“When once you are free from all seeming, from all craving and lusting, then will you move of your own impulse, without so much as knowing that you move.”
– Lao Tse, Chinese philosopher
It wasn’t just technical superiority that won for Carolina Marin the badminton gold at Rio. Playing against Pusarla Sindhu in the final – reportedly watched by 17 million people – the 23-year-old Spaniard won a battle of minds. Was there an x-factor at work?
Usain Bolt has won an unprecedented treble-treble at the Olympics. Besides incredibly winning the sprint double at three consecutive Games, he anchored the Jamaican 4x100 metres quartet to three Olympic golds!
There are the Gatlins, the Gays, the Blakes, the Powells and many more. All super athletes. And then there is Bolt. Is it the x-factor, perhaps, that keeps him a stride ahead of the rest?
Watch Virat Kohli stride into a pressure-tight situation, in front of 30,000 people, wide-eyed and expressionless. When he starts playing his patented cover-drives – his wrist breaking in that split second when bat connects ball – it is as if the bowler has suddenly become a club level ‘trundler’ and the fielders are all fast asleep. Does the x-factor work, while he carves out a hundred for himself?
When a Messi or a Neymar picks a pass on top of the opposition box, it seems as if the defenders are leaden-footed and there are wide open gaps for these magicians to work their way in. They get into striking distance of the goal without as much as a tackle. Is it the x-factor at work again?
Fabulous athletes are legends because they put the x-factor to work. Some learn how to use it. Some are born with it. But very few speak about it.
What is that x-factor? It is the mind working in unison with the body. In fact, it is the sub-conscious mind working in harmony with one’s muscles, usually in a trance-like state. In order to fully use the power of the sub-conscious mind, the conscious mind, with its chatter and negative feedback, has to be shut out completely.
Achieving this mind-body harmony takes a lot of hard work though. The proverbial blood sweat and tears!
Usain Bolt is said to work very, very hard – in the gym and on the track. Known to be laidback otherwise, he uses affirmations to motivate himself. His coach is a hard taskmaster, preparing him mentally and physically to beat, nay trounce, the best in the world.
Bolt had to be ‘taught’ not to be afraid of losing and not to get scared of injuries. A great athlete has to build the ‘no fear’ mindset before he or she takes on the world. Finally, he had to learn to enjoy himself and have fun. That’s perhaps the reason why he chats with his ‘friends’ on the track before an event, smiles for the cameras and waves out to his fans in the stands which helps him remain nice and relaxed. There’s method to the ‘madness’. He micro-focuses on his event – tunnel vision, in his own words – only at the call for ‘get set’.
Ask him for his secret and he says there’s none! He keeps it simple; he doesn’t paralyse his mind with too much of technical stuff. What’s more, he runs for fun.
Where does the x-factor come in?
The training effect of sport, especially its repetitive practice of specifics, leads to instinctive reaction to various cues. For example, when Virat Kohli faces hundreds of deliveries, bowled at 150 kmph every day in the nets, pitched outside off stump, he reacts instinctively to that delivery in a match.
Moreover, physical and mental toughness training helps world class athletes lower their heart rates. Visualization, goal-setting, self-hypnosis and many other mental training methods are gainfully employed by coaches to help athletes simulate ‘event conditions’ without raising their heart rates or their ‘brainwave’ levels.
‘Brainwaves’ are said to be synchronized electrical pulses from masses of neurons communicating with each other in the brain. Delta Waves are the slowest (Comatose), followed by Theta Waves (Sleep), Alpha Waves (Meditation), Beta Waves (Waking or conscious problem solving state) and Gamma Waves, the fastest (Agitated state).
In sports, as in creative pursuits, Alpha Waves are of prime importance. World class athletes – as also great artists, writers, poets etc. – are said to have the ability to get into the Alpha state at will, willfully or naturally.
Getting into the Alpha state, a sort of a trance, during events has several advantages. Time goes slower, the slower the brainwave rhythm. This seems to be the critical difference between an ordinary athlete and a champion. Kohli, in the Alpha state, would perceive the ball delivered to him at 150 kmph as travelling at no more than 75 kmph!
Former world record holder in the sprints, Steve Williams says, “If you do a 100 right (in the Alpha state), that 10 seconds seems like 60 seconds. Time switches to slow motion. Cricketers often talk about seeing the ball ‘like a football’, which is another state of altered perception connected with the trance-like state.
Staying in the present moment is of utmost importance in most sports. Neither the past nor thinking of the future helps athletes perform; rather, it distracts them from the job at hand. The meditative state, which helps one stay immersed in the present, therefore helps athletes remain focused and to enjoy the moment.
In the Alpha state, also, athletes very often feel ecstatic, free and get the feeling of being in unity with the universe.
Going back to the Carolina Marin-Pusarla Sindhu final at Rio, which of the two young ladies was in the Alpha state? The former literally dictated terms and the pace of the entire match. The more aggressive Indian was never allowed to play the game that she is wont to.
Though Marin lost the first game at 19-21, she systematically demolished Sindhu’s game plan. She screamed, after every winner, perhaps as a ‘cue’ to get back into the trance-like state rather than disturb her opponent. Her returns were low and slow, forcing Sindhu to play a game that she wasn’t accustomed to. The Indian was hardly allowed a decent smash!
Though Sindhu fought on gamely, Marin unleashed her deceptive and wristy cross-court half-smashes to catch her on the wrong foot time and again. In the end, she ran away with the match, winning the final games at 21-12 and 21-15.
That the world number one had played the final in a ‘trance’ was evident from the fact that as soon as she realized that she was the Olympic champion she fell onto the court and cried uncontrollably. It was an act of bewilderment; akin to the disorientation that Bob Beamon had felt after smashing the world long jump record at the Mexico Games in 1968.
Every athlete at the world level is as good as the other. But the one who wins is the one who puts the x-factor to better use!
Austin Coutinho, writer, cartoonist and author, has coached many state level cricketers and footballers. He introduced mental toughness training to cricket and football more than a decade ago.