The world is still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and hosting a showpiece sports event with spectators could be a matter of life and death. Amid the lock and unlock in the affected countries, the T20 World Cup’s postponement to 2021 has opened the window for the glamorous Indian Premier League.
But this IPL will be a different experience for the players. Besides the location change — it is likely to be held in the United Arab Emirates subject to the Indian government clearance — no spectators or minimum viewers at the stands could be a challenge.
In a chat with Sportstar, renowned sports scientist and performance coach Shayamal Vallabhjee, who was associated with Kings XI Punjab as technical coach for two seasons, throws light on the impact of the high-pressure tournament on players.
Your book ‘Breathe Believe Balance’ is coming out in August where you have spoken about self-healing. How tough is it for players to keep themselves focussed in the IPL?
You have 11 players on field, six off the field and support staff who can influence the outcome of the game. My job is to understand all these environments and bring it to the optimum best. In the book, I have spoken about the exercises I have used on these players to understand their relationship with the environment. I sit down at an interesting space in healing, in the middle of psychology, evidence-based science and spirituality as I used to live as a monk. I wanted to put out a piece of work and show people how you can blend all three sciences together to get the balance to discover yourself.
A decade ago, I discovered that athletes are successful because they are leveraging their strength. Mastering a particular skill is helping them in life. I started mapping genetics, psychological hormones, food intolerance and tests. Based on the strengths, I re-engineered the program towards strength and I felt their recoveries were faster and they would push themselves a lot harder.
How important is the role of the environment in the IPL?
Cricket is a sensitive environment because there are so many factors that are beyond the control of one guy. For example, David Miller (South African batsman) is a game-changer and he was in amazing form but he wasn’t getting enough opportunities. My job was about helping him come to terms with that. If I don’t tell him that it is O.K. to sit on the side, that energy is going to affect the team negatively. It is not about asking a player to go sit down and do some breath exercise and you win.
The IPL is likely to be held behind closed doors. How much can that affect the players?
Previously, a young cricketer would draw energy from the environment of the IPL, the light, camera, full stadium, noise and cheerleaders. If the tournament is held, stadiums are going to be empty. You will see none of these trends apply. People have to draw strength from within and there is no environmental energy contributing to your performance. Nobody will scream if you take a good catch or hit a six. I will be fascinated to see how many of them are actually working on themselves.
Shayamal Vallabhjee (right) with David Miller at a Kings XI Punjab training session. – SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
What do you feel about Virat Kohli in this situation?
If you look at David Warner, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli, they will have a field day because they don’t need motivation from outside. They understand themselves. They can push themselves. These are the consistent ones. They will go up in leaps and bounds because they know how to motivate themselves. Similarly, AB de Villiers and Aaron Finch will not be too flustered by the environment because they spend time cultivating themselves. Young bowlers like Ankit Rajpoot are influenced by the environment. The youngsters could go completely erratic.
My advice to every athlete is if you don’t understand yourself and identify the motivation factor to get up in the morning and work hard, then success is very fleeting.
Among the cricketers you have worked with, who are the mentally strong ones?
K. L. Rahul is super-focussed and strong, and one guy I am fascinated by is Mayank Agarwal. Since the past three or four years, he has constantly shifted, worked on himself through mindfulness and meditation to find strength from within. The foreigners have always imbibed this. Chris Gayle is someone who takes out a lot of time for himself and he dictates the game. He is never flustered. He is in control of the situation.
Meditation is not only about breath work and chanting. It is about spending time with yourself.
You are also particular about diet and food intolerance…
It is about stacking up those tiny variables because there is no one thing that is going to make an athlete great. My job is to sit through all the data to understand what is that one thing which will give the athlete an advantage. On ATP tours with Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza, we had engineered their diet before competitions, we took allergic tests and food intolerance. We ensured they are not putting intolerant foods into their body. If you don’t do that, the body is not ready for performance, it is interested in detoxification. You have to understand if an athlete is endurance-based or power-based. If you go to a traditional physical trainer, he will design a program and make everyone do that but only one out of 20 athletes will get maximum benefit. The others will not work to their strengths. So the benefit is far from what it needs to be.
How can a sportsman avoid depression? Mental health is a serious concern…
The world is moving towards a space now where loneliness is the biggest epidemic, bigger than COVID-19. The hunger and determination has to come only from the player. You can’t go by any metric at all to determine who is going to be successful if the IPL is going on. Pitch condition, bowler, nothing will matter. The metric is in the internal grid and drive. You need to understand the metrics that push you. If you are driven only by playing in the national team after a couple of games, your motivation may go. What are the other different factors that will keep you motivated?
Karun Nair scored 300 for India and he was dropped. His self-confidence was in the drain for the longest period. He didn’t believe what’s good enough to be there. Having the skills is one thing but having the belief to back up the skills is more important.
Vallabhjee shares a light moment with Virender Sehwag during IPL 2018. – SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
How differently does the concept of environment work with marathoners and tennis players. You have worked with them too…
I have been with Kenyan athletes, Indian Davis Cup team for six years, South Africa Davis Cup team for four years before being involved with Kings XI and St. Lucia Stars in the Caribbean Premier League. There are many African footballers in the Premier League who give a portion of their wealth to their communities in countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana. Even the Kenyan athletes give 40 per cent of every cheque back to the community. They push themselves harder. They run for the community. The motivation is external and strong. You need to understand your purpose. Have you ever seen this level of commitment to a purpose larger than themselves among cricketers? It is not that they aren’t committed to the sport.
These athletes have a bigger goal to accomplish…
With anyone who is a non-cricketer, the accountability and responsibility is super high. The problem with cricketers is the senior players will take accountability. A cricket team wants everybody to do everything for them. They want the best team, best food, bubble gum, 10,000 people for throwdowns, nets to be available and 1000 things to be right for them to perform. Many don’t realise that their performance is their responsibility.
The greatest marathon runner in the history of the sport, Eliud Kipchoge, lives in a training camp with 10 other runners. There is a roster on the door that says who is cooking and washing in turns. His name is there. He is cleaning the floor, dishes and cooking for everyone else. He is cultivating the accountability and responsibility to the team and his own performance.