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Lighting the Fire Within: Lessons from India's First Coach

By Rajesh Kamath

When you read the words 'India's ancient coach', what image came to you mind? Krishna? Dronacharya? Chanakya?

This will surprise you - the foremost 'coach' pre-dates them, it is Sage Narad (Muni). This is surprising however, for an even more compelling reason. Common knowledge of Narad Muni suggests that he was a mischief maker, a gossip monger. Perhaps his name itself suggests that. Sanskrit roots suggest that Narad means ‘he is here, he is there also,' i.e. 'there on both sides'.

Further investigation reveals that Nara-d literally means 'that which connects the circumference to the centre’ i.e. the spoke. We shall come back to this. Let us first understand - what is the goal of a coach? Simply put, it is to enhance performance - any performance - from poor to average, average to better, better to best.

Think of a railway or a bus coach - it keeps moving - that's what it is made for - to keep making progress. Thus, coaching would involve continuously raising the bar of performance for the coachee - even challenging the best. Challenging the best would be tough - raising performance from poor to average would take a lot of doing - raising from average to better and better to best would definitely not be easy – however, can one even raise the performance of the best? Yes, because 'best' is a moving target.

Let's consider a story from ancient India, from the great epic Ramayana. Sage Vasistha was Lord Ram's guru and the Rajpurohit of Ikshawaku dynasty. He was a peace loving, selfless, intelligent and great Rishi who became the spiritual teacher and guide of Lord Ram. When Ram was about 16-year-old, sage Vishwamitra came to visit Dasharath in search of help against rakshsas (demons), who were disturbing his Vedic rituals. Vashistha convinced Dasharath to send Rama with Vishwamitra, ensuring him that Vishwamitra's powers and Rama's own capabilities would make him successful. Finally, Dasharath agreed, and Rama and Lakshman were dispatched with Vishwamitra, under whom the two princes' 'performance' was raised to historic heights. In that sense, Vasishtha was the teacher but Vishwamitra became the coach for Lord Rama, because Vishwamitra exposed them to far greater challenges than Vasishta could.

At a future time, another great warrior Arjun is seen in India’s second grand epic, Mahabharat. As many know, Arjun also had a renowned teacher in the form of Drona-acharya, who taught him the art of warfare, amongst many things. That made Arjun an able and famed warrior, especially peerless in the art of archery. However, when it came to the ultimate performance test, the war of Mahabharat, Arjun was frozen. It was Lord Krishna, who came to Arjun's rescue at that point. He asked the right questions, even rattled Arjun’s assumptions, and gave varied perspectives to the illustrious warrior, which finally made Arjun willing to take on the Kauravs. In other words, Lord Krishna helped break down the barriers in Arjun's mind, which were weighing him down. Once those barriers melted, then it was only natural that Arjun's best performance came to the fore - his skills flowed easily - and helped the Pandavs become victorious.

In other words, coach is to the coachee what Vishwamitra was to Lord Ram and Lord Krishna was to Arjun. These two examples quoted above, however involved 'war', or so it seems.

Now that the role of the coach is better appreciated through the above two illustrations, let us examine what Narad Muni has to do with coaching. One day Narad Muni was passing by a jungle when he ran into Ratnakara, the highway robber, who insisted that Narad (though himself a humble saint) give everything he owns, from his clothing to the shoes he was wearing. Narad asked Ratnakara why he was committing this 'sin'. Ratnakara answered that this was the only way to provide food for his family. Narad, then, asked him if his family would partake of the sins that he was committing and further told him to go ask his family that same question.

Ratnakara tied Narad to a tree to ensure that he was in that same spot until he was back. When Ratnakara asked his parents if they were with him on his actions, they replied that it was his job to take care of them, and that he alone was responsible for his sins. His wife’s response was no different. This shocked Ratnakara - he then returned to Narad Muni and fell at his feet... out of both, realisation and remorse. He told Narad Muni that he alone was responsible for the sins and asked him to help him get rid of the consequence of these actions. Narad told him to simply chant Lord Rama's name and that would help him. Then, after Narad left, Ratnakara went into a deep penance reciting the Lord's name for days and months and then years! This converted him to Valmiki Rishi, the first Sanskrit poet (AdiKavi) and amongst the greatest sages India has ever known. Through just one question, Narada Muni transformed the robber Ratnakar into Valmiki Rishi. Think about the quality of Narad's action – that which eliminated the unseen barriers to Valmiki's growth. How powerful!

There are several other tales that narrate how Narad Muni repeated this feat several times with various other individuals to transform them to great legends - from the divine child Dhruv, to even the great mountain range Vindhyas, he was able to ceaselessly make them think hard, face tough questions, surmount their problems, overcome their past performance and grow and become icons. It is important to note that while Narad Muni provided life lessons to others, he never slowed his own learning - he learnt valuable lessons from Lord Vishnu and Lord Hanuman. He never stopped at one place either - he kept moving - from one coachee to another!

Cut to the present age: let's move from the mythological and historic arena to the dynamic sports arena. Think of the cricketing legend Gary Kirsten and the magic he was able to create as a coach for Team India and then replicate it with Team South Africa. He was able to take both teams to No. 1 in Test Rankings and India also won the World Cup 2011 under his tutelage. Taking the best to the next orbit is his wont.

The shining Indian example of an Indian coach is Pullela Gopichand and what he has been able to do for India in Badminton - help transform potential talent into world beaters - Saina Nehwal and P. Sindhu, just two names among the many he has tirelessly coached to success. He hasn’t stopped and neither is he attached to a single 'star player'. He is an institution who has created a platform for greatness. It is no co incidence that both Kirsten and Gopichand are men of few words and boundless energy and action.

So what lessons can be drawn from the stories of Narada Muni and from the great sports coaches - which not just executive coaches - but every manager can learn?

• Study the coachee and the situation at hand;
• Speak little but let the little speak volumes;
• Question the unquestioned;
• Shake the beliefs of the coachee;
• Make visible new perspectives;
• Provide challenges not faced thus far;
• Don’t settle for good or even better;
• Raise the best to the next;
• Make coaching a habit, a nature;
• Be a lifelong learner.

Now coming back to what Nara-d literally means: “That which connects the circumference to the centre”. The circumference is the world outside of us - our environment - our arena of action. The centre is the core of each human - our greatness. Narad Muni made it his job to connect every individual’s actions to their greatness - and transform their worlds. So can each of you – as managers, as leaders, as coaches and as humans!


Rajesh Kamath

The writer is a Keynote Speaker, Consultant, Facilitator, and Coach, and his main objective is to apply principles from eternal global wisdom to modern organisations. He is known for combining the best of western and Indian management sciences to provide leadership consulting, coaching and learning solutions to the industry. He is also the co- founder of MTHR Global and MTHR Global CxO Forum. Follow him on @rajeshMTHRG

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