Sathiyan Gnanasekaran has kept a steely focus on the Tokyo Olympics despite the noise and uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic and feels currently it is not about "competing but improving yourself as an athlete".
Sathiyan has grown leaps and bounds in the last couple of years, making him one of the big names in the world of table tennis. He is not only one of the most known athletes in India now, but has even had a competitive edge against some of the best athletes of the world. Currently ranked 32, he was just a step away from making the cut to the Tokyo Games when the pandemic struck and everything shut down.
However, he told himself that thinking about it was not going to serve any purpose and he chose to have a positive outlook.
"I have been improving every year so if I think of it in a positive way, I will probably be playing better next year. I may have a better chance at the Olympics if it's held next year. As a player I think I will be much more experienced so I see it in a positive way that I would probably be at my peak," Sathiyan Gnansekaran said exclusively to News18.com.
He has set a routine for himself because he finds it important to stay motivated. He sets for himself weekly plans and gauges his progress, along with the coaches, in order to keep monitoring his personal growth. Sathiyan has a robot at home and while initially the 27-year-old was very excited to practice with it, the practice soon got monotonous.
"There comes a point where you can't play with each other so that human feeling is definitely missing. It is technical-based, I have played on a big level so it becomes challenging for me to make it challenging," Sathiyan explained.
He thus has a schedule where he puts himself to test with certain skills throughout the week and then gauges how he has improved against the robot on a weekly basis.
"I do this to gauge clear-cut improvement in my game. I share the data with my coach and physical conditioning coach and they see my videos for any technical corrections or for any issue that must be corrected and give me suggestions."
Sathiyan is not thinking long-term and explains his method with a push-up example. "In my weekly plan, for example I have to do 35 push ups, then I want to improve by at least one or two the next week."
A view of what Sathiyan's weekly plans roughly look like:
7.15AM-8.15AM: Fitness 8.30AM-9.30AM: Yoga Breakfast 11.30AM-12.30PM: Service practice Movie time with mother 6.30PM-8.30PM: Skill practice with robot
Fitness routine includes strength, agility, balance and stability on different days.
With the robot, the skills worked upon are receiving, first ball attack, speed endurance with targets to hit certain number of good shots and improve every week.
WHAT LOCKDOWN HAS MEANT FOR SATHIYAN
Sathiyan says, as a sportsperson, it is a luxury to be able to spend time at home and so, being with him mom and watching movies with her has been making him happy. Home-cooked food has been the highlight of the lockdown for him.
"My mom and I talk a lot on topics ranging from politics to sport, everything. I think it's fun. We watch a lot of movies together which I really love, she is more of a movie buff than I am so we watch lot of movies," Sathiyan shares.
During the three months at home, Sathiyan has picked up a bit of gardening but yoga is the main attribute he has added to his repertoire.
"I am doing yoga, which is a new thing and I started just before lockdown. To keep yourself calm and more self aware, it's great.
"Sitting in one place for 15- 20 minutes is a very difficult thing. I thought it was going to be easy but I realised it was really hard; now I am able to sit down and relax for 20 minutes, which gives me a better sense of self awareness. I have been trying not to deviate so much from my routine so I am sticking to table tennis and fitness so that my focus stays and I can go back and start playing," Sathiyan stated.
The lockdown has also seen the Chennai player take to social media a lot more. Sathiyan shares that he has always been an interactive person but usually the demand of the sport makes it hard.
"I didn't know when in my life I will get so much time again, probably after my retirement, so I thought I should use this time to answer a whole bunch of questions people have been asking from me."
Sathiyan said if even one person gets inspired by his story and pick up the sport of table tennis, it will be a bigger success for him.
Sathiyan, however, also admitted that his social media activity was also about brand building. "The idea was also obviously on the branding side to improve your brand image as an athlete which will help the sport to grow bigger and myself as well. It is a win-win situation for everyone."
He then stated that he has made sure though that his performance contributes to his social media and not the other way around. "Your performance goes up, your social media engagement automatically goes up as well. That's something which is key and the focus shouldn't go to social media."
TABLE TENNIS ENTERS THE NEW NORMAL
Sathiyan and other Indian table tennis players refused to be a part of a national camp after the lockdown 4.0 was put in place, which allowed sports stadiums and complexes to open for practice.
Sathiyan said when asked by Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) about the possibility of a camp, he flagged travelling as the prime issue.
"My point was people first have to be permitted to practice in the own cities. I was not permitted in Chennai in a place that is 10 minutes from my house, it hadn't opened up and I was like 'what centre are you talking about in Patiala when things haven't opened up anywhere', it was practically impossible.
"There are no flights going out so there were a lot of practical issues and it was also not safe travelling, so we told them to wait for a couple of months. TTFI readily agreed and they said they would look for some time around August or September when things get better and then we can have a camp."
As table tennis players, Sathiyan said they are most apprehensive about the contact with the ball. "You can't wear gloves while playing, you can't wear masks while playing, the ball will be the point of contact."
Sathiyan said that is one aspect that will have to be carefully managed. He feels there will have to be a mechanism in place where both players have separate sets of balls.
Another fear that the players have is the number of participants. "You should see the number of participants coming in national and international events, so how are you going to manage that? Everyone stays in different hotels and lots of people mean lots of games, the dressing room, the changing room, all these have to be managed and we should see how things go on."
International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has intimated the players that no doubles will be played this year at least and the Chennai paddler welcomes the decision. He says despite the testing, social distancing is still being encouraged. He explained that in singles, the players, coaches and umpires are all far apart while that is not the case in doubles. However, he also said that with mixed doubles a part of the Olympics, ITTF will have to find solutions for the qualification.
"If there are no doubles, they have to chalk out of a plan of the qualification system or that they'll keep a separate month for mixed doubles. These are technical issues that have to be dealt with but this is a good decision with so many people involved.
"We should start slowly, we shouldn't let loose at once and God forbid if something happens, like it happened for Djokovic, it's going to be really messed up."
Sathiyan admitted that no one is going to feel completely safe till there's a vaccine for coronavirus but also said that they will have to adapt to the new normal - no hugging and no shaking hands. He felt people will always harbour some fear which is also good because that will enable everyone to be responsible.
Like various other sports that have begun or are beginning without the audience, table tennis will have to deal with empty stadiums as well whenever the sport resumes. Sathiyan, who feeds off the stadium energy, says he is going to miss the fans a lot.
"It pumps you up as well when you're having a bad day, the crowd support. I really love playing for or against the home crowd, I love it even when the opponent is being cheered. I hope this is not going to be for long."
Sathiyan hoped his first Olympic experience will not be one with an empty stadium.
'MISSION 2.0' - THE OLYMPIC FOCUS
Sathiyan has not let the postponement of the mega event get to him and has in fact, adapted pretty quickly to the new situation and ways around it. The paddler said he was "in match mode before" and now he has gone into "training mode".
"I don't want to waste this year and be the same Sathiyan next year, I want to be better when I go to Olympics 2021 so I am in a better place to do well."
Sathiyan has chalked out plans on the new skills he should be working on and the areas where he will be focussing in order to have more impact on his opponents.
He also said the one good thing about the pandemic has been his signing with a Japanese club, which will now see him spend a lot of his preparation time in Japan itself.
"From September to March, of course not continuously, but I will training pretty much with the top players in Japan and playing high quality matches, have that atmosphere; that will be a very good preparation for the Olympics."
Sathiyan said his focus remains physical fitness and meditation, which he feels will help him take on big opponents.
"That feeling of being in the big league and not idiolising someone like a Ma Long and start treating them as opponents, is important."
(Photo Credit: @sathiyantt)
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Sathiyan, along with Sharath Kamal and Neha Agarwal, recently gave financial assistance to a number of lower-rung players and coaches amid these difficult times. Sathiyan says as someone who has received a lot from table tennis, it is his responsibility to give back to the sport and its people.
Sathiyan shared that even before this initiative, he and his friend Prabhakaran helped around 10 coaches in Tamil Nadu. He said a group of people on WhatsApp contributed to a player's account, where they ended up accumulating about Rs 75,000, which they then distributed to the 10 coaches.
"We could see people from state tournaments that were out of salaries. Most of these people were coaching in schools, collecting like Rs 1000 from 10 people and then you have zero rupees straightaway and you have a family with two children, imagine that's so hard."
Sathiyan said sports is often misunderstood for just a co-curricular activity even though people's livelihoods are dependent on it and with everything shut down, it has become very difficult for some people to get by with their day-to-day needs.
"This is the least we can do. Table tennis has been on the rise and has been doing so well in the last few years, we as a community, don't want the pandemic to halt the progress and for people to quit the sport and go to other professions. We are privileged to be getting full salaries while people are severely affected, so this is a responsibility."