When I was around 11 years old, I was playing in a slightly Senior category at a State tournament, and I lost an early match. That loss hit me so hard that I crawled under the Table and stayed there crying my eyes out. I remember wanting to never move out from under the table because I was ashamed to face that loss.
At around the same age, I remember breaking into tears on more than one occasion- sometimes even during matches- when I felt that I was going to lose. This age also saw me break quite a few paddles because, in addition to letting my emotions get the better of me, I was also quite short tempered and did not know just where to draw the line.
People who know me now would find it difficult to relate the 11-year old Sharath Kamal with the person I am now. And that transformation, in my opinion, is what defines a sportsperson. You outgrow your basic emotional instinct and realise that you can probably achieve a lot more if you do not let either success or failure get to you.
In 2015, a severe hamstring injury raised serious doubts about whether or not I could continue playing. I was close to going off the rails and into depression because medical therapy proved to be a dead end for the first two months. I was just stagnant. Within a year, I had secured an Olympic berth in 2016, and it was only possible because I found the strength to begin all over again.
That tells me how far I have come as an athlete.
Where it all began…
Table Tennis, for me, began as a four-year-old. My father and uncle have been my coaches for the longest time. It was my uncle who always stressed the importance of Mental conditioning in the lives of athletes. Today, at this particular point in life having represented India for a good 17-18 years, I think I am at a place where I can pass on whatever little knowledge I have gained in my life as a sportsman.
With some athletes achieving brilliant levels of success at tender young ages, the relevance of mental conditioning becomes at par with skill training, in my opinion. At that young an age, it is very easy to get swayed by either of the two outcomes. When you lose, you need to continually tell yourself that you are not, in fact, a loser; that you’re quite capable of climbing out of this pit to reclaim your ground no matter what.
Similarly, if you win, you know that everyone else is looking to take you down. A significant title is just another target on your head- people will be nitpicking every move you make so that they have the slight chance of taking you down at the next opportunity they get. What I am trying to say is that the world of sports is always in a state of flux. Arrogance just breeds complacency.
My uncle, once he saw my outbursts, became a lot more specific about proper behaviour at the table. He always says that decorum is half of what makes you a champion. The moment you show your frustration, your opposition gets the upper hand. It gives your opponent confidence to know that you’re not happy with the way you’ve played. I remember that his strict code of conduct never shook even during practice matches- anyone misbehaving during a match was sent out. That was the kind of discipline maintained in my club. By the time I was 15, my wild phase had passed. I got better at hiding my frustrations when I lost a point, better at controlling my excitement when I won. I think that’s how the Asians do it anyway.
As a kid, you want the world and you want it fast. Often, you are physically incapable of accepting failure. And that’s the trap that breaks people who would have otherwise been champions. Relentless practice is the only way to overcome that.
The first test
It wasn’t until Std 10 that I decided to become a professional Table Tennis player. I started practising twice a day and even got an exemption from my school to join half an hour later. Those three to four years was the time I trained harder than my peers and other paddlers my age. And after that, I decided it was time to start setting targets for myself. The first milestone was becoming State No. 1.
So right after my 12th Boards, I played States. And I lost to someone that I generally never did in the quarterfinals. I had four match points in the game- back then it was a 21-point game- and I still lost that match. That was the first real test that the new me had to face. Naturally, disappointment was the immediate reaction. I remember completely cutting myself off and refusing to talk to even my father because I had expected to win the tournament. I went up to the terrace and just sat staring into blank space. My father came up for a conversation and did his best to motivate me. By the end of it, I told him only thing. “Let’s begin training half an hour earlier from tomorrow.”
Over time, I have had people ask me what my motivation is to continue playing and winning as I do. My answer is simple. I do not like losing.
Sometimes, just 30 minutes can make a vast deal of difference because the critical aspect here is not whether or not you go in earlier to start practising- it’s the resolve you begin the new day with. You need to be strong enough to defeat the disappointments and start with a clean slate. Only numerous trysts with both success and failure can teach you that.
Since I resolved to push my limits with just 30 minutes more, I haven’t lost a tournament at the state level till then. It has been around eight years that I don’t play State anymore. It took me a lot of time to make a mark at the Nationals. Self-doubts were always there, but the one thing I never lost was my hunger to excel.
I wouldn’t say I am perfect…
After all these years, the only thing that is in my control is trying to be the best possible version of myself. And here, it’s essential to understand every second that led up to my Nationals win in 2019.
I’ve been in India for the last five weeks- training and acclimatising. And in those five weeks, everyone around me had only one thing to say. “Sharath is going to win this for the 9th time.”
Initially, it was easy to brush this off with a generic, “results don’t matter.” And that’s the attitude I entered the tournament with. My brother, an integral part of my training, did not travel to India because of prior family commitments. I told him that it was going to be alright- I did not need him to be physically present.
As the tournament progressed, this “9 titles” thing got to my head. I started panicking. Suddenly, the milestone became more important than the essential quality of my game and, as hard as I tried, I could not shake this off. I got nervous.
By the time the second round of the Singles tournament started, I had picked up the phone and told my brother, “Take the next flight and come here.” It was getting a little too much, and I really could do with having someone to talk to and share my anxiety with. He obliged, and we somehow got through. All’s well that ends well.
More than my victory alone, I think the people around me were exceptionally happy for me. I was just pleased that I could match those expectations. I think more than the win, beating Sathiyan in the finals was special because he has been fantastic lately. This was by far one of the best finals, even the best match, that I have ever played in India. Credit for that goes to Sathiyan. He was a worthy opponent and he, undoubtedly, has a sparkling future ahead of him.
I had to wait for a long time for my sport to come into the limelight. Now that it has, I intend on making the most out of it and sticking around for as long as I can. The kind of player I am, I set small, achievable targets within a limited time frame. So right now, I think a Top 20 World Ranking is a reasonable target by the end of 2019. Alongside that, I’m working towards an Olympic berth and, consequently, a medal in 2020. After that, we can think about the Commonwealth and Asian Games in 2022 and the Paris Olympics in 2024. Just one step at a time.
I had to wait for a long time for my sport to come into the limelight. Now that it has, I intend on making the most out of it and sticking around for as long as I can.
Over time, I have had people ask me what my motivation is to continue playing and winning as I do. My answer is simple. I do not like losing. Once you taste success, you only want more of it. How you achieve, that is up to you.
Do not be afraid of failure. They’re great teachers. But be afraid of never even trying.
Instead of thinking about winning and achieving your targets, go out and do it.