No Boundaries Nirmal Shekar

Self-belief: the soul of sport

Virat Kohli, in the form of his life, will certainly admit that self-belief has helped him embrace greatness. File Photo  

After watching Mahendra Singh > Dhoni casually steer his team home with a sensational, unbeaten 64 off 32 balls in an Indian Premier League match recently — a knock that demanded something slightly stronger than nerves of steel and an innings that included consecutive sixes off the last two balls — I was reminded of an old professor friend of mine who was equally in love with both cricket and alliteration.

I did not mind listening to old stories from 50 years ago, but his passionate love for alliteration put me off.

After the expressionless Dhoni won the 2011 World title for India — insouciantly with a six — the professor, who, by the way, seemed to wear the same dark blue jacket every day of the week, or perhaps every week of the year, carried the D, D, D, D to describe Dhoni’s fighting spirit to its ridiculous extreme.

Dhoni, Determined, Dominant, Dare-devil, Debonair. And so he went on and on before the taxi driver reminded us gently that we had reached our destination.

Dhoni may not possess all these virtues in equal measure but he has certainly displayed some or many of them time and again.

Amalgam of daring and fearlessness

That is when it struck me that the man from Ranchi has tons of one of the qualities often under-valued by many of us: self-belief. Few Indian cricketers, or sportsmen in general, would be able to match Dhoni when it comes to bringing to the crease an amalgam of undaunted daring and intrepid fearlessness.

But then, the point of this column is not only Dhoni’s audacious heroics; it is about that single elusive quality that often confers greatness on players — self-belief.

“I just looked at him as just another tough opponent, nothing more. That he was the all-conquering Jimmy Connors did not matter to me. Somehow I found a novel way to beat him and win the title. I did not spend a sleepless night sweating about the final,” Arthur Ashe, who became the first man of colour to win the Wimbledon championship in 1975 — in a tactical coup — told me a few months before he died.

We talk about self-belief rather casually. But it is a rare and elusive quality and often used out of context. Self-belief is more than just self-confidence although they are used interchangeably. I believe it is an innate quality, a gift of nature.

You have it or you don’t, and you can’t be sure if any of the several thousand books on positive psychology might help you if you are unlucky not to have been born with it.

This is why there is a very thin line between self-confidence and self-belief. The first you can develop with great effort, the second is part of the player’s nature.

Simply put, it is the faith you have in your own ability to do something — even something life-altering.

The belief that wells up from deep inside when the chips are down is celebrated in sports circles. But an act of self-belief is more than cockiness and recklessness that might bring success once in a while.

It is the ability to shut out any thoughts of defeat and get the job done, no matter whether it is a World Cup final or a Ranji Trophy final.

For this special category of sportspersons, throwing in the towel is never an option. Only the ball to be delivered or the ones to be faced in times when the odds seem insurmountable matters in a game of cricket, whatever the level of the competition.

More in the less gifted

But the amazing thing about self-belief is that it is accessible not merely to the great champions but even to the less gifted ones. It is, in fact, the lesser ones who have more of it.

“It is not how many times you get knocked down that count, it is how many times you get back up,” said G.A. Custer of the US Army.

This is something that is a cliche these days but cliches do have an argumentative simplicity sometimes.

Self-belief is what helps you get up and pummel the opponent but it does turn the mediocre into the average, the average into the good and the good into the great.

Some of the greatest acts of courage and defiance come when the ship has all but sunk. There are hundreds of examples merely from the last few decades.

But to mention only two, Kapil Dev’s 175 against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup in England and Ian Botham’s 149 against Australia at Headingley come to mind immediately.

But to me, the greatest example of self-belief — almost mystical — is Muhammad Ali’s knock-out victory over George Foreman in the famous Rumble in the Jungle fight in Kinshasa in October 1974.

When almost every part of the body is aching, the 1300 to 1400 grams of grey matter turn into a saviour. Of course, self-belief is not egalitarian. It discriminates. The greatest appear to use it as the ultimate weapon but lesser mortals will have to slog to take advantage of it against superior opponents.

Not simple

But even for the greatest who are born with the gift of self-belief, competing and rising to the top is not a simple matter.

> Virat Kohli, in the form of his life, will certainly admit that self-belief has helped him embrace greatness.

“Only those who can see the invisible can see the impossible,” wrote Frank Gaines.

This is precisely why even Kohli has to practise as much as all the others in the team, simply because he keeps trying to do the impossible.

Self-belief will not turn you into a Don Bradman or Gary Sobers or Pete Sampras or Roger Federer. What it would do is to help you out of your comfort zone and do something special.

When it comes to self-belief, the question becomes the answer. ‘Can I pull this off’ asks one part of your brain. If doubts are lurking and you tell yourself that “This is going to be impossible,” it is a timid response.

But all is not lost if you believe in yourself and dig deeper and deeper into your soul, well above your customary altitude. “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them,” said the basketball great Michael Jordan.

In India, an excellent example of a player with self-confidence — perhaps an overdose of it — was Krish Srikkanth, while the man who stood at the other end from him, Sunil Gavaskar, is as good an example of a man with self-belief.

‘The Greatest’

But in the world of sport, Muhammad Ali alone moved up several steps higher because of his self-belief. “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit, suffer now and spend the rest of your life in happiness,’” said Ali.

Then again, how cruel life can be. The Greatest was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 42 and is now confined to his home most of the time.

But seeing him at public appearances and hearing him speak gives you an idea of what self-belief can help you accomplish.

In sport, what you think you are sometimes matches up with who the whole world thinks you are.

The gap between public opinion and your own merges seamlessly.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 3:14:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/nirmal_shekar/Self-belief-the-soul-of-sport/article14378667.ece

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