Mind games

| Updated on December 05, 2014 Published on December 05, 2014

On the ball: Tennis player Ramya Natarajan trains at Quantum Leap Performance, which focuses on building mental strength

A Chennai-based sports centre pits emerging talent against high-tech training machines to hone their ‘killer instinct’

It was a puzzle that Ramya Natarajan was unable to solve. Natarajan knew she was as skilled as her opponents, and many recognised her as the next big talent in Indian women’s tennis. But when it came to winning, the youngster was falling short, unable to proceed beyond the quarterfinals in most tournaments.

That was a year ago. The 15-year-old finished runners-up at the recent National sub-junior tennis championships in Delhi. This was the third time that she had reached the finals of a tournament in less than a year. “Earlier, I used to get tired after the first set, or would get angry and lose concentration. Now I have improved,” she says. She credits this change to her training regime at the Quantum Leap Performance (QLP) centre for the past six months.

The Chennai-based centre is jointly headed by Ramji Srinivasan and Badri Narayan. While Srinivasan is best known as the fitness trainer of the World Cup-winning Indian cricket team, US-based sports psychologist Narayan has worked with top names in lawn tennis.

“I got to know about them through my cousin, who is also a tennis player,” says Natarajan. Now a two-hour session at QLP is part of her daily routine. “We work on different things — agility, strength, speed and endurance,” she adds. Srinivasan monitors her as she works on high-tech machines such as Dynavision (for better hand-eye coordination), Fit Light (improving footwork) and Vertimax (to develop strength). Narayan visits the facility once in two months and remains in touch through Skype.

“Now I respond to shots faster and hit harder. Earlier I could compete only with those in the 14 to 16-year bracket. Now I can play against the seniors too,” says Natarajan, as she works to convert her finals appearances into victories. It helps that she is now able to stay calm during critical moments of the game. “In sports, 10 per cent is about talent, 40 per cent about fitness and 60 per cent about mental strength,” she says.

Pressure points

Srinivasan and Narayan couldn’t agree more. “Talent is the same everywhere. Difference comes in the training and exposure,” says Narayan. “We in India are rhetorical about the need for better training. Performance of Indian athletes has been poor, including in the just concluded Asian Games,” adds Srinivasan, who had helped cricketer Sachin Tendulkar make a comeback after an elbow injury in 2005.

Often, Indian sportspersons have buckled under pressure and lacked the ‘killer instinct’. Be it archer Deepika Kumari, who couldn’t handle the “pressure” in London Olympics and Asian Games, or cricketer Suresh Raina repeatedly falling to short balls, or even the seasoned Vishwanathan Anand, who seemed to buckle under the pressure of playing against Magnus Carlsen in the World Chess Championship. Their skill was never in question, but mental pressure got the better of them.

“It boils down to how we bring up our sportspersons. Our diet is poor and mental training is not given enough importance. A 14-year-old European or American child will be fitter than a teenager from India,” says Bhishmaraj Bam, a retired police officer who became a mental trainer and has worked with the likes of Rahul Dravid and Anjali Bhagwat. “It matters a lot what you are doing off the field. Even things like the time you go to sleep or the amount of water you drink daily makes a difference,” adds Narayan.

QLP is among the first sports fitness centres in the country to use machines such as Dynavision. Working with such cutting-edge technology, a player will have the confidence when facing a peer from a developed country with advanced training facilities, says Srinivasan.

In the mind

But more than physical prowess, the focus on mental fitness sets QLP apart. “Few understand the nuances of a sport like Srinivasan and Narayan do. In racing, for instance, at the start of a race, drivers can be nervous and heart beats can go up to a rate of 180 a minute (normal range is 60-100), leading to mistakes,” says 19-year-old Raj Bharath, an emerging racer training at QLP since February.

Through personal sessions and with audio-video content, Narayan trains Bharath, Natarajan and other sportspersons to remain calm during “nervous” moments. Breathing exercises are also conducted. “It takes up to six months to acquire a mental skill,” says Narayan.

The QLP duo is now identifying emerging talent to groom for the international stage. “We don’t want to work with the ‘stars’,” says Srinivasan. They plan to have an exchange programme with similar institutes in the US and sponsor talented players for training abroad. “It is important to have such facilities when you are starting off. I rue the fact that they weren’t around when I was younger,” says Sharath Kamal, a two-time winner of the CWG table tennis gold. The veteran player is now training at QLP to improve his fitness. “At my age (33), skill is not the issue. I need to be fit to compete with the younger lot,” he adds.

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Published on December 05, 2014
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