Thursday, 20 November 2014

Just keep swimming

Even as a child in 3rd grade, I could relate to Groucho Marx. Like the famous comedian, I, too, had no interest in belonging to any club that would have me as a member. So, when I was presented the opportunity to step into the children's 4 feet pool for the first time with my cousins I insisted to jump into the adult pool from the diving board. And I did. Of course I jumped almost on my uncle's head who, by the way, is an accomplished swimmer.

Since learning swimming that season I've swam just about every summer, and mostly by my own - away from trainers and hordes. I learned early on that water is your friend and you don't have to fight with it. Just get the hang of it and it'll help you move. While my cousins struggled with swimming faster, panting after every lap, I spent most of the swimming hour exploring deep corners of the pool underwater. Moving underwater is much more graceful and requires only a small fraction of the half in - half out posture. And once you get that, the pool feels like home and you can relish the play in spite of kicking more than footballers, flipping more than dancers and sweating more than runners.

To limit swimming to a sport would be seeing the world in one colour. It's a lifestyle and water is a whole different realm where you do whatever you like, individually, or with people. And it's surely more fun than walking in clothes. In fact floating in water is the closest humans get to flying. Now we have in-water theatres, sports clubs, restaurants and what not. And if you're at a beach, you're just a snorkel away from incredible aquatic life.

Of course knowing basic strokes helps - just like you've to be comfortable with reading to dwell well on the web. I've found watching instructional videos, observing experts swim and swimming slowly for long stretches to be immensely helpful in this regard and in increasing order - i.e. slow swimming helps the most. The advantage with slow swimming is that you can observe yourself, understand and correct your stroke & breathing, and your body can acclimatise with the stroke minimising water resistance. That's how water helps - by filling in. Don't be surprised when you find yourself going faster due to the grace developed with slow swimming. Once the head - torso - legs coordination is reached you'll find yourself a milestone closer to competent swimming but I'll get to that later. One important thing I understood quite late is that it's crucial to mind the head while swimming and this is often overlooked. Since the head comes foremost in the body-water contour it shouldn't jut out for looking or breathing, it's to be rolled or raised with the torso so that it doesn't impede your efforts towards streamlined flow. You might want to read this post for more detail on this.

Effortless swimming
It could be my tough luck with competitive swimming back then that got me into effortless swimming but over time it has helped me win. It basically means stress free swimming but it's called like that. The key is to breathe well while you swim, keep track - be mindful of the water, your body rhythm and ensure you're enjoying the swim which means reduce your speed when you're stressed. While practicing effortless swimming techniques I hit the most relaxing swimming experience ever which I call the spaceboat. It needs a kickboard and a sparsely populated pool - a private or a hotel pool should do it. All you need to do is shove the kickboard under your waist, throw back your hands, legs and head on the water surface, close your eyes and breathe easy. You can also look deep into the sky and feel the bliss. This gravity defying effortless spaceboat will be an out of body experience. You can thank me later.

the spaceboat
Even otherwise, effortless swimming can be a stress free, smooth and playful exercise which produces lean, toned muscles. Plus experiencing additional degrees of freedom with more control will let you explore numerous intuitive tricks while swimming.

Apart from pools, I also go to nearby lakes for long swims. To this day I feel the pit in my stomach seeing the darkness below, having no clue how deep the water is, or if there are are crocs or other animals lurking in the muddy ecosystem. And of course all lakes have had people die while swimming in them so I keep my eyes open extra wide. Sometimes I dare to go deeper to see how it's like but swarms of fishes rush out as I sink a few feet and I always rush my way back up. Nevertheless, and all this notwithstanding, the thrill is worth it and moreover the water is soft with no chlorine, there are no walls or lanes, and best of all there is no crowd to meddle with the experience or whatever you wanna do. I've at times found beautiful fishes and have observed the shoals from surface. And of course I have several underwater videos some of which I'll post sometime soon. Another thing is you can do all the diving you want after proofing a spot for depth and rocks. Almost every lake has plenty of cliffs at different heights which can be used as diving spots. The only precautions you should take while considering a lake outing are:
1. Check with locals if there are any predators or concerns with water or the place.
2. Have company of a couple of friends, just in case you need help with anything.

Then, whenever there's a beach vacation or something I spend as much time in the water as possible. I generally go slow swimming kilometres far into the sea. More often than not the water is rocking and opaque, and salty of course. So there's no vision of what's inside - after all the Jaws and Moby Dicks I've watched - or how deep the water is. And I must keep up to the surface to stay out of the undercurrent. What I'm suggesting is that the thrill deep sea swimming brings every moment is worth being made into so many films. Okay, I always keep looking back and make sure the shore is in sight so I don't lose direction.

Swimming, or water borne games and activities make for the best times with people too. Clearly, the fact that all elite parties have a pool side, all posh societies have pools and that almost everyone who stays the night at a hotel hits the pool reflect our affinity for water. Whether they know how to swim or not, everyone enjoys splashing in water. There are scores of games that make pools the perfect playgrounds but I'm fond of water polo in particular. To my knowledge it's an extremely strenuous game and one I love to both watch and play. Basic skills needed are if you can swim, swim with head up, tread water for a long time and be aggressive as well as calm while playing - a lot if you ask me.

Still it's one helluva game to follow, although not so recognised. I'm a fan of Hungary's water polo team and Zoltan Szecsi in particular. You should watch this video to see how it is and what's awesome about Zoltan.
Hun 8-7 MNE

Effortless swimming and friendship with water helps a lot with waterpolo. If you're a fellow beginner in waterpolo - here are a couple of easy steps.
1. Build stamina. Swim long distances in spurts of fast and slow.
2. Perfect the egg beater treading technique and swimming with head up.
3. Ball holding and throw techniques, game dynamics can be learnt on the fly.
And you're good to go!

Now, about strokes. Here is what I'd tell a beginner - short and crisp comments on each stroke. Before moving to strokes, however, make sure you've perfected the float. You must get you body conditioned to be horizontal in water and stay like that. Begin with strokes only then, it takes about 10 hours in water for the body to get the hang of it.
1. Free Style - Breathing is the key. Roll the head to breathe. Take it slow.
2. Breast Stroke - Master the glide. 
3. Back Stroke - Tilt your neck so you can watch. Kick in rhythm.
4. Butterfly Stroke - Watch the head. And the hip. Take it slow. 

You should devote a lot of time to floating and kicking (practice with a pad) as it helps build the head - torso - legs coordination needed in all strokes. There is plenty of video content on the web to help you with technique and I'd particularly suggest Jimmy D Shea's lessons from which I learnt the butterfly stroke. Once you think you've got the strokes right - start with long slow rounds, like marathons. Trust me, they come through and if not it's a feedback that something is wrong with the way you're moving. Keep trying though - you'll get it anyway. After you're confident with the long drills, start changing the stroke after every lap.

Should be easy - just two things:
1. Mind the head - shouldn't be jutting out, and enter the water at 45 degrees.
2. Be mindful. Imagine the hole you bore in the water surface as you enter and make it smaller every time.

Competitive Swimming
Once you perfect the strokes and can swim mindfully, you might want to compete. Competing is quite different from swimming as such and goes on more in the mind than with your body or skill. And it comes with considerable stress, the push to get better everyday, and ensuring consistency with sleeping, nutrition, exercise and temperament. You'd probably benefit from reading autobiographies of international swimmers and these quotes. Rest - get the best trainer in town and keep going. Never stop.

Here's a video shot after a 4 hour long swim. Will post more soon.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Frisbee anyone?

Two years ago I thought this is gonna be the next cool thing. And I've been waiting but Delhi just doesn't seem to pick up quite yet. Ultimate Frisbee is fairly popular in USA & UK and now even in Bangalore & Chennai but it's still winter in Delhi. When the fan company Usha organised the first Ultimate tournament at JLN stadium along with hosting the legendary Brodie Smith in 2012 I ordered my first Discraft product right away. However the best I could do was lugging it to team trips and playgrounds to play fetch in groups, given the unenviable job of convincing people to play a new game. 
That's how it is
Forget the game, just throwing and catching it in groups is such a stress buster. It's the free running behind the boundaryless flight of the disc that makes the catch count. I keep watching frisbee videos and would like Ultimate frisbee to gain wider audience in India. Look how cool it is in this video featuring a typical game. The best part about Ultimate is the spirit of the game. The game proceeds quickly and a lot is guided by understanding between players.
Ultimate Fribsee

It's like combining playing handball with not a falling ball but a flying frisbee and rugby without the mess. Of course many of you won't know how to play Ultimate or even throw a Discraft frisbee. And so comes the second factor why it's one of the fastest growing sport. There are no pre-requisites. Just watch these two videos and you should be game:
1. Ultimate - basics, rules
2. Ultimate - shots, skills

That's about Ultimate. Apart from frisbee, I want to fascinate you with another flystuff - this is called the Aerobie Astonishing Flying Ring. It looks like this:
You'd want to test it too

It's a perfect combination of material properties of rubber and aerodynamic principles to produce the longest flight by a thrown object. It was made by Alan Adler - a Stanford mechanical engineering professor with the insight to create flight using human hands. This video says it all.
The Ring Challenge
The ring is a perfect thing to carry to countryside or to a casual run but you'd want to throw it in a large open field with no trees.

While Discraft products are still not available in India, Aerobie rings and other products can be ordered from Fairy Rose International in Hyderabad. Fortunately for both of my Discraft fribees (I own an ultrastar and a putter) I found friends in US who could post the products to my address. Nonetheless, all this gets done, you'll find a way too.

So, I wrote this post to simplify Ultimate frisbee and have necessary information in one place. Let me know in comments if I've missed out on anything. I'll update this section with videos on throwing and more fun and also if I get updates on any fixtures in Delhi.

Smash hard but stay calm

Back in the day all children played either Cricket or Badminton, at least in the town where I come from. And since I was always the first to enter the play field near my house and the last one to leave we played Badminton whenever there was dearth of people or place to play Cricket. This was the scene more or less everywhere in North India and Badminton had (at least) as much reach as cricket - considering that women, office workers and oldies preferred it as their first choice. I grew out of Cricket relatively soon and so Badminton is the game that has stayed with me since childhood.

Just like ping pong it's a safe social game that can be played across age, gender and cultural differences. Plus it needs minimal equipment & ground area and yet can offer deep tactical, agile, energetic engagement when played with discipline. So I've remained a fan of the sport and sportspeople.

China and Malaysia dominate the international rankings in men's Badminton and funnily China's got Chen Long in Badi like Ma Long in ping pong. Although Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei has the crown, China has a more formidable presence in world rankings. Here's a steaming match between the world's top two.

LCW's cool

I somehow like women's Badminton more than men's. And I'm a huge fan of Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon. Currently she's at WR 7 while China's Li Xuerui leads the race. In Intanon I see the same human pursuit that I see in Rafa Nadal, and moreover she's the youngest world champion ever. Here's one of my favourite matches - the 2013 match in which Intanon defeated Li Xuerui.

Ratchanok against the mighty Li

Now I've learnt a lot playing Badminton. The most important things are balance, patience, mindfulness and consistency. Lose the point but not the mind, and wait for the moment. Many beginners do it all wrong trying to hit hard and low - the same shot - all the time. Thinking of which I feel I've a lot to cover too, and I'll keep this section updated with how i do.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Ping Pong

My first employment came with two praiseworthy perks. One, the firm offered free membership to the nearby Gold's gym where I could go and spend time bathing, enjoying free sauna and exercising (if I would) for as long as I wanted. And two, the office had stimulating ping pong culture with two tables where everybody played at least twice everyday. Given my supervisory role to administer instructions to different teams and collaborate with clients sitting abroad I had immense flexibility and time to capitalise on both of these gifts. Almost everyday, I'd go the gym to cool off and read a book for about an hour. And of course play table tennis for an hour or two with whoever was up there.

So I've played ping pong almost everyday - well five days a week at office and then we went to the club on weekends - for over two years and over time not only have I learnt the game and realised the fun in it, I have gained a handle on numerous tricks, advantages and temperament hacks which I want to cover in this post.

For starters, ping pong is the best indoor game that can be played in a room. The game's got everything - agility, mental alertness, tactic, safety and strength. It's a lifetime sport which can be played all year long across ages and cultures particularly because it's still a light sport. I was amazed to watch handicapped people with various disabilities play the game just fine.

Although China dominates the sport in the international scene and the levels at which players like Ma Long play have to be seen to be believed, yet I follow with great pride the only Indian in the world's top 100 - Achanta Sharath Kamal who's always put a great show against the best of the best.

Here's a representative video from the ITTF channel which you can subscribe to stay updated and watch great games as they come:

2013 best shots

And if you're a fellow learner here's what I've found useful in my stride towards a better game:
1. The easiest way to respond to a serve or a shot is to replicate how it has been created i.e. just try and imitate the racket swing and speed of the opponent if you don't understand a particular serve or shot. In the process you'll get it anyway.
2. If your opponent is like very strong, best to stick to slow, short and low serve. If the opponent is more or less average, vertical chop spin serve could be your jackhammer. I'll post videos of these sometime soon.
3. Make sure you're not playing too close to the table. You can always dive in for short feeds but going back to cover those edge shots is difficult.
4. Try to follow the opponents hand and the ball - be there before the ball arrives and try to play the ball with complete swing rather than just blocking it like a wall. This might make you slow in the beginning but pays huge dividends with time. Watch established players to learn the swing.
5. Play with endurance. Don't try hard to cut corners and somehow score the point. Instead have a great rally, play complete graceful shots and enjoy the game.
6. Tactic, Consistency and Patience are key to ping pong. It's like high speed chess.
7. Make sure you have the right posture (leaning in with legs slightly bent) and maintain your balance as much as you can.

Finally, watch the kings play the game in reputed places and on youtube. Read this book if you have the time. 


Skating is fun. It's a basic movement just like running, swimming or driving i.e. if you don't know how to skate you'd be missing on a fundamental skill. If you know it, however, you can easily start with a skateboard and even ski.

Skating - in particular ice skating, although not so popular here in India, has a huge following worldwide because it's so much pleasure to both watch as well as do. And if you'd like some lucky accidents with girls - a disco skating club might be your spot.

I could never quite learn to skate - it's been like find a spare pair of skates for a couple of hours and take what you can get situation most of the time - so I've skated a couple of times. But I happen to be amazing at it. I zig and zag my way through at least 20 crashes in the first ten minutes and for the remaining hours I'm able to match up with the best skater on the rink with just a couple of more falls - steep learning you'd say if you see me sometime. I think all it takes is those 20 crashes if you know what I mean - now you could give em to yourself in 10 minutes or a month depending on your qualms with falling on your face. And I speak with experience with all skates as well as skateboards (including the two wheel skateboards).

By the way, if you haven't experienced a two wheel skate board yet - here's a demo

A 2 wheel skateboard
It's really cool - and much better than the usual 4 wheels because you don't have to push the ground for momentum. On a two wheel flexible board you can get up to speed like a fish by making waves with your back foot. Balancing is easier too because it's more intuitive and has more degrees of freedom as compared to a 4 wheeler. However, you can't really do the tricks possible with a conventional board so there's the trade off. I'd probably keep a two wheeler for indoors and a basic one for the road.
There's also news about an impressive electric one wheel skateboard to hit the market soon. Check out the concept demo. You'll be amazed.

Revolutionary One Wheel Skateboard

Skating is mostly a safe sport if you're not up to extreme stuff and once you're onto it the only thing you need to be cautious about is colliding with other skaters on the rink. Otherwise it's more or less like running (gliding actually) on ice.

To follow the sport and events you can go to blogs like this one or read more. Or if you'd like to learn this post's got the names you'll need.

For starters you can just buy a basic pair of roller skates and go to a nearby rink. Mostly you should find one in the city stadium along with hordes of skating enthusiasts and teachers to keep you company. Knowing a friend who skates can be superb.

Will update this post later with some skating recording I've made. Please comment if you've any feedback for me.

Just a decent boy playing football

You can get an idea of how much I love playing football by the fact that I always show up wherever there's play in spite of not knowing how to even dribble right in a game. Given that I'm good at running and several other sports you'd be amused to see what happens when the ball comes my way.
Dunno what happens when the ball comes to me - I just lose it
And nonetheless I've been part of at least three proper teams and have played about 50 proper matches.

The reason is of course, football - the game and the feel of the play. It is without doubt the game I'd choose if I could play only one game in my life.

The foremost thing is that it's naturally beautiful, just like life. And it shows how much life can be pulled off in a playground with a ball. Eduardo Galeano's almost got the right words in the following quote:
"The ball laughs, radiant, in the air. He brings her down, puts her to sleep, showers her with compliments, dances with her, and seeing such things never before seen his admirers pity their unborn grandchildren who will never see them."
The other thing is the wholesomeness of the sport - how it stimulates everything - skill, strength, focus, character, discipline, compassion and togetherness all at the same time. Every ninety minutes on the field is extreme engagement by everyone at play and engagement with everyone on the team. That's what makes it the complete sport.

Since there is a strong team culture in the game, it extends to fans as well, and so most fans support particular players and the clubs they play for. My fancies for the game inspire me to follow FC Barcelona because of their closely knit game. The other reason why I root for FCB is that every footballer who's inspired me so far has played for Barca - be it Johan Cruyff, Ronaldinho, the old Ronaldo, Messi or Maradona. So Barca it is.

Here are a couple of videos I keep watching

Ronaldinho - tricks

Lionel Messi is god

Over time I've realised my play has improved. And something that's really contributed is that I took a friend's advice to get a ball and keep loving it which basically means keep hitting it against a wall at home. Works wonders I tell you.

Other things that help at my level is playing FIFA (the video game) and watching and playing a many games as I can.

So for the coming weekends whenever there'll be a choice - I'd rather be playing football.

Lawn Tennis

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that college is the greatest gift for town boys like me when it comes to learning the breadth of making most of time. I started playing LT in my graduation year with my best friend who'd graduated an year before. Although the first couple of months were like uphill it's been an absolute pleasure ever since. I've started following the sport, watching videos and going to a nearby club on weekends since I'm out of college. Over time I've become better and though I'm still learning, you can count me in for a decent game anytime.

I play with a Head L4 630sqcm/98sqin racquet which can be recommended for beginners. If you're a beginner and still got some fire here's some dilettante advice

1. Get a trainer so you can get the foremost parts correct. These are:
  • Basics - Posture, Swing, Racquet grip, primary manoeuvres and exercises.
  • Temperament - The understanding of following the ball and the opponent's racquet and getting in position before the ball arrives. Technique, Patience and Consistency are key to the sport.
2. Find a place nearby where you can play independently and also get a friend who plays. Helps big time.
3. Learn from the best - watch instructional and match videos over the web to supplement your understanding.

To keep the sport alive in my getting faster, busier and messier life I plan to keep a journal of all I learn, follow and do with the game. This section hopefully, will keep humming with tennis videos, my recordings, and updates about players like Serena Williams and Rafa Nadal. Let's see.

I like Rafa and Serena for the vigour they play with. For instance the shouts they let out with the shots make the battle real for me. 

All in for Nadal


BTW Nadal will be back in play only in January after his appendix heals up and Serena is already World No 1 after the recent WTA win.
Keep me posted with feedback and comments. I'll be back