The Athlete's search for his best


THE one constant in the athlete's life is struggle. Not just with opponent, or with situation, or with surface, or with conditions. Always the athlete's finest skirmish is with the self. In his scuffle with doubt, in his tussle with confidence, in his search for concentration. Rarely does the jigsaw ever come together for long.

Always the great athlete is in steady, unflinching pursuit of his best. How, he asks, can I get better? Even in the loneliness of the foreign hotel suite, the athlete questions, wonders, searches, examines. Sitting in a player's room in Australia during India's last tour, I heard a constant thumping coming from the adjoining room. Eventually I discovered it was Tendulkar practising his strokes, his bat rhythmically hitting the floor in front of a mirror.

Every athletic career, eventually, is nothing but a journey of discovery and every player an adventurer. The route to this destination is slippery with sweat but the athlete craves that sweat, he revels in it. Always he is fussing, trying to clean technique or clear the mind. In his 30s, Agassi was still perfecting his construction of points. A voice in the head is calling: Improve, improve, improve. They have to, for as Sania Mirza wisely put it recently: "Next year will always be tougher".

The most fascinating parts of Steve Waugh's weighty autobiography, Out Of My Comfort Zone, deal with his quest to harness his mind, to find clarity within the contest, to discover an equilibrium out in the chaos of the middle.

As Waugh writes: "My best moments as a batsman came when I had no extraneous thoughts in my head. It was about having a clear focus, concentrating wholly on the next ball and playing it as best I could. It was simply total engagement, almost to the point of being oblivious to anything except that little red ball — a certain type of loneliness that I found extremely peaceful and opened up the possibility of entering the much sought after `zone'."

None of this is some divine offering, nor some genetic gift, it is learnt, some quicker, some slower, some never at all. The athlete who is easily satisfied, who coasts, is the one who stagnates. Achievement does not allow for compromise and complacency is the enemy within. Sometimes a demanding guide is required, producing that kick of discipline: for the Australians once it was Bob Simpson, perhaps for India it will be Greg Chappell. Svengalis have their uses.

Improvement differs, depending on the athlete. Young players surge, their advances more conspicuous, like Wayne Rooney who has leapt into our imaginations in a burst. So did Michael Clarke, who then stuttered and now must tinker with his game and arrange his mind. Those already in the embrace of greatness take smaller steps, refining their mastery as it were, like Federer.

Always change is there in sport and it is a thrill to watch the player subtly grow as competitor. Grips alter subtly, head positions change, feet are splayed differently to find balance, serves are returned from one foot further inside the baseline, backswings are amputated. Hardest of all is to put it all in practice, to not retreat to the familiar, even subconsciously, when under pressure.

Some improvement is hard to see. One year a change in Boris Becker's service toss was perchance discovered by a photographer. Each year the photographer sat in the same spot at Wimbledon, his camera aligned in identical fashion; then one year he found Becker's service toss was not in the same place in his viewfinder as it was the previous year. Ergo, something had altered.

Sometimes improvement is revealed in simply a shirt taken off and evidence of new muscle presented. Sometimes it is in a player's freshness in the fifth set that wasn't evident in the previous year. Sometimes it is just bluff. Cricket's spinners are constantly boasting before series about "secret deliveries", and while none are to be found, the threat of improvement is enough to discomfort some batsmen.

Champions are impatient yet enduring, they are men in a hurry yet also aware that change is a process. A new service action is a complex operation. So is a golf swing. Bit by bit improvement comes, like a drip from a tap. In a recent interview, Tiger revealed: "The biggest thing I learned this year (2005) was how to fix my (new) swing during a round." It was one breakthrough; mastery is yet to come.

Athletes have to improve else they will get left behind. No one sits still. As Indian cricket captain Rahul Dravid said to this writer before leaving for the tour of Pakistan: "Sure, you're always looking to improve, to get that extra edge, also because at this level everyone else is improving".

Yet, Dravid says, occasionally a player will reach a level where his technique will not require dramatic alteration, at best he will adjust it gently, polish it, but it is in the mind that he pursues progress. "For me", says Dravid, "it's about staying focused, concentrating better so that I make less mental mistakes".

But for some athletes, the adventure leads nowhere, their destination is never arrived at, their journey interrupted. Recently Mark Phillipoussis, betrayed so often by body, and also by his mind, promised "my best is yet to come". It's a familiar refrain in sport, a desperate, plaintive convincing of the self that there will be better days, there have to be.