Published on August 1st, 2022 | by Sandeep Patil0
Table-Tennis and Two Timeless Lessons.
Every time to learn a great lesson, one doesn’t have to be in a great situation! A daily mundane affair like Table-tennis practiced in corporate recreational room may also hold a couple of valuable lessons for lifetime. Something similar once happened to me (rather twice, as the title goes). I do not know exactly what name-tag to attach to these two lessons – should I call them leadership lessons or strategy or behavioural or something else; because when I learned them I was yet not familiar with the managerial jargon. For that matter nobody taught them as mere lessons, let alone managerial. They were just two very ordinary incidents happened before me some 20 years back without any special significance attached or any nostalgic value. Yet all these years, they have stuck in my memory lane, time-and-again they have plunged up the surface when situation demanded and in a small way shaped up my being too.
This was in year 2000 when I had joined as a freshly graduated engineer in a start-up company. The company was a US multinational with office in India – the American multinationals in those times used to be pretty lavish and thus even for a modest office they had provided a number of recreational facilities like a Gymnasium, a couple of Table-tennis tables, a Volleyball court etc. Now you can imagine excitement of a young-fresh college graduate who was hitherto only accustomed to standing in queues of dusty-dark Gymkhana, avoiding his professors “guilty-until-proven-innocent” looks, only to access some sub-standard sports equipment! Now the same person has luxury to lay his hands on virgin, posh sports equipment, whenever and howsoever long it pleased him (of course, when the Manager was not looking!) Needless to say, I started spending more and more time at the TT table.
Here I met “Doctor” First.
Dr. Sekar – a Ph.D. Doctor – was a middle aged man in his late 40s. He was an ex-scientist who had worked in some premier Institutes in India. Needless to say he was very respected and very popular employee. Furthermore, he was an excellent Table-Tennis player. In my knowledge, he was not defeated even once in TT in the company and he would always win in straight sets! We would feel immense proud after getting defeated at his hands by just 3-4 points. I once had reached deuce and I still remember it after 20 years 😊
In the evenings, we would mostly find him around the TT table, his business-formals soaked in sweat, the racket shaking loosely in his hand ready to pounce on almost every ball. The spins he would put on the ball would always remind me of Shane Warne’s leg spins – a player with moderate skills would usually struggle to make contact with the ball let alone return it. The man was a treat to watch… but for one occasion.
Being a new organization, there used to be often some new employees joining in. Within a day or two of joining, they would invariably venture out to the TT room and then would as invariably “give it shot”! If they had committed unpardonable crimes in their past births, then almighty would set their first appointment with Doctor; for Doctor was not known to show any mercy to his opponent howsoever expert or novice. Although the latter was barely capable holding the racket correctly – his smashes would land on the table like gunshots, his chops would drop as heavily on the table, making us wonder if the ball was made of heavy iron!
My tender heart would melt on such sights of brutal executions. Often I would wonder if the poor newbie would ever dare touch the racket again. One day one such game was taking place… where on one side a shaken newbie was somehow managing to hold his guard and to the other end of table the Doctor was doing Tandav from one corner of the table to the other. The contest (for the lack of better word) ended in a couple of minutes and the defeated kid walked out of the TT room with the humiliation of Ravana walking out of Seeta Swayamvar. I could not stop myself this time, so I walked up to Doctor and asked him, “Sir, he is very new. Why did you finish him so mercilessly with all your hard smashes? You could have been easy on him, you could have defeated him just by placing the ball”
The doctor roared, “Why should I bring down my own game? In any circumstance, I would always play to the best of my ability”
With that answer, suddenly time froze for a second or two! I had never thought it like this before! Some of life’s lessons come to you in the most unexpected way – something similar happened here. Its not that I tried to thrash every newbie in the game of TT or on any other occasion for that matter – but if the situation has nothing better to offer me, the least I can do is to up my game. I have worked on projects later where I knew I would not get the due credit in the end… I have prepared knowledge sessions where only 8 people turned up when 80 were expected… I would not say that such situations did not disappoint me. But the idea of playing your best game made sure that there was always a piece of joy that could never be taken away from the situation. In a longer run, I also learnt that it is not merely an idealistic thought but has a practical value as well. In the longer run it really turns out to be fruitful in most unique ways… sometimes after years. I had learnt some basics of arranging the blocks and using colour palettes while drawing technical diagrams for my design document… a decade later this knowledge came handy to me for setting up my YouTube channel !!! There are many such examples – Steve Jobs calls it “connecting the dots backwards!”
And then the second lesson!
It so happened that we were playing doubles one day and Dr. Sekar was my partner. With him as a partner, I would have played the match with left hand as well and still managed to win. So I was playing pretty relaxed that day. I was just returning the ball, placing it in the difficult corners of the table. Once or twice the ball bounced high on my side and my partner immediately shouted “Kill!!!!”… hoping that I would smash the ball for good. But I, with all my grace and delicacy, placed the ball back to opponent. When this happened for third or fourth time, Doctor asked me, somewhat irritated, “Why are you not smashing the ball?”
“I am not sure my smash will land on the table every-time”, I replied. “By placing the ball correctly, we have better chance of winning the point”
Doctor paused and turned to me. “You don’t smash the ball to win the point. You smash the ball, because it creates fear in your opponents mind”, he told calmly. “If your opponent knows that you are not going to smash the ball, his confidence grows. He starts taking you granted. When you hit smashes, the opponent doesn’t notice if the smash landed or not … all he remembers is that I better be careful with this guy!”
Another lesson that changed my game-play as well as my outlook. I had been more of a soft and accommodating person, I do not have any regrets for that as such … but ever since in the corporate games, I have reminded myself to hit few occasional smashes here and there. On many occasions these smashes have landed outside the table.. but Doctor was quite right there… nobody remembered how often my smashes won me points. All they remembered was that this guy is capable of punishing a wrong ball and that made all the difference! Otherwise, it doesn’t take much time for your goodness to become your weakness.