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With his modern and holistic approach to mental toughness, Krishna Kumar helps the current crop of young sporting talents to perform in big moments – but his insights on tapping to the mind’s potential go beyond the pitch.
In a time like this when the sport is on hold and in a country where mental health is still in its infancy, Krishna Kumar, coach and founder-director of KINESIS, India's Premier Tennis Training and Coaching Institution, talks about continuous improvement, of putting mind over muscle, the importance of mental toughness and inculcating the same through the modern techniques of coaching and why he thinks this lockdown is the best time to renew oneself and create a new avatar.
As the game of tennis has evolved over the years, so has the job of the coach. But Krishna Kumar believes that one very neglected element that has affected not only tennis but a lot of other Indian sports, is the mental aspects of the player.
He explains: “Tennis has always been as much a mental sport as it has been a physical one. But while physical fitness has been receiving a lot of attention for decades now, the mental conditioning has gained in importance only recently.”
'Mental skills training is often neglected in Indian Sports'
“As the athletes climb up the ladder let’s consider that though the player has reached a high level of fitness, learned all the techniques and tactics needed for the sport what is the one differentiating factor between any two players on an any given day; it is really how they manage their mind. It’s all about mental toughness.”
“Although many athletes will spend a lot of time on their fitness and technical skills, the mental side of the game is often neglected. Without training our minds, you will find your performance is restricted and potential is not being reached if bringing your best attitude on-court. Unfortunately, in our country, that emphasis is missing. Internationally, Australia, Canada, USA, and Europe are countries that place an emphasis on sports psychology from a very young age and coaches are trained in that area too. Personally, I was also very fortunate to studied and learnt from some of the greatest professionals in this field, such as Timothy Gallwey, who wrote the seminal Inner Game series of books, Sir John Whitmore and Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who discovered the state of Flow.”
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Today, his experience and training with these renowned behavioural psychologists has allowed him to introduce the techniques in his academy.
Krishna Kumar is not a conventional tennis coach; he is also a pioneer in the sphere of Leadership and Executive Coaching in India. With a stellar academic background (he is an alumni of IIT & IIM), he has in a career spanning over three decades, donned the various hats of a senior corporate executive, an entrepreneur, a sports coach, a B-school professor, independent board member and an Executive Coach.
‘Exercise, educate and entertain’
His passion for tennis coaching resulted in his founding the KINESIS Tennis Academy in 2000, an organization that is today rated amongst India’s premier professional tennis training institutes. An USPTR (United States Professional Tennis Registry) certified tennis coaching professional for over two decades, he has received the USPTR India President’s award and the 2011 USPTR Coach of the Year award.
Based in Bangalore, KINESIS was conceptualized with the motto of ‘exercise, educate and entertain’, and the objective of imparting professional, world-class training (both practical and theoretical) and providing coaching training programmes to qualified individuals as highly specialised coaching to youngsters of all age groups.
The premium tennis academy is also the first to run a coach certification programme in the country.
The academy combines tennis and education so that its young graduates do not miss out on their academic growth. The academy focuses a lot of its attention on young players, but has specific training regimes customized for adult players.
Over the two decades, KINESIS has established itself as India’s premier tennis academy imparting international quality coaching through a team of professionally trained coaches to over thousands of children across various levels. Vishnu Vardhan, who represented India at the London Olympics in 2012, has spent time training at his academy as also many other budding tennis players and athletes. In 2013, the academy was handpicked to coach alongside Boris Becker in Bengaluru.
“From a tennis standpoint, we also provide them with exposure and guide them through their progress from being an amateur player to a professional player, helping them in all aspects of their careers. Over the years many the academy students played at the ITF level, won local AIFA tournaments.”
One of the things that make KINESIS stand out from the rest is their application of modern techniques in coaching and training taught by legendary coach Late Captain Pawan Murthy, who was earlier the National Coach of Bahrain.
“Pawan groomed us to play the type of tennis that very few people in India are training.” Krishna Kumar adds, “In India we have hardly seen any top-level singles players in the last three or four years. The coaching style haven’t changed much in the country over the last few decades and many academies still follow the old serve and volley style that legendary players like Vijay Amritraj mastered. But that won’t work anymore when you consider many things have changed and a new approach is needed for modern tennis.”
Cultivating mental toughness
The mental and physical challenges associated with tennis are manifold.
Krishna Kumar stressed the importance of cultivating mental toughness from a young age, he said, “Each player will do things differently due to their own physical and mental makeup. There’s one big difference when it comes to mental toughness in sports. You don’t have the luxury of time. Your performance is measured in hours, not in weeks, not in months but an hour. Now compare that to writing a book or acting in a movie. When trading shots at a very high pace, you have to take decisions at in the shortest possible time, at lightning speed with innumerable options available to you. How can you train your mind to think of 5 shots and choose the best one? What’s more you need to think of the type of shot you have selected but also what your opponent will do next.”
“What should you do to cope with the game situation – even between the rallies and during the rallies, between the points, with players changing styles and taking a break. When must you think fast or think carefully?”
“Win or lose – What’s was your state of mind before, after and during the match.”
“Anybody can hit the ball really well - be it the forehand, the backhand, the volley or the serve. What separates the best from the rest is the mental intent behind the shot.”
“That is why at KINESIS, we give primary importance to monitor the mental state of an athlete. The mental toughness is becoming more and more critical and not enough attention is given. It doesn’t end with tennis alone, the same applies to any sport. I want to emphasize; I am not only talking tennis here, it applies to all sports.”
“Mental toughness should be added to the curriculum and to be done by someone who is trained, certified and professionally qualified. Mental toughness shouldn’t be taken for granted; one should identify the right trainer and invest in it because that could be the single biggest differentiator going forward for the sportsperson. Not just in sports but life.”
The COVID-19 pandemic - the time for reflection
The coronavirus pandemic has been a test of many things as a player, but as individuals it has tested our mental fortitude.
On being asked about how you identify player’s mental strength and differentiate it post-lockdown, he replies, “I tried to run my academy last month, we ran for three weeks but we could not continue as the situation worsened. Right now, our entire world has been flipped upside down. The important thing we need to address here is why wait for the lockdown to be over. What are we doing now?”
We have to worry about today, not wait till things settle down. Remain stuck in a limbo and our own stress levels increase as the days blend together. As a sportsperson one must make the best of any situation. Start by working on strengthening the mind, without having to go onto the field. This is the best time to do that.”
He believes that while the COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately set us all back in many ways it has given us one thing, the time for reflection. It has allowed us an opportunity to renew ourselves, to create a brand new avatar. The question is, “Will I make a better avatar than the one in the past. Do I going with the flow or can I become a new me. By growing myself, learning more things, expanding my own knowledge, I can be prepared to perform when the time is right.”
Much like a conditioning coach focuses on training muscles to perform, a mental skills coach looks at what can be done with the mind to aid performance. They work with the players to get them in a state of mind that prepares them for the next challenge.
When asked to name few mentally toughest athletes in Indian tennis, Krishna Kumar lists Sania Mirza and Leander Paes. “They have always delivered beyond what one would expect. They always find one way or another to use their mental strength to deliver over and above their potential.”
To this list, he adds Abhinav Bindra because of the nature of the sport, Viswanathan Anand for the longevity he brings at the highest level to a hugely mental sport and Pullela Gopichand who was able to inculcate his own approach to staying mentally strong in his protégés.”
When you’re an athlete, curveballs are inevitable.
According to him, “normally in any person’s life, not just in sports, the formative years are a time for growth. Every day you grow more by winning, learning, understanding the nuances of the game. However, when you reach a certain stage in life then you discover that you are not growing anymore further and feel ‘stuck’ in the progress. In effect your performance is a flat-line, which is a dangerous place to be in because you will either drop out of the sport or pick another sport or you just hang in there for whatever comes. Many people go through such a phase of low motivation.”
He states that many of the Indian players today are plateaued out and hanging by a thread.
“If you have to overcome the plateau or performance. That is where mental toughness comes to climb up the ladder of success. Today is the perfect time to reflect. Before you hit the plateau, all you can do now is reflect. It will help in lengthening the progression of your career. While continue the same process, start new learning. And the new learning will help you avoid entering or remaining in the performance plateau,” he said.
“Most people don’t do that. When you train your brain to rise above the negatives and embrace the positives, your physical performance will benefit, and your mental wellbeing can go from strength to strength.”
“COVID-19 is our time to reflect, renew and reinvent our personal and professional goals,” he concluded.
(Interviewed by Stuti Baid)