Pankaj Advani interview part 1: What goes inside the mind of a champion cueist

Last week, Pankaj Advani won the World title at the IBSF World Billiards Championship in Doha. It was just another day in life of the 32-year-old cueist who seems to have made winning a habit. It was his 17th world title. He keeps setting benchmarks. It's the hunger, drive, passion and precision that sets him apart. 17 world titles, two Asian Games golds, and 29 National crowns speaks volume of his consistency. If there is one unstoppable force in the world of sports over the last decade and a half, it's Pankaj Advani. Earlier this year in March, Firstpost sat down with one of India's finest sportsmen to understand what goes inside the mind of a champion.

16 world titles, 2 Asian Games gold medals and 29 National crowns, how do you achieve such consistency?

Advani: I feel that success is a state of mind. It's not about numbers, breaks or scores. It's about tapping into that state of mind. Being able to feel that you are successful and empowered every single minute, to me is the definition of success. Someone like a Roger Federer says 'you wake me up at 4 am and I can still serve aces', that's the kind of consistency that an athlete aspires to attain over a period of time. For me, consistency is how you look at yourself and evolve as a player. Over a period of time, I have realised that it's not about just winning, not about just getting over the line, it's about how you do it and how efficient you are while doing it. There is never an end to learning in sport. Any successful sportsperson always wants to learn more, evolve and improve, and to me that's how I have managed to achieve the consistency.

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"Over a period of time, I have realised that it's not about just winning, not about just getting over the line, it's about how you do it and how efficient you are while doing it."

Does that consistency put more pressure on you to perform every time you go out in the middle?

Advani: Absolutely. I am not going to lie and tell you, 'Oh! there is no pressure at all.' Of course there is pressure and in fact, if I don't feel those butterflies in my stomach, I feel there's something wrong. I need to feel that I am a part of something major. I need to feel that there is pressure. There are expectations of performance and I also feel that at the end of the day, I am human. So you know that you are going to make errors. It's not going to be flawless every single time. You are not going to be in the zone every time you play a tournament or perform in front of a crowd. I think acceptance is also another big factor. If you see all the top sportspersons in the world they are able to come out of tough and tricky situations quite easily because they forget what has happened rather than dwelling on that mistake.

You play same people over and over again, and have beaten them, you know their strengths and they know yours. Don't you get bored after a point of time?

Advani: It's not like I have always won. But obviously, I have won more than I have lost. However, in the world of sport, people keep improving. There are guys who are young right now and may not be a threat but give them two-three years and they'll be formidable opponents. You have a lot of youngsters coming up. The formats of the game keep changing. So sometimes I may be good at the long format in Billiards but if there's a 100-point best-of-five or best-of-seven match in Billiards, it just could be anybody's game. Obviously, when people know that you are the top seed then they tend to play better. And I have noticed that in the last two years that people have given that much more against me. Because they feel that I am the man to beat. So that again adds a lot of pressure. You have to be always alert that people are going to come hard at you.

How do you adapt to different conditions quickly?

Advani: That's where I feel that if you've played the sport for so long (it helps). There are so many times I've also said the tables are not up to the mark and have been very vocal about it. But then I've realised that what's the point of bringing these issues up if the conditions are the same for both the players? It's not going to change. Instead of resisting it so much, just accept it and say Okay fine! May be I will not be able to play my best game or I will not be able to play freely but let me manage with what I have. This has a lot to do with the success of a player. If you are able to manage your resources properly then you start accepting and enjoying in that little space as well.

When the opponent is absolutely on a rampage, does it affect your confidence?

Advani: It's very rare that two players are playing in full flow. Normally, if one player has taken over the control of the match and started playing exceptionally well then the other player goes into his shell and is sort of unable to match that level because he feels, what has happened? This guy has just scooted off and is on fire! But there are exceptions. If someone is playing really well and you are sitting outside, (there are two factors involved)-With the score accumulating you already know that you are trailing and need to recover. Secondly because you've been away from the table for so long, your hands are cold. And that is again a very big factor in our game. Even if its for five-seven minutes, you suddenly feel, I can't feel the cue, I might not be able to stroke the ball well and play the right kind of shots. So to counter all that, it's very important to tell yourself, I know I made a mistake and my opponent is scoring well, I know everything is not going on as I would have liked but when I get my chance, I need to make it count. It may not be a huge break. It could be may be a break of 30 points in snooker, and then let me play safe but at least, stay in the game. And my policy is always been that its never over until its actually over - Until the last ball is pocketed.

Do you play mind games?

Advani: I don't like to play mind games. There are some players who do. They like those little tactics whether its deliberately playing slow to put you off or may be sometimes even standing in front of you - Not that they do it intentionally but then it's an unwritten rule that you've got to be sitting down on your chair rather than standing around the table. But our game is a gentleman's sport so you never get to see players really sledging or trying to act funny. There are a couple of players at times who try to disturb you but 99 percent of the time its fine.

How much analysis goes into studying your opponents?

Advani: In our sport, you've got to figure it out on that day. When you know some players are more attacking, in that case you end up playing defensive to keep them at bay. But there are also players who end up playing differently while they are playing in the match. Sometimes they just change the strategy altogether, not that they come with that plan. For example, normally the players feel that my defence is impenetrable, in that case, they will go all out and attack. And sometimes it has worked for them. That's when I feel the need to up my defensive game. However, there is not too much strategy involved. You don't go one or two days before, thinking that this is what I am going to do to him, or this is how I am going to approach the game. You just go out there and see how it unfolds.

Do you sometimes try to deceive your opponents with exactly opposite gameplay?

Advani: Yes, absolutely. But it also depends on how you are striking, because there are days when you start off with a bang and feel like,'This is my day today, I am really striking well', so you tend to take more risks. In fact, my coach told me- In the first two or three shots you will know at what level you are playing and striking the ball, the kind of contact you are able to get and the reaction, whether its perfect or not good at all. The day you are not at your best, or not feeling good about it, play a little more safely because you need to force an error from the opponent and get an easier chance. But the day you start plotting everything , playing freely and are completely comfortable with the conditions, take those risks. It has more to do with yourself rather than the opponent unless you are playing an opponent who is extremely strong in only one department — attack or defence.

What happens on a day when you feel that your body is a bit stiff and you are not feeling that comfortable as compared to the ideal scenario?

Advani: It's very difficult because this game can sometimes make you go nuts. Because on a certain day you are like a king and then suddenly you've lost your timing completely. And I have faced this before where I have absolutely lost my timing and co-ordination and don't know how I ended up winning that match. Fortunately, what happened is that my opponent also played that badly. And with my experience, I ended up playing a little more tactical, not in an unfair way but just trying to make sure that he doesn't run away with the match. So that's when you've got to use your determination and grit and then work things out and say, I cannot win the pretty way, let me win a little ugly.

Cue sports requires prolonged periods of concentration and intense focus, what happens if you have had a bad night's sleep before a game? Has it happened to you?

Advani: For me, sleep is very important. (If you haven't had good night's sleep) it's a horrible feeling because you are not able to sight the ball properly and think clearly. In fact, just recently I was playing a few matches which were not very consequential. There, I didn't have good sleep, didn't feel good at all. I felt so dull. You get irritated with yourself because you know you can do much better but your body, eyes and brain are not functioning the way you want them to, so sleep is very, very important.

What do you do to counter that?

Advani: Keep washing your face (laughs). Have some tea or coffee and just feel like you are wide awake, may be jump around a little bit in the room alone. Just keep jumping and sort of get your energy levels up.

Advani"(I am in the zone) When I am not thinking about what I am doing and still doing it beautifully."

"(I am in the zone) When I am not thinking about what I am doing and still doing it beautifully."

What goes through your mind in between shots?

Advani: Actually the game itself is very meditative. A lot of people say, 'Don't you do meditation?' For me, practice itself is meditation. Because I am so immersed, involved and engrossed in the game, nothing else apart from the table exists for me at that point of time. I am transported to another world. So while I am playing, I am like, 'I need to play this shot and need to get my white somewhere there.' Even in that frame of mind, you are not thinking, 'Can I get it there?' You are just saying that I need to do this so that I get it there. That's it. You are thinking of two shots ahead and that's all that goes on in my mind.

What goes through your mind when you have just hit a bad shot?

Advani: Two things: One is why did that happen, can I change that, can I find a solution and say fine next time I will make sure that I don't repeat that mistake. The second is, now that I know what mistake I have done (hopefully I would have figured it out by then) I say fine, I am human, I am going to make errors, it's alright, let me just sit back and accept that I have made a mistake and wait for my next chance rather than dwelling on that mistake and going back to the past when I can't change it. So let me just prepare for my next visit whenever I get it.

Does it affect your future points also?

Advani: At times, yes. There are matches where you've been so close to winning, but you just haven't been able to get over the finish line; it's turned around, you've played one bad shot and your opponent has come back into the game and that's it. You have to learn the hard way. So it does affect you because at that stage you felt that I had a chance to close it off, and I've made a silly mistake, and it's all my fault, and you tend to beat yourself up to heart. Recently, I was playing a selection event for the Asian Snooker. I did everything beautifully, I was down by 50 points and again I missed a simple shot at the end. And instead of cursing or beating, I started smiling at myself. I started thinking from another person's point of view. I just laughed it off and said I will come back in the next frame and win it. I was 3-2 up and went on to win 4-2. So in that sense I've matured not only as a player but as an individual as well.

If the opponent has taken a sizable lead, what is your approach? Try and play safe or take the risky route and be ultra aggressive?

Advani: If your opponent is playing extremely well and attacking, sometimes you've got to take those risks and say, 'Fine, I am not able to keep him at bay, I am not able to play defensive, let me just go for it, because that's the only way I feel I have some chance. And if he plays really well at the end, fair play to him. Sometimes you can't do anything because there are times when your opponent is playing exceptionally well and you've got to take your hat off and say, 'Boss, well done, good for you.' So, on those days you end up trying, but if your attempt is not good enough, you can't do anything about it.

When do you know that you are in the zone? If you get into that zone, do you think you are unbeatable?

(I am in the zone) When I am not thinking about what I am doing and still doing it beautifully. There are times when you think that I have to play this shot next, or can I come at this angle or may be not, or this is looking a little tough but when you are in the zone, nothing looks tough. It's like flowing water. It just goes along, you don't know where but it's going perfectly well. I don't even think of the result, because if you think, you are not even in the zone. You are just immersed in the situation and the momentum that you gain.

How hard is it to remain in that zone?

It doesn't happen every day. It takes time. There are different factors — you've got to be comfortable with the tables, string at your best, physically fit, health has to be good, you should be motivated enough. It also depends on how much you've played before.

Cue sport can be mentally exhausting, how do you switch off?

Advani: I watch movies, listen to music, read very rarely, once in a while. I don't practice at all. If I've had a long season and I feel the need to take some time off, I don't go to the club or touch the cue; I just stay away from the game completely. I like bowling. I like watching different sports on TV. I am a huge tennis fan. I also like to understand what goes on in their minds, what keeps them ticking.

Click here to read part 2 of the interview


Updated Date: Nov 30, 2017 22:28 PM

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