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How Shikhar Dhawan turns pressure into opportunities

Mindgames, our new series on the mental health of sportspersons, delves into the top cricketer's psyche during IPL season

Shikhar Dhawan
Shikhar Dhawan

Shikhar Dhawan believes managing expectations is the most challenging aspect of being an international sportsman. Sometimes, the cricketer says, we overburden ourselves with so much expectation that we feel the pressure from within, and not really from the situation.

The left-handed batsman, whose last international cricket match was in January, is ideally placed to speak about pressure. Besides being part of an Indian team for the last decade, Dhawan has gone through his quota of successes and failures. His scores so far in the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) are neither extraordinary nor worrisome. With 0, 35, 34, 26 and 32 in his first five matches, the Delhi Capitals opener has started well but not made headlines or won matches on his own.

“While pressure is inevitable, with it comes opportunities,” says Dhawan, who has been in and out of the Indian Test team in recent times. “It’s important to have a clear mind and composure to focus on the task at hand. I have experienced how just a few deep breathing exercises before the start of the match or even in the middle, helps me ‘unclutter’ the mind and increase alertness.”

Ahead of the start of the IPL in the United Arab Emirates in September, Dhawan became the latest marquee name to join the glamorous yoga firm, Sarva, which has among other backers, actors Jennifer Lopez, Malaika Arora, Shahid Kapur and baseball player Alex Rodriguez. The association has also given him extra onus to talk about the benefits of yoga.

As a professional athlete, Dhawan says, it is imperative to find the right balance with your mind and body. “While yoga is still largely viewed as a breathing exercise, I can say from my experience that I’ve immensely benefited in achieving a whole body balance by practicing various aspects of it. It has helped me focus better, improvise on my game and be more connected with my mind and body,” the 34-year-old says over an email.

“What I have realized is that yoga can never be viewed in isolation, as the means of meditation or asanas. It is a lifestyle for me now. Yoga and mindfulness are designed to blend seamlessly with our daily lifestyle. If you’re not practicing yoga in its entirety, you’re not utilising the power of the form to its full potential. It provides me stability between my body and mind, helps me keep calm, composed, healthy and most importantly, happy.”

Considering the popularity of the sport in India and the attention it gets from fans, international cricketers find themselves in constant scrutiny. Dhawan copped some anger after his 28-ball 32, considered slow in T20s, against Royal Challengers Bangalore on 5 October even though Delhi won the match.

“As a professional athlete, you come to terms with the ups and downs. No two days are the same, so all you can do is stay motivated and have faith in your abilities,” says the scorer of nearly 10,000 international runs.

Modern cricket players are assisted by a battery of support staff, from trainers to physiotherapists, to help them deal with various situations, but Dhawan says he is not too fixated on getting help from mental conditioning coaches. He has practised guided meditation, and used sleep stories and mindfulness audios, which help him get adequate rest before a big day.

Dhawan, whose breakthrough into international cricket came with the fastest Test century by a debutant, in 2012-13 against Australia, says that some amount of friendly banter or aggression on field is fine in sport as long as it’s within certain limits. Australians, notoriously aggressive and chatty on field in the past, have been known to get under the skin of their opponents, evident from a few controversial skirmishes between players of India and Australia.

“As a sportsperson,” Dhawan adds, “you have to take it in right spirit. It’s not personal at all, and we leave that behind the moment we step out of the field.”

Besides help from team staff, there is much to learn from teammates as well because each player brings in a whole new dimension of abilities. It’s about imbibing soft and hard skills, he says. “While experienced players give you a perspective of stability and calmness, the younger lot brings along exuberance, of being carefree. We complement each other in all aspects. With so much positive energy in the dressing room, you don’t need to (actually) seek (help from teammates). It just rubs off, be it technical, emotional or inspirational.”

The batsman with over 4700 runs in 13 seasons of the IPL says it’s important to find time to do things one loves, to bring the right balance and perspective in life. Music is his go-to mode—not surprisingly, the flamboyant player for Delhi, nicknamed “Gabbar”, is partial to Punjabi beats.

'Mindgames' is a new series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure

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