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The following is an edited extract from Top Game: Winning, Losing and a New Understanding of Sport, the upcoming book on sports theories and the achieving of sporting excellence by Binoo K. John, published by Speaking Tiger. The excerpt is from Chapter 1: Parenting, Nationalism and the Creation of Champions.
There are many ways to win in sport and many theories to back them. Yet there is no definitive understanding of what exactly makes a champion. Or for that matter, why a much-heralded potential champion eventually never became a topper in his sport. Theories abound, and each coach and many scientists have their own theories of success and failure. Some advocate continuous strenuous practice. Others sit back and prefer to watch genes play their role in moulding a champion. Some others say winning is all in the mind and tutor their wards like Fagin trained pickpockets in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Coaches the world over have produced champions using varying strategies.
There is no single strategy that is convincing enough. That could be because we still do not have any clue why a player who was spotted quite early in life, practised well, was focused and devoted to the sport, and yet burnt out like a flickering candle in the wind. To uncoil this mystery, we perhaps need to first understand the making of a champion. The theories that have been studied in detail in the last three decades are genetic factors, sheer ambition inculcated from childhood, sweat-shop theories, ‘accumulative advantages’, place of birth and growing up, theories of practice and endurance, the study of muscle fibre and lung power and so forth.
The primary factor in the creation of champions is the role of parents, and then comes the role of strenuous practice, locating the player in an environment that drives him or her to stretch limits, and to a limited extent, the head-start of a good physique that genes offer. All other theories have to follow these factors. The early planning and parental push have been the most elemental in creating champions. In such cases, parents mostly use their children to recreate and accomplish through them the shattered dreams of their own youth. The child becomes the parent redux.
After I looked at the bio-sketches of the Association of Tennis Professionals’s (ATP’s) Top 100 ranked players of 2018, I realized that sixty of them were introduced to and/or taught the game by their parents or members of the family. All of them were taken to tennis clubs when they were young children by their parents or uncles. For example, Tracy Austin’s mother spent all her time in a neighbourhood tennis club and so did her three daughters. Tracy, the former World Number One professional tennis player of the US, became a champion at fourteen but burnt out by the age of twenty-one after winning three Grand Slam titles in a career that also included the women’s singles titles at the 1979 and 1981 US Open championships.
The onset of genius or the early promise of talent or qualities of being a champion have also been closely studied. Dr K. Anders Ericsson in his classic study of genius (referred to in detail elsewhere in this book) says: ‘From many interviews with international-level performers in several domains, Bloom (1985) [B.S. Bloom, educational psychologist] found that these individuals start out as children by engaging in playful activities in the domain. After some period of playful and enjoyable experience they reveal “talent” or promise. At this point parents typically suggest the start of instruction by a teacher and limited amounts of deliberate practice. The parents support their children in acquiring regular habits of practice and teach their children about the instrumental value of deliberate practice by noticing improvements in performance.’
The parental accomplishment is vicarious but that is the way champions grow. There are scientists who believe that if you want to create a world champion or a prodigy, you can. Just follow a rigorous schedule from childhood. Professor Laszlo Polgar, Hungarian educational psychologist, is among them. To prove his belief that geniuses are made, not born, he groomed his daughters Judith and Susan to become Grandmasters in chess, while Sofia, the third one, settled down to be an International Master. He was obsessed with the art of creating geniuses and collected biographies of about 400 great ‘geniuses’. ‘When I looked at the life stories of geniuses, I found the same thing. They all started at a very young age and studied intensively,’ he is quoted as saying. He also searched everywhere to find a wife who could help him with his experiment. Finally, he married Klare, who was from a Hungarian-speaking region in Ukraine. The Polgar experiment began in 1970 ‘with a simple premise that any child has the inane capacity to become a genius in any chosen field as long as education starts before their third birthday and they begin to specialize at six.’ Judith was a perfect fit for her father’s ‘genius is made’ theory.
At the age of six, the now retired Grandmaster Judith, could defeat her father. Judith is often described the greatest women chess player ever, having beaten Garry Kasparov as well. The fact that two of her siblings did not match up to her calibre could be used as indication for the other prevalent theory that geniuses are indeed born.
‘A Father’s Love of Sport Inspires a Daughter’s Career’ (New York Times) is the epic tale of Zbigniew Macur narrated by his daughter Juliet Macur, who herself worked as a reporter in the New York Times, and so got to write her own story. The parental role in the moulding of a child is brilliantly drawn out by journalist Juliet Macur. She pays unbounded tribute to her father who was a constant presence in the sidelines as she worked hard to build a sporting career.
She writes, ‘He (Zbigniew Macur) was the rebounder when I shot basketballs, the pitcher when I took batting practice, the coach who measured my long jumps and taught me to throw a baseball like a rocket. On our epic road trip around the country when I was 10—when we took in our old, red Volkswagen bus with an engine he had to rebuild along the route—he was the timekeeper for my runs in 22 states. He was my ski instructor who never fell on the slopes and my Trivial Pursuit partner who never lost.’
‘He didn’t miss a single one of my high school basketball games, a perk of his starting work before dawn and ending early. Every time I looked in the stands he was there, quiet and smiling. When I rowed for Columbia, he and my mother were at every regatta too… He never cared if I won. What mattered was that I tried my best and—what a concept—that I had fun. So I grew to love sports because of his love for sports.’
Zbigniew spent some years of his childhood slaving in the Dachau concentration camp. The Allied army rescued him when he thought he was about to die and he went on to become a soccer star.
Juliet may have become a journalist after she failed in sport, but many champions in most sport in all countries are created by the ambition of parents. The stories of how Richard Williams drove his daughters Serena and Venus to tennis fame just like Juliet Murray drove her sons Andy and Jamie to become professional tennis players are well known.
Ambition and desire don’t arrive early in children. These are higher faculties of the brain and gather force later in life. So during that early phase, this elemental part of a child’s make-up is supplied or buttressed by the parent and by coaches, in some cases. Their ambition is the prop for the child. Often their desire to take revenge on fate and destiny for letting them fail, becomes the child’s burden. Top stars find it difficult to bring up kids to their level due to various reason explained later. During the hard training period, children often do not understand what it is all for. They do it for their parents and because of them. At some stage in their growth, this parental ambition is bluetoothed onto the children themselves. From then on the child drives himself or herself.
Not all parents are equipped to coach their children, yet they force their kids to submit to their ambition. Enzo Calzaghe, an itinerant musician turned boxing trainer, used ‘tough love’ to transform his son Joe into a boxing champion. Joe was the longest reigning World Boxing Organization (WBO) super-middleweight champion in the history of boxing. Experts often scoffed at Calzagho’s coaching because he did not use training pads to bind his son’s hand correctly. They also accused him of being tactically naïve, according to an obituary report.
However, he had one attribute that trumped all his deficiencies—he could, Calzagher Jr recalled, ‘… kick up my arse and keep pushing me. If it wasn’t for him I would never have laced up the gloves in the first place …We stuck together through the ups and downs, even when people were saying I should get rid of him because he had never boxed. But he knew exactly what to say at the right time.’
There are many stories of failed parents transfixing their ‘stalled ambition’, as Nobel prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul calls it, onto their children. I pick up the story here of young American Olympian gold medal-winning slalom skier, Mikaela Shiffrin, (two gold medals in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, 2014, and one gold and one silver in the Olympic Games in South Korea, 2018) written so passionately by journalist Nick Paumgarten.
In the life of the sixteen-year-old Mikaela, so very much part of the American story, everything baffles us, everything makes us wonder, and some of it makes us cower in dread at this unrelenting search for fame and glory. Mikaela’s mother Eileen was a skier too but gave up the sport and became a nurse. After she married Dr Jeff Sheffrin (who passed away in 2020), the forgotten ambition was rekindled. In marriages the reverse is often the case when the woman has to forget her ambition. Eileen wowed to make her daughter Mikaela a skiing champion, her ambition rekindled and inflicted on her daughter. Mikaela’s story is ‘as stark an example of nurture over nature, of work over talent, as anyone in the world of sport. Her parents committed early on to an incremental process and clung stubbornly to instilling a work ethic in her.’ ‘Kids with raw talent rarely make it,’ Jeff Shiffrin, Mikaela’s father, told the New Yorker. ‘What was it Churchill said? Kites fly higher against a headwind.’
Eileen watched videos, read up all she could, and charted out her daughter’s life as only a mother could. Every second in her daughter’s life, all the calories she consumed were accounted for. As a toddler, Mikaela was dragged around the living room and the driveway on skis. ‘The Shiffrins wanted to wring as much training as possible out of every minute of the day and every vertical foot on the course. They favoured K. Anders Ericsson’s deliberate practice over competition and were also followers of Anderson’s 10,000-hour theory that practice for as many hours was essential and Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown was their scripture.
The 10,000 hours theory is not really applicable to skiing because each event is only for a few minutes, yet Mikaela spent all her time working on her skills and physical fitness. After one such hectic schedule, all overseen or chalked out by her trainers and her mother, she said, ‘I’ve never puked, I’ve come close. I’d pass out before I puke (out of overexertions). We have a grading scale. I rate nine fairly often,’ she told the New Yorker.
She travelled with her mother and did not feel any remorse for having to stick to the tortuous route to the Olympic medal. ‘The motivation comes from within,’ Mikaela said. With no regret, not even a slight loosening of her killing schedule, like an automaton, Mikaela moved from one drill to another, one dangerous ski down a treacherous Austrian Alps slope, another second cut from her timing, another lunge at the Olympic medal.
In the 2018 South Korea Olympics, Mikaela Shiffrin won a gold medal and a silver but lost in her favourite slalom event, finishing fourth due to scheduling changes which resulted in many of her events getting packed together. She had puked before the event. ‘First of all, to come away from this Olympics with two medals is insane, especially after the schedule changes on the front end and then having the combined pushed forward,’ Mikaela said after the event.
Binoo K. John has been a journalist for over three decades. Among the publications he has worked with are Sunday, India Today, the Indian Express, Mail Today and DNA. He worked both as editor and reporter covering a range of subjects, including Indian politics, Kerala, cricket and football.