Exclusive || Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Hardik have attained the epitome of physical strength, but they are mentally more able: Dr. Priyanka Sarkar, Sport Psychologist

From just a sport to a brewing passion, Cricket has evolved remarkably in terms of the rate at which it brings out the results, competition, rules & norms and players. There was a time when making runs or bowling economical overs were enough to make the cut. A player’s fitness had a back seat, but 2017 changed everything for good. The introduction of YoYo test, a standard test to measure the fitness of the players at the international stage, has significantly enhanced the way cricketers used to emphasize their fitness.
Over the last couple of years, we all have witnessed cricketers pushing themselves to attain the physical fitness of the highest standard, six pack abs have become a new normal and cricketers have replaced models on posters, but mental endurance remains above all. Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya belong to one of those rare breeds which has attained both.

As we sat down with IT professional-turned Sport Psychologist, Dr. Priyanka Sarkar, Shivani Gupta, Head of Content, The Quotes touched upon the significance of mental strength amidst the visible evolution of physical fitness, and many more. Excerpts of the conversation.

Cricketers seem to be hustling between three formats and in the process, a couple of them have already opted for two. How do you evaluate the current scenario and the rate at which the game is played? Competition is getting stiffer every day and sportsmen are pushing themselves more than ever to attain the certain level of fitness to stay relevant. Kindly share your take on this?

Cricket by far, is the most loved sport in our country. 8 out of 10 people must have played cricket at least once in their childhood even if it was gully cricket. But if you look at the number of people who get to play at an international level, it is just 11. With a population in billions, if you want to make it to that stage, you need to push yourself.

With various formats coming into the picture, now the selection pool is different. For example, every IPL team can have 25 players. Even before players like Virat, Hardik and Jadeja, India has produced the finest in the form of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Kapil Dev, Sunny Gavaskar, MS Dhoni, and of course, Sachin Tendulkar along with many others. The game would keep evolving and so would the players.

Who can forget Anil Kumble playing with a broken jaw or Yuvraj Singh playing the World Cup battling a tumour? These are very few examples of when players pushed themselves to bring out the best in them.
This has got to do more with mental relevance than physical relevance. It is a fact that unless you are the best in Physical form and technical aspects, you will not be selected to represent your country on an international platform.

But how you keep yourself in the game, despite the competition is all the mental part. Irrespective of the scenarios or the times that one plays Cricket or for that matter any sport, it’s the person having the mental edge who is going to stay in the long run.

We have recently seen many players complaining about the extreme weather in India during IPL. The heat was breaking all the records but still, players were fulfilling their corporate duties in the middle. Kindly highlight what kind of mental and physical training players on the international stage go through to survive in such weather conditions.

Strength and endurance training is what all players go through to keep themselves going in extreme weather conditions. Pre-performance routines, breathing exercises, and meditation are quite common. But to give it a different perspective, too often, we think that big success means bigger improvements.

But one will be surprised by how much small improvements can bring in big changes. That is what exactly Dave Brailsford did when he was hired as the Performance Director for the professional cyclists of Great Britain. He introduced the concept of “the aggregation of marginal gains” which is searching for small margins for improvement in everything you do. In his own words, “If you break down everything you could think of what goes into a sport, and then improve it by 1 per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

He famously introduced the concept of masseurs in the player’s transport vehicles to enhance the recovery time. The travel period could be utilized to reduce muscle soreness and facilitate a faster return to the training after a match instead of waiting to return to the hotel and then start the process. Such minute interventions are often times overlooked but unexpected areas can make a huge difference to the players’ recovery and faster return to the training. Now we cannot control the weather but what one can do is control the variables by bringing in minor changes and adjustments. This must be done in collaboration with all the Support Staff.

As a spectator, we all criticize players for not performing up to the expectation despite being unaware of the fact that how much pain and hardship they are going through at times. Would you like to comment on the mental strength players achieve to compete at such a level and what are the process and training sessions one can implement in his/her life to execute the same.

For any player to set himself/herself apart from the rest, mental toughness is an essential component. And mental toughness is not developed overnight. It is a process that is about developing stable confidence, and resilience to block out distractions, manage their arousal level and always remain focused. Before preparing for a match, for a player, it is important to stay in the zone and so, pre-performance routines are always recommended.

Creating your mental bubble to be in control of your time and your thoughts helps you build laser-like focus. Practise mindset and match mindset need to be set separately so that what is learnt in the practice is put into action during the match. Acknowledging that during the match there might be some mistakes committed and constructing expectations around mistakes that might happen is what can help a player maintain composure and momentum after mistakes. A mistake already committed is a thing of the past and cannot be undone and so there is no point in breaking our heads thinking about the same mistake.

A fine way of limiting the errors might be to make a list of your uncertainties and possible situations that you might encounter during the match and then figure out an action plan. This will help you to get clarity on the issues at hand. While under moments of pressure, it is quite common to think about the bigger picture but that might be a spoilsport.

When you start thinking about the bigger picture, you forget what ought to be done at that moment. You lose focus and then start underperforming. This might cause errors and decrease confidence. The one-ball-at-a-time thought process should be implemented. And post-match, one should review factors like concentration, confidence and the ability to stick to the plan. It’s the same outside the Sport. Identifying your strengths and weaknesses and devising a plan to develop key areas to excel in life is the way.

BCCI provides top-notch training and consultation to players to compete at the international stage. But, every aspirant in our country doesn’t have such a facility. What three basic training and exercises you would like to suggest to them in order to maintain fitness (physically and mentally).

The pandemic has taught us to continue to live lives with bare minimums. Water bottles have become dumbbells, gardens have become tracks and terraces have become nets. When asked what could be the basic exercises a budding Cricketer can practice to maintain physical fitness, Biju George, the bowling coach for SAI suggested Running, body resistance exercises and stretches. These keep the body going and ready should an opportunity come up. Self-talk, relaxation techniques and visualisation can be very effective to maintain positivity during waiting period.

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