is in the 49th position with just one less Bronze medal. Another small country like Cuba has won seven gold medals. Should we be celebrating like this just because we improved upon our previous haul of medals and improved overall ranking by few positions? Who are we bluffing?
With India presently having the world's largest population in the younger age group for sports activities and also having multifarious sports skills and abundant talent the time has come for us to tap this rich human resource in its early formative years and nurture, train and groom them in select sports disciplines through a well laid out national system that effectively and efficiently links all our states and institutions into a united map of India.
Sports and Physical Education must be given a big boost through our schools and colleges in villages, districts and states. We need to adopt and inculcate the sports and fitness culture at all levels. By doing all this we will surely be creating the right atmosphere and environment for the birth of sports champions at all levels including world and Olympic champions!
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'Bounce: How Champions Are Made' by Matthew Syed World-class athletes are made, not born ABC TV Lateline Broadcast: 12 July 2010
About the Author
Dr. M.L Kamlesh is a distinguished academic, who has served as the Principal, Sports Authority of India among other holding other coveted appointments in Sports administration. He is a published author with 27 books to his credit and 54 research papers published in various national and international journals. He has written several articles on sports psychology and has received a Life-time Achievement Award by the Sports Psychology Association of India in 2004 and another Life-time Achievement Award for the development of physical education by the Alumni Association of Jiwaji University in 2005. He can be reached on email: [email protected]