The mental side of the game – part 1
DEVINDER SINGH BHUSARI made it big on the international tennis circuit. In 1999 he was ranked Asian no. 1 in the under 14 category, and he has the distinction of being the first ever Indian tennis player to be invited by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to be a part of the World Junior Team to the USA in the same year. But then, as a young adult, he chose to take his career in tennis in a different direction. Today, as part of a team of experts, Devinder successfully coaches young talent in the Shaishya Tennis Academy in Gujarat, India, and offers counseling to students and their parents. This strengthens them in the sport and grooms them to face the challenges of life at large.
Q: What attracted you to tennis, Devinder? What led you to pursue it as a full-time vocation?
DSB: My journey as a tennis player, even the career that I am pursuing now, started because of my father. He wanted me to be a sportsperson. He had wanted to be a cricketer himself, so in a way he wanted to live his dream through me. And he wanted me to be a cricketer, and like a lot of other Indian kids my journey also started with cricket at the age of three-and-a-half. He motivated me, and later on I went into athletics and then to tennis. I started playing tennis well, and I played competitive tennis at the international level. I think in those years growing up, tennis and academics were the only two things that I did.
Later on during my postgraduate days, as I was trying to figure out what I was really good at or what I would like to do, my heart guided me to realize that I really got a kick out of training and mentoring others. So after I did my major in human resources, I combined the two things that I really wanted to do: training and mentoring young kids and adults and tennis. That’s why today I am in this profession of tennis coaching and tennis counseling.
Q: Did you ever feel pressured, or was there any clash between what you wanted to do and what your father wanted you to do?
DSB: I was motivated and inspired, actually. He used to put pictures and newspaper articles in front of me, or we would watch cricket matches together on television, and I would see the laurels that sportspersons got for their country and for their friends and families. My father used to say, “People usually come into this world and do something just to lead a normal life, get married, have children and so on. Your life should be different. You should become something.” So that message stuck in my mind – that he wanted me to be different, he wanted me to be a sportsperson. I liked sports so there was never a clash between what I wanted to do and what my father wanted me to do, until I was 21 or 22. I guess since birth I was just very obedient to my parents!
But at the age of 21 or 22 I had the question: What do I want to do? And as I already explained, at the age of 22 I stopped playing competitive tennis and started exploring what I really wanted in life. After that things changed, I changed – not radically, but I found a balance between what my father wanted for me in life and what I want, and kind of combined the two. I’m leading a happy life right now!
During my MBA, I secured a placement with Indian Oil Corporation. My parents were super happy but I was dissatisfied; I wanted to do more. My father, especially, wasn’t in favor of me quitting the job. It took six months to convince him to let me get into the field of tennis coaching.
Q: Oh, beautiful. So how did you go about finding that balance?
DSB: It was very important to know what my strengths were. What is it that I really wanted to do in life? I had started practicing meditation at the age of 19, while I was doing my Bachelor of Commerce. Meditation helped me to be in touch with myself. Of course it helped me on the tennis court, but it also helped me off the tennis court, because I came to know who I really am, what are my strengths, and what is it that I really like doing.
At that point in time I knew a lot of people who were really struggling with the question of what to do in life, whereas in my case, the more I came to know about myself, the more options actually started opening up. So I never felt lost, or had the question, “What am I going to do next?” In fact I knew that I could do this, or this, or this. It was all about choosing the best option. So that was the beauty of meditation.
Q: What is tennis counseling? How do you do it in Shaishya?
DSB: When I started, I joined my own coach, Shrimal Bhatt, and began coaching with him. At the same time I founded a small firm called Samasam, which means ‘balance’ in Sanskrit. Within that I incorporated the idea of tennis counseling. Of course now I do counselling and coaching at Shaishya Tennis Academy.
What I tell my students is that at the end of the day
it’s just a sport, it’s just a game.
So when I counsel the kids on the mental aspect,
there’s a whole set of values that I bring in.
In tennis, the difference between players at the highest level is a mental one. It is not so much physical, it is not so much technical or tactical as mental. Experience had taught me that very few people actually train kids mentally. And to train kids mentally, you don’t need to necessarily do it on a tennis court; it can be done off the tennis court, it can be done in an office or a classroom. So I started tennis counseling. In fact, if I look back, most of the students who have come back to me for tennis coaching are the ones who actually took counseling from me. I counsel the kids, the players, and I counsel the parents also on a variety of topics like the mental aspect, planning their tennis and tournament schedules, and even queries regarding their academics. So it’s more like being a tennis doctor.
Q: Are there any specific tools or steps that you use, or a curriculum that you follow, while counseling your students and their parents, especially on the mental front?
DSB: That’s a great question. Mostly people look at a game like tennis as a physical sport. But it came to me with experience that, at the end of the day, it is largely a mental sport. I know so many kids who play well during practice, but in a match they just fizzle out; they don’t perform well. So how to train these kids on these mental aspects?
What I tell my students is that at the end of the day it’s just a sport, it’s just a game. So when I counsel the kids on the mental aspect, there’s a whole set of values that I bring in. The better character and perspective the child has towards life and towards sport, the better they’ll do in tournaments and be able to handle the pressure. The pressure in tennis, and even in life, comes from misdirected perspectives or misdirected ambitions. Tennis is not about winning or losing; a tennis match should be able to bring out the best in the child. I think that is also what challenges in life are all about. So in counseling sessions, all the time we keep reflecting back to what life is all about, and how tennis is just a miniature real-life situation without the real-life consequences. I am speaking about tennis, but it applies to all sports.
Q: Can you share some practical examples of drastic changes in students through this type of counseling?
DSB: There was an instance where one boy would get very angry on the court, and in certain cases he did not have the adequate work ethic or willpower to do the exercises. So we started meditation sessions with him during the last four months, and there is actually a clear improvement. The graph in terms of his efforts and work ethic is only moving upwards. He has become so particular about the way he does things, we can see him motivated, and he plays at the international level. He is a 16-year-old boy playing at the level of international juniors.
I have also been fortunate to work with a couple of other players, one of whom is a national champion. This boy was in 10th grade, and in one of the unit tests leading up to the final board exams he failed, and his parents were pretty concerned regarding his future and what to do. So first I spoke to the parents without the child, and then we brought the child in and worked out a timetable. We worked out the priorities, keeping the right perspective and trying to find a balance between his academics and tennis. The boy finally did well in his board exams, and then he actually went on to win a national title and a couple of back-to-back international titles last year.
Q: That’s fantastic. So do you use meditation as a tool regularly in your counseling program in the academy?
DSB: No, not for every child because most of the children who come to me are less than 15 years of age. Lately there is a relaxation technique that we have been using on the court sometimes for the kids after the sessions, to help them relax, to help them focus. A lot of kids really like it, and some of them apply the technique on their own.
In fact the reason I took to meditation was that in the middle of a match I would get so many thoughts. Some of them were irrelevant, unnecessarily putting me under pressure. I think the best way to tackle pressure in a tennis match, or in life, is to get your thinking clear, and that is what meditation essentially does. Once you are able to regulate your mind in a positive direction, most of the things get sorted by themselves.
Q: What changes did you observe on and off the court once you started meditating?
DSB: A lot of things! Some of the small things were: better control over my emotions, clearer focused thinking, precision, and better efficiency in whatever needs to be done. So that’s at the lower level. But at a higher level, you need to have a right perspective towards everything. So I keep talking to the parents and to the children about what is the right perspective towards tennis. And the right perspective is to take it is as a game. There are challenges involved, and the challenges should make us better as a person, as a human being.
So meditation has given me the right perspective on life, as to what life is all about. And once you have the right perspective, it puts all the other facets or all the other parts of life in proper place. You are able to prioritize very well. I do have a lot of duties, and meditation helps me to stay centered, focused, and I am happy and enjoying life.
To be continued.
Interviewed by MEGHANA ANAND
July 30, 2019
June 30, 2019
May 31, 2019