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For two days, Mike Horn, high altitude climber and Arctic explorer, offered the Indians some unique insights into the do-or-die mindset
February 19, 2011
What do you do when a team of eleven men are about to face the toughest challenge of their career and a mountain of expectation? If you are the Indian coaching brain trust of Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton, you get help from an unusual expert. For two days, Mike Horn, high altitude climber and Arctic explorer, offered the Indians some unique insights into the do-or-die mindset.
Harbhajan Singh's first question for Horn: just how does a man scale a mountain 8000 metres high without additional oxygen and come back alive?
Last July, Horn, an extreme athlete, climbed Broad Peak (8047 metres above sea level, on the border of China and Pakistan) on a Himalayan expedition. "[I wondered] how he could cope with such extremities," Harbhajan says, pausing midway into his dinner. "Horn recalled how over 8000 metres the oxygen was minimal and he struggled to breathe. It took him 35 hours to climb up, but 56 to climb down, all without eating or drinking. He says when atop the mountain your mind doesn't work as the brain cells are hardly functioning due to the lack of oxygen. He knew he couldn't sit down or even stop because if he did, he would have frozen to death.
"These kinds of stories are mind boggling," Harbhajan says, shaking his head.
Horn dropped in at Bangalore for a two-day consultation with the Indian team during their World Cup preparatory camp last week. Despite being dressed in the same red-coloured t-shirt as the team's coaching staff, he stood out in his denims and moccasins, with a wiry physique and skin that looks more weather-beaten than tanned - a testament to the different terrains the 45-year-old had traversed in his years as an adventurer-cum-explorer. As the players went through various drills, Horn kept his distance, observing the Indians keenly while enthusiastically fetching the balls hit to various corners. That was on the first day. On the second day, he sat on the ice-boxes and had some private words with various players individually. It had not taken him much time to become one of them.
This was the second time that Horn, who studied with Upton, India's mental conditioning coach, in South Africa, had come down to share his experiences with the team. In 2010, two days before India faced South Africa at Eden Gardens, having already lost the first Test, Horn arrived into Kolkata sailing from Port Blair in the Andamans, where he was involved in an environmental project. Upton took advantage of his proximity and invited him to speak to the team. "He arrived at 5pm and spoke to the guys at 7pm," one of the team members says. It was just a two-hour chat in which Horn shared his personal stories of various expeditions, every one of which may seem impossible to a normal human.
In one of his first major forays, in 1997, he navigated the 7000 km of the Amazon river using a hydrospeed (human floatation device), hunting for food to survive and resting along the dangerous riverbanks at night. Two years later, he circumnavigated the globe around the equator by foot, bicycle and canoe, a journey that included scaling the Andes mountains and crossing the Pacific and Indian oceans. On his final leg, he walked through the drug zones in Congo and Gabon before returning to his starting point, one that he called Latitude Zero, after an 18-month journey.
In 2002, using a boat, kayak, ski-kite and later on foot he became the first human to traverse the Arctic Circle without the use of motorised transport. In 2006, Horn, along with Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland, walked, pulled sleds, and swam in the freezing Arctic ccean to become the first men to travel to the North Pole unaided by dogs or motorised transport.
Clearly this is a man who has triumphed in the face of some of the greatest challenges to human endurance. In Kolkata, the Indian players were stunned to hear Horn tell them how he had accomplished some of those remarkable feats. Five days later, a resurgent India had bounced back to snatch a back-to-the-wall victory to level the series. Horn, however, feels he did not do anything special to spur the Indians and states that it was Gary Kirsten and the players who actually worked hard to achieve success. "What can I really do? I might be able to give them a small taste of my thought process in critical moments."
Horn has also shared his insights with the South African rugby team, some European soccer teams, the French sailing team and was invited by the ICC's umpires' and referees' manager Vince van der Bijl, to speak to the umpires as part of a motivational exercise. To everyone, his message is simple: "I cannot afford to lose. There is no second innings for me in my job. Patience is not one of my greatest strengths, but when in the mountains it is important to stick to the rules otherwise Nature will not reward us with this magnificent victory."
On both occasions on which Horn spoke to the Indian team, he was not paid. What matters to him is that his message is understood. "That passion that drives you to go beyond what you know to be able to progress as a human, to start when all others stop. My role is to be an example to myself and others."
It is easy to see that for a crucial tournament like the World Cup, both Kirsten and Upton wanted to remove any lingering doubts from the minds of the Indian players. According to the players, Horn's biggest strength is his will. It is the strength of the will that at times makes an athlete achieve incredible things and Horn was the right man to deliver that message. "The fear to lose," Horn says, is the single biggest fear sportsmen have. "How can you win if you afraid of losing? It is only when your will to win is bigger than your fear to lose that you can win. This is the most important aspect that differentiates sport stars. Some play to win and some play because they are afraid of losing. This is no different to what people fear in their daily life."
According to Horn, a player cannot rely on outside opinion to make himself feel strong and confident. "If people think you are strong and confident, and you are not, there is a big problem. To be honest to yourself and your preparation is the key to success."
It is easy to see how people are drawn to him. Yuvraj Singh, who was not there in Kolkata, was wondering who Horn was when the South African wandered around the dressing room on the first day of training in Bangalore. Hours later, Yuvraj, having heard Horn, was affected by his "impossible" feats. "He makes the impossible things look possible," says another senior Indian team member.
|How can you win if you afraid of losing? It is only when your will to win is bigger than your fear to lose that you can win. This is the most important aspect that differentiates sport stars. Some play to win and some play because they are afraid of losing|
Harbhajan, for one, is completely in awe of Horn, who he says is a "real-life hero". He says there was a lot to learn from Horn's feat of climbing the Broad Peak. "He says most of the people who go to those places don't come back. Once you reach a peak, dying is very easy but not to give up is really difficult. A lot of people reach the top and feel this is what I wanted to achieve. But most don't know how to come back once you reach the top," Harbhajan says while asking for jalebis for dessert. "When you hear something like that, then whatever you think in your mind can be achieved. No one can stop you, no one can do anything if you are fresh in the mind and your thinking is clear and if you are only thinking of only success and not even thinking failure."
When asked how he could translate Horn's stories to the cricket field, Harbhajan says, "You have to prepare yourself. That was the message Horn was passing. You can't just hold a ball when you are not even there mentally and instead are getting worried about the results. He says it was important to remove the excess baggage. Yeh, woh (This and that), expectations, crowds, pressure are excess baggage we carry on our shoulders."
During his chats in Bangalore, Horn pointed out an important fact to the players. He says, "I saw all of you in the nets. You were enjoying practising, but what happens suddenly in a match situation: people get tight, people feel nervous, people feel pressure. Why? Because your mind is thinking too many things."
"Actually he is right," Harbhajan says. "The mind is thinking yahan na marde woh shot, idhar cut mar de ga, woh fielder idhar hai kya (what if he hits here, he will cut there, is that fielder there in the right position). Rather than concentrating on what you are going to bowl we think what if this happens, what if....we are thinking the result before you ever deliver the ball."
Horn does not want to talk about what he says to individual players, but agrees to Harbhajan's point about preparation. "That could be one thing that he got out of the couple of talks we had. But knowing how to mix the ingredients to bake the cake of success is what he knows now."
Horn has little doubt that India are in pole position to win the tournament: "Gary and his team did an amazing job preparing the individual players and the team. India has never been so well prepared, since the last time I spoke to them in Kolkata to today there is a day and night difference to the better in all aspects."
So can India win it? "That question I will answer not if India wins the World Cup, but when they win the 2011 World Cup."
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