Being hailed as the face of a sport by a country is a privilege that follows tremendous effort and successful feats. In this regard, Sharath Kamal Achanta is undoubtedly the most popular name in the sport of Table Tennis in India. In a career spanning 16 years, he has won over 60 international medals, of which 9 are Commonwealth Games medals and 2 Asian Games. He has won the National Championship a record-breaking 9 times and represented India in 3 Olympic Games – 2004, 2008 and 2016. And while his early successes resulted in the Arjuna Award in 2004, his contribution to the field of Table Tennis was recognised in 2019 when the Government of India conferred him with the Padma Shri award. You can read his full (and very accomplished!) bio here
Interview with Sharath Kamal Achanta
What challenges did you face, in getting to where you are today?
At different stages in my career, I have faced different challenges. As a school kid, juggling studies and playing sport was difficult for me but I had some good support from my school and from my parents due to which I was able to balance both my education and sport.
I decided to become a professional table tennis player at the age of 15 where after a couple of years, I needed financial support to improve my game, buy better equipment and spend for participating in tournaments.
Once I became the best in the country, I had to move to Europe to improve internationally by becoming a part of the European circuit. I didn’t know where to go in Europe, which club would suit me, which coach would help me improve. For a lot of years my career graph kept going high but then as every sports person’s career would hit a low, mine got to the lowest of lows. I had to collect myself from that failure and start again from the fundamentals. All through these struggles, it’s the perseverance which get your through difficult times. Every time you face a challenge try to work beyond it.
What drives you to get up in the morning and go training every day?
The passion for the sport – I’ve loved spending time at the table ever since I was 8 years old. Still remember waking up my dad at 6 in the morning to go for practice and some things don’t change.
How does being an athlete make you a better person?
Thanks to sport, I have developed some attributes like being dedicated, determined, disciplined, keen focus and concentration, better time management. And above all of this I have learnt how to handle success and failures, how to get up stronger from every failure and how to keep my head over my shoulders from success.
What do you give up to play sports?
I had to sacrifice a lot of things in the life to get this high in my career, it’s just not me who sacrificed but even my family who had to go through a tough time to help me reach here. As a school and college kid, I missed out on hanging out with friends, spent a lot of time in the training hall, competitions and travelling. With extensive travelling, I missed out on spending time with family, eating my favourite food cooked by my mom or wife. But all of this for just one strong reason in my mind, was to see the Indian flag saying high in the sport of table tennis.
What mental tool do you use under pressure?
All of us go through pressure situations before and during the matches but then the winner is always the one who is able to hold on to his nerves and deliver the results. For me, I have always kept myself mentally aggressive to do my best under pressure as there is a difference between " I want to win" and " I don’t want to lose". Both mean the same but one gives you an aggressive and positive mindset while the other is defensive and negative mindset.
What is your mantra?
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
If you could play another sport, what would it be ?
I have spent 14 years living in Europe, so football is something closely follow and play a little bit too. I like to play other sports – during school days – I played cricket, volleyball and basketball. Now I play football, squash and badminton but table tennis is the only sport which I always wanted to play professionally.
What expectations do you have of a coach?
My coach is my motivator, analyzer, leader and most of all my complete trust is on him as he is trying to make me the best.
What do you do to calm your butterflies when you compete?
Even after 30 years of playing competitive table tennis, butterflies still create havoc in my stomach. Over the years I have learnt to accept the feeling – that stress before matches. I continue to focus on the job on hand. Instead of trying to evade the thought of the butterflies feeling, it’s easier for me to accept the fact that I am stressed at this moment and focus on how I can solve it.
What one word or phrase do you want people to associate with your name?
The Pioneer for taking Indian table tennis to great heights.
What kind of philanthropic work are you involved in, if any?
I had a project running for almost 3 years where we donated 2 tables to a school run by a trust and we taught table tennis to those kids from the school. I hope by playing sport those kids would develop some attributes which sports teaches everyone in life and if they really try hard, they could even make a living from the sport.
What’s on your iPod right now? (What music genres and which artists do you enjoy listening to before a match?)
In English, I love classic rock music, from ACDC to U2, in Tamil , I am a big fan of Illayaraja and AR Rehman.
Why do you think everyone should play a sport?
Sport should be a way of life which keeps one physically and mentally fit. The attributes one learns from sport helps in professional life too.
What do you do to keep fit ? Nutrition?
Fitness is one of the most important factors for a sportsperson to improve their levels. These days everyone is focusing so much on fitness, trying to be fit that if we are not able to keep up with our fitness, it’s really difficult to compete and win. The longevity of my career is solely due to my fitness which has made me one of the best players from India over 18 years.
How do you incorporate mindfulness practices into sports
Mindfulness is can be trained a lot from yoga and meditation but personally for me the best mindfulness practice is in the training sessions of sport where once we enter the stadium, we need to switch on the focus for mindfulness. As in sport we are constantly in action, so it’s very important to keep the mindfulness through our motions. We cant be thinking of how was school or college today during practice. We need to try and concentrate on that particular practice.