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How Sachin Tendulkar, Mary Kom and other sportspersons helped me cope with anxiety

Stories of the highs, the lows and everything in between 

Imagine walking into a stadium as thousands cheer your name. You prepare yourself to face your fiercest opponent. You feel your fists clenching from the nervousness, a myriad of thoughts race through your mind, and your heart beats faster each second. You take a deep breath to quiet those thoughts and focus…You’re ready to play. Whether it’s Sachin Tendulkar creating history on the cricket field or Novak Djokovic breaking records on the tennis ground, most sportsmen have experienced bouts of anxiety, losses, and low phases at different points in their careers. So have we. We experience it in different forms, situations and circumstances—an overwhelming workload, facing rejection, being criticised and more.

But here’s the thing about sports, not only does playing sports boost your endorphin levels but playing competitively also teaches you how to deal with the wins, the defeats, the relentless training, and the many mistakes in a healthy manner. Tennis champion Andre Agassi once said, “Now that I've won a slam, I know something very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn't feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn't last long as the bad. Not even close.” 

Sports teaches you patience and the power of believing. It rewards you for your passions. As cricket commentator, Harsha Bhogle said, “Sports teaches you that there is always a second inning.” As for me, I love stories. The stories of these sportsmen are one of grit and lessons galore. Here’s a list of 5 sports autobiographies that helped me navigate through crying times, anxious phases and rough patches. 

Open by Andre Agassi 

Agassi

“I love tennis. I hate tennis.” A line Andre Agassi uses repeatedly in his memoir Open. He compares tennis to life itself when he writes, “It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it's all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It's our choice.” 

Agassi shares his deepest fears, childhood trauma, insecurities and anxieties. He’s been through the gamut of it all—unrealistic pressure from his father to be the best player he could be, turning to drugs during the highest phase of his career, confessing to taking crystal meth and being sucked into a rut of emotional exhaustion. He hated the sport and the life that it had given him. Until one fine he day made a choice—of taking ownership of his life and his game, of having no regrets, and of loving the sport immensely. “Hate brings me to my knees, love gets me on my feet.” The book, his words and his story resemble a maze through his mind, inching towards clarity, and awareness as he evolved with time. Sometimes it can take a lot from within to embrace ourselves, and the life around us (perhaps one that we didn’t choose), but here’s his secret, “Be inspired.” And we couldn’t agree more.
 
Playing it My Way by Sachin Tendulkar (co-authored with Boria Majumdar)

Sachin

Twenty-four years between the 22 yards. Only a few could be as graceful, simple and humble as Sachin Tendulkar—a hero to some and god to most. The curly-haired, dreamy-eyed boy began his journey at the age of 16, facing the unbeatables of the game—Wasim Akram, Imran Khan and others. He’s received the highest praises and adoration. The opening batsmen wouldn’t spend a sleepless night before his match. His consistency and performance were rewarded when he was made the captain of the Indian cricket team—but he failed. "I hated losing, and as captain of the team, I felt responsible for the string of miserable performances. It (losing) was hurting me badly and it took me a long time to come to terms with these failures. I even contemplated moving away from the sport completely, as it seemed nothing was going my way,” he writes. 

So what did he do? He focused on what he did have—his game and loved ones around him. He gave immense and immeasurable importance to his children and wife, his peers, and his country. “The key to handling pressure situations like these is to keep yourself steady, follow your instincts and think clearly. ’Presence’ is actually very important in international sports. It is one thing being there in the middle, but it is another making people aware of your ‘presence’. It is about body language and radiating confidence, something that the West Indian batting legend Viv Richards would personify.” Advice that is true in all facets of life itself! 

Playing to Win by Saina Nehwal 

Saina Nehwal

She won an Olympic medal at the age of twenty-two, and that was just the beginning. Saina Nehwal penned down her memoir whilst she was still a world-ranking Badminton player, writing about the struggles, the sacrifices and the celebrations. Her passion for the sport was rooted in a deep desire to represent where she comes from-- India. "Being a player from India defines who I am. When I play, it’s for my parents, my coach, and my country," she writes. And when it comes to women, it's often a journey filled with more obstacles than most. Nehwal writes about what goes into becoming a champion at the game which includes an abundance of discipline. Waking up at 4:00 am every morning, and travelling 25 km to attend training is definitely not an easy feat. Further, failure never discouraged her. Instead, she stayed away from negative talk and people and focused entirely on what she could control. Her story so far is a reminder that the journey continues despite the ups and downs, and perhaps because of them. 


AB: The Autobiography by AB De Villiers 

Abd

Michael Vaughn once said, “AB De Villiers is the definition of cricketing genius.” We wholeheartedly agree. But there’s a lot more than the runs he’s scored and records he’s broken. Through his book, Villiers takes the reader on the journey that he’s had—one that evokes simplicity, gratitude and humility. He writes about the little moments in life—the most important ones. For instance, he recalls the time when South African coach Gary Kirsten took him for a long walk one evening, where he told him he was to be made captain of the team; when he proposed to his wife in front of the Taj Mahal; and when he felt a spiritual connection in the midst of nature. He loves sports with all his heart but understands what his mind and body need. On days when it gets too much, “I just need to be away for a bit and play with my dogs,” he writes in the book. Here’s the lesson: Take your break, practice gratitude in every sphere of life, be true to yourself, and enjoy the little things of life. 
 

Serve to Win by Novak Djokovic 

Serve to win

Although the book doesn’t fit into your typical mould of an autobiography, it’s a journey nonetheless. From growing up in a war-torn Serbia and experiencing body aches, breathing difficulties, low immunity, and weakness to winning ten titles, three grand slams and 43 consecutive matches in a single season—Djokovic came a long way. And what brought him here was both mental and physical fitness. In this book, he reveals his diet and food habits that he cultivated to help him give his best performance on the tennis ground. As he continued to research, he found that by dropping gluten and changing what he consumed, he gained clarity, focus and strength.

This is not to say change your diet plans, but rather cultivate mindful eating habits and practices that will strengthen and nourish your mind and body. Be disciplined, but allow yourself those cheat days. In his book, he writes about the Australia Open in 2012, “In January 2012, I beat Nadal in the finals of the Australian Open. The match lasted five hours and 53 minutes—the longest match in the history of the Australian Open, and the longest Grand Slam singles final in the Open Era. Many commentators have called that match the single greatest tennis match of all time. After I won, I sat in the locker room in Melbourne. I wanted one thing: to taste chocolate. I hadn’t tasted it since the summer of 2010. Miljan brought me a candy bar. I broke off one square—one tiny square—and popped it into my mouth, let it melt on my tongue. That was all I would allow myself. That is what it has taken to get to number one.”

Unbreakable by Mary Kom and Dina Serto 

Mary Kom

"With a bandage over my eye, I happily set off to play marbles with my friends—it was perfect for taking aim." The mother of two and the only Indian female boxer to win a medal at the Summer Olympic Games in 2012. Hailing from the northeast in a country that is often divided by region, race and language, Mary Kom fought against all odds in what was always labelled to be a man's world to become a five-time world champion of the game. M.C. Mary Kom. Journeys like these often re-instill faith, belief and hope in yourself and your goals, dreams and ambitions. In her book, she writes about how she does not only rely on physical strength and technique but also on the mind. And strengthening the mind comes with its own set of practices, habits and patterns. Sometimes, the goal, work, or game is larger than our own fears and anxieties, and all we got to do is keep pushing, resting, and being kind to our minds and body. 

Shuttler’s Flick: Making Every Match Count by Pullela Gopichand 

Flick

Almost written in the form of a guide to life—tackling situations on court and off, with peers, competitors and yourself, Badminton champion, Pullela Gopichand reflects on his life’s experiences and approach as a coach to serve us some advice during the darkest hours. “Maintain a space of calm before you get started with your game and day. Those few minutes of solitude and peace will propel you further ahead in your dealings with people and work than you can ever imagine,” he writes after narrating his win at the All England Open Badminton Championships in 2001. And when you feel the heaviness of the fear of failure or rejection comes over you, here’s your reminder, “You will never find yourself fully prepared. There will always be a weak point that you will carry with you to court, your office and your home. There will always be challenges that will crop up to surprise you. But if your mind is in your control and in a peak state, no weakness or challenge can waver you from your purpose.” Still, if you fail, “If you believe that success is possible, you will overcome your losses with grace.” Hear, hear!