Wave Makers: Bowling Champion – Swapna Mitra, PGP 1999

A lot of us would have played a game of bowling some time in life as a part of recreation activity perhaps. Swapna Mitra started out the same way, little did she know the game would trigger her way into the sport, taking her on a different path altogether. Swapna has won the Bronze medal in the Commonwealth Tenpin Bowling Championship 2011, represented India at Asian Games and won various tournaments on national and state levels. Starting with the win in 2011, India has won 6 medals over the last ten years, getting better over the years.

We had an opportunity to interview Swapna and know more about her journey into the sport.

How did you get into bowling? Any role models?

Swapna Mitra

Honestly, till just before I started playing the game, all I knew about bowling was ‘just something played at an alley’. How I got into it, is pretty much actually thanks to my work life, which, in turn, should be thanks to IIMB! 😊

It started when I joined some colleagues at a bowling alley in Chennai near work. I was initially diffident as the little I had played before had the ball going into the gutter most of the time! But then one colleague got a lane marshal to show me the ropes, and that pretty much triggered my journey into the sport. The same colleague and I soon won an intercorporate doubles event. This got the state association’s attention, and they invited us to a short term training camp. Following that, I began playing the local and national leagues and championships and began to get a little better and better.

Then I changed jobs and moved to Bangalore, and, admittedly, bowling took a back seat while I tried to settle into the new life. But destiny brought me back on track – I bumped into a player while walking somewhere, and she suggested I drop by during the national championship the following week. The Karnataka State Tenpin Bowling Association then invited me to join their team and training program. Their rigorous program meant I went for training after work regularly and that really pushed my game up another level, pushing me into the top 3 among women bowlers.

I can’t say there were any particular role models to follow, but of course, it was a goal and a pleasure to play alongside people who were big in the sport at the time. To be able to find myself to play in their league was a really big impetus for me. Another big factor was the focus shown by the state and national association in nurturing the players.

From Left to Right: Akash Marlecha, Swapna Mitra, Prathima Hedge, Shabbir Dhankot with their Coach

You have represented the country at the Commonwealth Tenpin Bowling Championship and Asian games and also won a Bronze Medal. Can you tell us something about your experiences and share some of your key takeaways.

The experience at Asian Games was surreal. To walk amidst the globe’s best athletes and to live in the same building as the country’s top sportsmen was an experience beyond words.

We won a team Bronze medal at the 2011 Commonwealth Tenpin Bowling Championship, in the Team of Four event – medal win apart, it was the really unique way the team jelled that day that is truly memorable for me. Let me try and narrate this story, for I do believe this epitomizes teamwork and the joy of playing a sport.

The Team of Four event was the final and most prestigious event in the Championship, and in a way, was to be last major event for the bowling calendar before the next season began. Our performance in the events prior to this one was ok, but there were no results or upsets to talk about till then. So the gang was keen to give it one big go and were probably a bit of a bundle of nerves.

Suddenly, one of our teammates, the youngest, in fact, decided to throw ‘formality’ to the wind and lightened the entire mood with a great mock rendition of the speech ‘Woh Sattar Minute’ from the movie ‘Chak De India’. To ensure context, he even changed ‘Woh Sattar Minute’ to ‘Woh six games’, six being the number of games we were to play in the event. This helped lighten the mood immensely and released tension while adding a lot to the camaraderie, as we set about starting our campaign.

We started steadily with our first two games, staying as per ‘expectations’ in fifth place. But our young cheerleader kept at it, making sure we were upbeat and keeping others upbeat. Our third game turned out to be the gamechanger, with all of us taking off and posting high scores, propelling us to the third spot at the midway point. All eyes turned to watch us as if to see if we could sustain this, for right behind us were stronger teams in Australia and England.

But we were in our rhythm too, and we all stayed on point to retain our spot till the final game. The final game was a pressure cooker, and Australia was breathing down our necks. It came down to the final frame for all of us. I did the best I could too, though to this date I wish I played a better one in the last roll and knocked down more pins. It left our young cheerleader the task of maximizing as much as he could, as he was the last player in the game. And, boy, did he come up and deliver – he scored a strike on his first roll which conclusively shut the door upon our chasers and assured us our medal.

Our teammates behind us screamed in joy, frankly, the entire audience cheered for us. At that time, we all knew that we had achieved one major goal we had when we embarked upon the rigorous bowling season – to win a medal for the country and entrench India on the bowling map. It was the first time in nine years that India had won a medal at an international event.

While the medal win is obviously the big takeaway, one really important thing I remember was that, while there may have been some luck that all four of us were able to go beyond our averages together on that day, it is an indisputable fact that a motley group of 4 people across age groups and backgrounds came together and experienced a certain high in teamwork. And I personally still hold that young (now not so young, 8 years on!) cheerleader very responsible for being such a wonderful trigger!

It was almost a lesson in management of sorts!

Miz Team Winner’s Podium

What are a couple of important life lessons that you learned from being a sports person?

  1. Discipline and work ethic. You may have the talent but without the work ethic, it is very likely to not reach its top potential, or worse, go waste. Discipline helps you nurture your ability and performance.
  2. Humility – it could be very easy in sport to get carried away by oneself. But if that was the case, none of us would have responded to that young cheerleader (who by the way, is a very talented player still playing the game!). Also, you can have many highs, but there are many lows too. Humility to accept and know there’s more to be done is very important to keep getting better.
  3. Patience. It takes time to get to a level of excellence. It’s better to hang in there and invest the time. Shortcuts may give you joy for a short time, but you’re very likely to plateau soon. Keeping at it will pay off.
  4. It’s more than just you. Playing is not just about you reporting and playing your game. It’s about knowing your environment, pushing your teammates, working your opposition out, navigating your playing conditions, finding your optimal position in your team. Same applies to life and work. You can report to work and do your thing, but it’s also about management of so many other things!

What is your message for alums who wish to pursue their interest in sports despite having a busy professional life? Especially women alums?

It is with valid reason that we value our professional career dearly and give it a high portion of our time. But I do believe that if you care enough, you will make the time for your other interests, whether it is sports or something else.

Fulfilling your interest in sports doesn’t mean it has to only be at a competitive level. Look for local leagues/meetups. Maybe there are people with similar interests in your social circle or apartment complex – get together and play! You could find a place or person that trains you to be better at your game.

Basically, start small and frequent. Eventually, some of you may find yourself at a crossroads to decide if you need to aim higher and consider what it may cost.

In my case, it meant missing out on a lot of get-togethers and outings with close friends, and eventually taking a break from work to focus on the Asian Games and Commonwealth Championship. I did that with a lot of awareness and a leap of faith. And, those close friends are still here with me today.

And this is not just about pursuing sports, this can apply to anything. I know of a lady who became a stand up comic after having worked in a white-collar role. I have a friend who translated his passion for quizzing into a good business! And then I know of a couple of people who are working in senior corporate roles in foreign cities and have taken time out to play cricket consistently at a competitive level in their various zones, going on to play at very high levels in their regions.

Sometimes it may come with some so-called costs in your ‘professional’ career. It’s your call to take – you alone know your constraints and responsibilities. Whatever choice it is, take that call and don’t look back either way. If you do take the plunge, give yourself a timeline to see if it’s going well. If it isn’t going well, then look ahead and take the next best call you can.

And I believe, your professional life and training will only contribute to whatever you try, so there!

To the women, I would say this – firstly, all of the above applies irrespective of gender. Secondly, don’t think of yourself as part of the ‘weaker’ gender – you’re a person, period; that’s winning half the battle.

But, yes, norms often dictate the additional burden you may need to bear, and that can eat into precious finite time, at the very least. As alums and students of a premier management school, most of us are in a unique and relatively fortunate position to leverage our financial independence and social awareness and lead the way for fellow women and generations to come. Let’s see we do that the best we can.

Specifically coming to sports – I would say, look at the positive side. Whatever level of sports you play, is sure to impress and inspire people, and even reinforce the message, that ‘women can’. I experienced it first hand at all levels of my playing career. Sports will allow you to become a trailblazer. So, stay at it!

The winning moment

What specific characteristics are critical to achieving success at the international level in any sports? Any specific coaching techniques that can be useful to management professionals?

Frankly, first and foremost is having the right infrastructure to be able to play the sport. That’s something that has to be tackled at an institutional level.

For individuals, firstly, fitness is key. Your body engine has to be kept nimble and not laid to sleep. At the Asian Games, I saw Saina Nehwal run on the treadmill at a fair clip for a good 45 minutes!

Discipline is very important – you must do what you’re needed to do. It will keep you ready when it matters. Shortcuts (Jugaad?) here don’t help in the long run. I would say this is important for management professionals too.

Mindful practice is also important –practice not for the sake of it, but be aware of what is happening during practice, what are the faults to be fixed, what can be better. There’s a popular quote that’s so apt here: “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t it wrong’. Again, so applicable to corporate life – be aware of and great at what you’re doing!

Accept new techniques and methods – it is so easy to stick to your comfort zone and just work at it. But sometimes a discrete change may be needed to bring that spurt in your sport. In my case, it required me to start training from scratch after the Asian Games to prepare for the Commonwealth Championship. I was initially worried that it may slow me down, and why I was doing the simple stuff all over again, but actually, it helped me unlearn a few inefficiencies I had picked up and lead to a better, more confident showing at the Championship. Similarly, in corporate life, it is important to keep abreast of developments in your field, learn them if needed, to throw away what doesn’t work anymore.

Conquering nerves is perhaps one of the most important things to achieving success. It is not that nerves shouldn’t be there, but how you deal with it. I personally feel I could have done more in this area. Broadly speaking, again applicable to management professionals!