What can atheletes learn about failure from the life of Mahatma Gandhi?

Having played junior competitive sports, I have always been intrigued by what drives success and how some of the greatest world beaters dealt with failure. In the current Indian context, "Failure" is a dreaded concept; to fail is shameful and painful. This attitude makes its way in the mindsets of young sportspersons.

However, occurrence of “failure” in sport as well as in life is fairly common. How one approaches success and failure has a huge influence on how you feel, your confidence and your motivation.

What can atheletes learn about failure from the life of Mahatma Gandhi?

Mahatma Gandhi. Getty Images

On Gandhi Jayanthi, it seems like a good idea to to examine the life of Mahatma Gandhi to see if it has any examples that can help us deal more calmly with failure. Like all of us, Gandhi was also plagued by his insecurities and failures. Most people talk speak about Gandhi’s hits, but very few talk about his misses. It is these misses I want to talk about. While the lessons can be applied to many contexts I will focus on their direct application to the world of sports.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, born on October 2, 1869 in Porbander, India, had a mediocre beginning – nothing extraordinary to suggest the immortality he would achieve in the future. His childhood and youth were marked by insecurities including a suicide attempt. He had limited professional success as a lawyer in India. Looking at his life one realizes the truism in Alexander Coward’s statement “Sometimes [early] failures and adversity are better preparations for long term success than effortless progress.”

There are three key events from Gandhi’s life that I would like to talk about.

Gandhi was unable to resist peer pressure:

During his childhood, Gandhi experimented with smoking with his older brother. They used to collect the stubs after their uncle had extinguished his cigarette, remove the tobacco from them and then roll cigarettes for themselves

He also experimented with meat-eating. A friend convinced Gandhi that the only reason the English were so tall and powerful and able to rule over India was because they ate meat

As Gandhi’s family was strictly vegetarian, meat-eating became a clandestine affair which entailed lies, deception and even stealing. Gandhi started stealing to pay for the meat and he made excuses for not eating at home-which meant lying and deception. Gandhi soon realized his mistakes and consumed by self guilt he confessed to his father.

That parallel I draw is with the great number of athletes who admit to the use of performance-enhancing drugs due to peer pressure. This pressure can be exercised directly by friends, teammates, and coaches. Peer pressure can also come in indirect ways. When athletes are criticized by peers, they might feel like their only hope for improvement is doping. Being tempted is human but Gandhi had the courage to realise his mistake and come clean, despite any potential consequences. If athletes were stand up and voluntarily come clean on doping, it would send a powerful message to the next generation.
Gandhi failed as lawyer

Gandhi trained and qualified as a Barrister at the insistence of his parents the law practice he set up in Bombay on his return from England failed. At 24, Gandhi moved to South Africa and realized that he was more interested in using his knowledge of the law for social activism on behalf of South Africa’s disadvantaged Indian minorities. That is how he came to his true calling - the unification of all Indians, of all religions and all castes, and their eventual liberation from foreign domination.

It wasn’t law that was the problem, it was how Gandhi used it. Passion is the key. Another great example is Sachin Tendulkar, who early in his career wanted to become a fast bowler. However, Dennis Lillee, the great Australia fast bowler who was the director of the MRF pace academy at the time, advised the young Tendulkar to focus on his batting. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

Gandhi’s failed self help experiment at Shantiniketan

Gandhi was on a four-day visit to Shantiniketan (Feb 1915). During this visit he conducted a self-help experiment with all the students and teachers. He suggested to the teachers that, if they and the boys dispensed with the services of paid cooks and cooked their food themselves, it would enable the teachers to control the kitchen from the point of view of the boys’ physical and moral health.

Also it would give lessons on self-help to the students. Gandhi’s experiment essentially turned the place upside down. As soon as Gandhi left the experiment was discontinued. The impact of the experiment was short-lived.

This incident highlights how every organization has a unique culture. Any act to bring about a sustainable change needs to be sensitive to the existing culture. When you join a new team it is important to spend the first few days understanding the team culture. While getting a foreign coach, it is essential that culture-unfriendly intervention is avoided. Greg Chappell, an Australian was appointed as coach of Indian team (2005-07). Chappell who had an excellent record as Australian captain and was known to be a tough coach was ideal for this job. However, Chappell’s failure to understand Indian culture caused his downfall.

These examples, while not exhaustive, show that failure is extremely powerful as it enhances realism, creativity and resilience. These qualities grow out of an exposure to and not avoidance of failure. One can think of failure as being a learning experience where one learns, or is forced to learn, how to reinterpret harsh life experiences.
Gandhi the man learned from his failures and transformed himself into the Mahatma.

Failure is your friend. Embrace it.

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Updated Date: Oct 02, 2015 20:09:25 IST

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