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Shayamal Vallabhjee: External environment alone doesn't guarantee you success

Sports scientist Shayamal Vallabhjee argues that athletes, monks and business executives harness both their external and internal environments to win at what they do

In 2019, Novak Djokovic came back from two match points down to defeat Roger Federer at the Wimbledon men's final match.
In 2019, Novak Djokovic came back from two match points down to defeat Roger Federer at the Wimbledon men's final match. (AP)

Let’s start by analyzing one of your environments. It could be your office, your home, your bedroom, your gym, your car, your study, or even your kitchen. Pick any one. What are five things in this environment that contribute to optimizing your performance, or adding fulfillment to your life?

14 July 2019 was a day like no other in the world of professional tennis. Two old rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, fought a gruelling battle that lasted four hours and fifty-seven minutes. It was an epic match for many reasons. Not only was it the longest contested Wimbledon Final in the history of the tournament, but the first Championship to be settled by a final set tie-breaker. Even more remarkable, Djokovic was the first man in seventy-one years to win the Championship from two match points down.

So, what about this spectacular match underscores the importance of your environment?

In a post-match interview, Djokovic said, ‘When the crowd is chanting Federer’s name, you have to remove yourself from that environment. When the crowd is on your side, it helps. But if you don’t have that, you have to find it from within.’

As the match approached its climax, we saw two equally capable athletes, each drawing strength from two different environments. One, fully absorbing the energy of their external environment, while the other chose to block the external and draw strength from his internal environment.

Is it coincidental that the athlete who went within was the one who emerged victorious?

After two decades of working at the convergence of the physical and mental domains of performance, I have begun to understand the delicate relationship that exists between the external and the internal environments. My approach to optimizing human potential blends both science and spirituality. This dual inspiration has allowed me to discover the intricate balance that exists between the two environments.

For the longest time, I focused primarily on the external environment. In fact, I still spend a considerable amount of time engineering an athlete’s external environment for success. However, after spending time in the Buddhist monasteries in Japan, studying Vedic sciences and learning the art of pranayama (breath work) from traditional yogis in the Himalayas, my perspective has shifted. I have come to understand that we are at first strongly influenced by our external environment; and then, through mindfulness, we can cultivate the ability to rise above the trappings of our external environment. Eventually, with years of practice, we can master the art of mindful awareness. This deep state of awareness is so potent that those who attain it have the power to influence (or transcend) their environment. In other words, mastery over our internal environment eventually translates into the external.

Shayamal Vallabhjee. Courtesy: Pan Macmillan.
Shayamal Vallabhjee. Courtesy: Pan Macmillan.

Success in any field is directly correlated to an individual’s relationship with their environment. Athletes in a state of flow are tuning into their internal environment while navigating the challenges of their external environment. Motivational speakers on stage draw energy from the thousands of guests in the audience, thus utilizing their external environment. Pranayama (breath work) experts who can meditate in icy cold temperatures for hours use the power of their internal environment to block out the external environment. In the pursuit of excellence, understanding the balance between the two is essential....

The external environment encompasses everything that is tangible. I will give you examples of how athletes, monks, and business executives design their external physical environments for success and fulfillment. The internal environment involves the cultivation of mind (internal) over matter (external). The internal environment (self), when nurtured mindfully, allows an individual to be guided by their innate intuitive wisdom. When you are guided by this wisdom, you are operating from your Higher Self. From here, your contentment and bliss are no longer dictated by your external environment...

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says, ‘Motivation is overvalued. Environments often matter more.’ This is a great place to start. Why? Because in the world of sport, the external environment plays a powerful role in an athlete’s success. I wouldn’t go as far as saying ‘motivation is overvalued.’ Rather, I would say that the environment in itself is a kind of motivator.

As a sports scientist and an ultra-marathon runner, I was always drawn to the tiny Kenyan village, Iten, that sits on the escarpment overlooking the African Rift Valley. The overhanging archway that welcomes visitors to the village reads Home of the Champions, a claim that could not be truer. Fellow sports scientist and author of The Sports Gene, David Epstein, called this village ‘the greatest concentration of elite athletic talent, ever, in any sport, anywhere in the world.’ At the time of printing this book, four of the five fastest marathon times in the history of the sport belong to Kenyans who train at this village.

This unique running community has single-handedly produced more middle- and long-distance champions than any other city or country in the world.

'Breathe Believe Balance' (Pan Macmillan, 304 pages, Rs350)
'Breathe Believe Balance' (Pan Macmillan, 304 pages, Rs350)

Iten is a sports researcher’s heaven. For decades, scientists, journalists, authors, doctors, and academics have travelled there to understand its secret to success. Everything from muscle physiology, and biomechanics to nutrition, geographical location, training methodology, and socio-economics has been researched. The truth is, very little of the research has been conclusive in crediting any single factor for the village’s overwhelming dominance in the sport. If you find this hard to believe, a trip to Iten will put all your reservations to rest. The simplicity of their lifestyle is beyond comprehension, especially in light of their achievements. Growing up in modern cities, our idea of excellence often presupposes the necessity of certain lifestyle pre-requisites. Iten shatters those assumptions.

In Iten, life is as simple as you can imagine. There is a single paved road that runs through the village, with only a few street lamps scattered over its distance. This is why most of the running happens between dawn and dusk. There is no airport, reputable hotel, or big chain supermarket to speak of. As a local resident of Iten, your heroes are the runners. This is why it is so easy to imagine how the next rising star could be the unassuming boy or girl around the corner. Running is in their blood and that is what makes them great.

But this isn’t a story about running. This is a story about a community.

In 2006, two New Zealanders who aspired to become the best professional runners in the world packed their bags and moved to Iten. Twin brothers, Jake and Zane Robertson, believed that training among the best and living their lifestyle would have given them a chance to achieve their dreams. The townspeople doubted Jake and Zane would last even a few months. More than ten years later, this is very much their home. When I met them in Iten, it was heartwarming to see that they are as much local heroes as Wilson Kipsang, Eluid Kipchode, Dennis Kimeto, Mary Keitany, and the other legends of the running world.

In 2015, eight years after moving to Iten, Zane Robertson ran a 59 minutes 47 seconds race at the Marugame Half Marathon in Kagame, Japan. This made him only the fourth non-African runner to finish this distance in under an hour. Brother Colm O’Connell, affectionately known as the Godfather of Kenyan Running, said that Jake and Zane Robertson’s success is testament to how ‘living in an athletic culture or environment, even though you are genetically not belonging to the culture or environment, can significantly impact your life.’

I’ve been going back and forth to Iten for many years and if there is one thing that stands out, it is the Kenyan training philosophy – Good People Make People Great. If you find the best and get them together, that ecosystem will cultivate excellence. The running community in Iten isn’t just supremely talented or genetically gifted. They have an insatiable hunger for success and are prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. Jake and Zane Robertson aren’t the only ones who have benefited from this environment. ‘The Home of Champions’ has become the training hub to almost every runner who has professional aspirations. Why do they all go there? The evidence is unquestionable. Whoever trains in Iten, gets faster.

Edited and excerpted from Breathe Believe Balance: A Guide to Self-discovery and Healing with permission from Pan Macmillan.

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