To Create a Sports Champion You Need Nature & Nurture – Nikhil Latey

Nikhil Latey Mary Kom
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Edited excerpts from our podcast with Nikhil Latey, Sports Scientist & Physiotherapist on what it takes to be a champion!

You said that when it comes to an athlete’s performance in competitive sports, it boils down to that extra 1%. Would you elaborate?

In order to create a champion, you need nature and nurture. So, first you have to be good enough. So, if I say I want to do a 100-meter-dash, I’m not good enough.  I am not tall enough, strong enough or fast enough. Hence nature comes to play. Of course, though the nature component matters in deciding what sport you want to do, but success in that sport frankly comes down to hard work. So, the quantum of efforts you are ready to put in and the hardship you are willing to endure finally creates a champion. If you take the top eight in any sport they’re not too far off in terms of number of hours of training, the passion, the ability. There are exceptions of course, like a Bolt, but they are one-off wonders. Even in the 2008 Beijing Olympics if you take Bolt out of the equation, the remaining eight guys were very close to each other. So ultimately what it comes down to is that extra 1 percent.

“The quantum of efforts you are ready to put in and the hardship you are willing to endure finally creates a champion.”

nikhil saina
With Saina Nehwal

Where does this 1% come from?

You’ll be surprised to know. Though it depends on person to person, varies from sport to sport but sometimes it’s as simple as sleeping half an hour extra, everyday. Like when I went with Mary Kom for the London Olympics, I used to ensure that she slept for around 10 to 12 hours every day because that’s how hard her training was. Though her total training in a day was about two hours and a week from the Olympics it was just one hour and 10 minutes, the intensity was so high that in the cold of Liverpool, she used to lose about two litres of sweat in an hour! So, if you’re going to push and punish yourself that much, despite her ability, and she’s a phenomenal athlete — you still need to sleep well. So we had to put her under the microscope check her weight six times a day. What she ate, when she ate, how much she ate, how much water she drank, how many hours she slept…

nikhil mary kom
Training with Mary for the London Olympics in 2012

Mary Kom is a phenomenal athlete of course and has shattered so many limiting beliefs one may have regarding endurance. Is there a process that has worked for her?

I believe it begins with nature. But there is a process, because if you think Mary is defying age in boxing, Federer and Nadal are doing that in tennis and so is Serena Williams. I think the understanding of sports and understanding of the athletes about their own bodies is what makes the difference. So, Mary knows when she’s not feeling up to it. She won’t go and kill herself training because her body can’t recover that quickly anymore. She’s extremely self-aware of how much she can take in terms of training or how much rest she requires and that is what sets her apart. If we look at Federer, he won’t play all four slams in a year. Not anymore, because his body can’t take it. He can’t peak four times a year. Similarly, Mary picks and chooses when she trains, how she trains, how hard she works, which competitions she wants to aim for. The World Championships is definitely something that is on our radar so she may miss a couple of tournaments before that to make sure that she is at her peak at the World Championships. She’s not just an amazing athlete she’s a smart athlete as well. You need self-awareness and that is one of the traits that you see in athletes who have incredible longevity – they’re extremely self-aware. They understand when enough is enough and how much is too much. So they are able to manage their training, pay due attention to recovery and make sure that they are fresh every single training session because if they are unfit or have not rested enough going into a training session then you are inviting injury.

“You need self-awareness and that is one of the traits that you see in athletes who have incredible longevity - they're extremely self-aware.”

nikhil latey saina nehwal
After Saina's win at the India Open Super Series in Delhi, March 2015 when she became world no. 1

When does that self-awareness set in?

Good question. So, that’s among the two things we have not cracked yet. We don’t know where that self-awareness comes from because if you see the way Mary has trained, she has trained in a camp with 40 other girls. So how does she know more and the others don’t, that is always a question out there. The second thing we don’t know is where does the fire and the hunger come from. So, if you take a person and if they don’t have the fire inside it doesn’t matter how talented they are, their careers are going to be stunted.

nikhil latey gagan narang
With Gagan Narang

You mentioned peak performance. For how long can one maintain a peak?

Not for too long. So, for example, when your body is at 100 percent of its capacity (your capacity changes day by day by the way) so your capacity at 22 years will not be your capacity at 30. Age matters. When you are at your maximum capacity your body literally moves like poetry in motion. It is beautiful to watch. It’s smooth, it’s efficient, it’s fast, it’s accurate. But you can’t maintain that for too long. If you try and remain at 100 percent for a week or more you are inviting injuries because it takes a lot of mental and emotional effort to reach that level, getting to ninety-ninety two percent is fairly easy. If you’re train right, you can reach 90-92 percent of your capacity, but it’s the last 5-10 percent that matters.

“At the end of the day, if you want to win medals you ought to put your athlete under the microscope.”

What are some basic rules that might apply for training across-sports?

The basics are really simple to gauge. Are you drinking enough water? Are you sleeping enough? Is your nutrition ok? Are you getting enough protein in your diet? The reason being muscles are made of protein and you can’t build a wall without bricks. If you are having low protein in your diet, your recovery is affected, you end up going to training sessions tired and then you don’t train hard and your performance drops. So, Vitamin D becomes very important for muscle and bone development. Some good habits such as making sure that you warm up well, making sure you cool down well that you stretch regularly, you pay attention to strengthening are again basic tenets. Once these basics are in place then you start looking at the actual sport. There the first thing that comes into play is number of years of training, quality of training, ranking in terms of peers etc.

All smiles after an intense training in Pune for 2012 Olympics

Given the nature of your work and association with top performing athletes is there a formula to outperform or to be a Mary Kom?

Like I said, it is nature and nurture at the end of the day. Every person is different so what works for Mary will not work for a clone. It is extremely Individual-centric. At the end of the day, if you want to win medals you ought to put your athlete under the microscope. You have to watch everything, what they eat, when they eat, keep an eye on how their muscles are responding, how much rest they’re getting. It’s a constant dialogue between the coach, the physiotherapist, the sports scientist and the athlete.

nikhil latey

(This article is based on our conversation with Nikhil Latey, Sports Scientist at Sportsmed Activ. Nikhil is also among the top-rated physiotherapists and is the go-to-person for top performing Indian athletes when it comes to performance boosting and fitness from the likes of Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Gagan Narang. Click here to listen to the entire conversation of Nikhil Latey with Sunayana Nair.)