I have just finished reading Kobe Bryant’s book – The Mamba Mentality. The one thing that blew me away completely as I read through the book was Kobe’s relentless and obsessive pursuit towards excellence. And the way he goes about achieving that goal with his uncompromising attention to detail, his diligent desire to work hard and his focused approach to preparation. His was a classic case of Self-Mastery.

At the end of his first season in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers had made it to the semifinals against Utah. But in the deciding fifth game, Kobe had four airballs that resulted in the Lakers losing their chance at the title. In basketball, an airball is an unblocked shot that misses the basket, rim, and backboard entirely. Akin to a footballer missing the penalty kick by shooting the ball miles away from the goal post. An unforgiveable error. But all that these four airballs did for Kobe was to push him to work harder at his strength for the next season and build himself stronger physically. For him, nerves were not the problem. It was just his physically inadequacy to get the ball in the basket. So, what does Kobe do? He hit the gym during the off season to build his arms and legs with some intense weight-training. This single minded desire to improve is what separates great players from the all-time great players – their ability to self-assess, diagnose weaknesses, and turn those flaws into strengths.

In his own words, Kobe explains “In the immediate aftermath, I was never concerned by how the franchise or fans would react. I knew I would put in the work, which is what I did. In fact, as soon as we landed, I went to the Pacific Palisades high school gym and shot all night long. I went back the next day and worked. And I worked and worked and worked. In my mind, it was never a matter of Oh no, I will never get another shot at this. I felt that my destiny was already written. I felt and I knew that my future was undeniable and no one, not a person or a play could derail it.” What an astonishing statement of self-belief and mental strength.

Champions across all sports have an unbelievable capacity of self-belief. This belief stems from the crucial fact that they trust their skill and technique. And this trust emanates from hours and hours and hours of preparation that they put into training. Kobe was uncompromising with his training. While his teammates were lounging or taking a break, Kobe was always working hard. He would be either at the gym or on the basketball court putting in hours together to work on his strengths and correct his weaknesses. He also spent hours watching his own videos that allowed him to understand where he was going wrong. And he put in longer hours watching the videos of his opponents so that he could prepare himself when he faced them on the court. He had a plan worked out for every opponent whether it was Tim Duncan, Clyde Drexler, Paul Pierce, or Vince Carter. He worked out the weaknesses of each of his opponents and was hell bent on dominating them. He could never ever imagine playing second fiddle on the court.

For Kobe, training and preparation went beyond the court. As he says in the book, “The only way I was able to pick up details on the court, to be aware of the minutiae on the hardwood, was by training my mind to do that off the court and focusing on every detail in my life. By reading, by paying attention in class and in practice, by working, I strengthened my focus. By doing all of that, I strengthened my ability to be present and not having a wandering mind.”

This was preparation at a completely different level. Sachin designed the drills to its most minute and specific detail. Sachin was very clear in his mind what he wanted to develop during those net sessions. He wanted to build his range of shots that would target anything from fine leg to mid-wicket. So, he practiced the paddle sweep, the normal sweep as well as the slog sweep. Sachin practiced these range of shots day in and day out with Siva bowling to him for hours together. And a week after these practice sessions, Sachin the master batsman unleashed the entire range of sweep shots to score a majestic match winning 155 not out in the second innings of the first Test at Chepauk, Chennai. He went on to dominate Warne not just in that series but in the one-day tournament at Sharjah that followed the Test matches. Warne was made to look like a club bowler and in his book has admitted to losing confidence temporarily because of this onslaught.

Self-Mastery is the domain of Champions. It is what sets them apart from the rest. Novak Djokovic, Lionel Messi, Michael Jordan, Martina Navratilova, Michael Phelps, Virat Kohli, Usain Bolt, Sherry Ann-Frazer Pryce, Viktor Axelson, Sergio Bubka, Mohammad Ali and so many others who have reached the pinnacle of their sport and sustained themselves at the very top are masters in preparation, sacrifice, attention to detail, hard work and commitment. They have a single-minded focus and that is to be the best in the world.

Sadly, on the other hand, we have seen many talented sportsmen who have self-sabotaged their career. Paul Gascoigne, Vinod Kambli, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, George Best, Ben Johnson, to name a few. These athletes self-destructed their career. They had immense talent but lacked the discipline and dedication to make the most of their talent. Money, drugs, women, alcohol, and gambling was prioritised over their love for the sport. They perhaps lacked a mentor as most of them came from a troubled, poor or an uneducated family. Which is not an excuse as we have had an equal number of success stories of athletes who came from similar backgrounds. While each one had a role model in front of them to emulate and get inspired, they were unable to resist the temptation that the world of sports throws at you. Its one thing to have talent, but another to have the drive to learn the nuances. As James Naismith has said, “Any sport is an easy game to play, but a difficult one to master.”

It is important for all of us to have that mindset to excel. We may not reach the pinnacle of our sport or profession but we will surely be somewhere close. I would like to end this blog with a few more extracts from the book which I believe are relevant to all of us.

The mindset is not about seeking a result – its more about the process of getting to that result. Its about the journey and the approach. It is a way of life. I do think that it is important in all endeavours to have that mentality.

The agony of defeat is as low as the joy of winning is high. However, they are the exact same to me. I am at the gym at the same time after losing 50 games as I am after winning a championship. It does not change for me.

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