Between nature and nurture

Between nature and nurture

A father and daughter on the journey from sporting promise to achievement

Sharad Kohli

A life in the Army helped prepare Colonel Narinder Dagar in bringing up his hearing-impaired daughter Diksha, now a regular name on golf leaderboards in Europe and Asia. But putting one’s heart and mind into raising a budding athlete is a responsibility that entails years of sacrifice, and calls for ample emotional and mental support for the offspring. When the Dagars realised golf was something Diksha wanted to pursue seriously, and to devote her time and energy into excelling at, they went all in. “You have to be 100 per cent involved in the child’s journey,” Col. Dagar said on a warm late September day in Delhi. “He had a dream for me to grow up into a good golfer,” recalls Diksha.This talented and resourceful 22-year-old southpaw, who received her first clubs at age 7, is now a multiple winner on the Ladies European Tour, and was in the mix for the AIG Women’s British Open in August. Success, admits the father, is a journey, one that tests you mentally. And it’s not always the adult who has the answers, as the Colonel reminds: “Diksha sometimes jokingly says, ‘Children are smarter than their parents’!”In the Dagars’ journey, fulfilment has arrived through a happy mix of trust and telepathy. Excerpts from an interview

How much has your father’s support contributed to you falling in love with golf, and to your success as a golfer?

Diksha: My dad has been very supportive, and all my family have been very dedicated to me since childhood. Dad has taken me to many sports such as tennis and swimming – he has always been there. He’s everything to me, and we are like a team in that we support each other, and make plans with a target and a goal in mind. We share and talk about everything.

When you started playing golf, how much were you hindered by being hearing impaired? Did it prove to be a mental block on the course or were you determined to not let that affect you? 

Diksha: I got a cochlear implant when I was six, and in my childhood I took speech therapy with the help of my parents. They taught me how to speak and their support helped me in my education. It is because of them that I’m here. When I am on the course, my parents are like an umbrella – they protect me. They help me feel comfortable in that environment, with the result that year by year I am improving a lot, and gradually I’m speaking better and starting to hear better. And that has helped increase my confidence. 

What roles must a parent play to give their child self-belief and help them overcome a physical disability, whether they’re focussed on their studies or taking part in training and competitive sport?

Col. Dagar: Of course parents have a very, very important role to play, because they are the first guide, mentor and teacher for a child in the formative years, before the child starts going to school and taking part in organised activities outside of the home. In the scenario where a child is faced with such a challenge, the parents’ responsibilities grow. As a parent, you must keep yourself connected, interested and passionate.We are very fortunate that in today’s world there is sufficient guidance and availability of knowhow, so if the intent is correct, and if the sincerity, commitment and dedication are there, then most of the time you are walking the right path. And that is what we have been doing as a family. My wife has played a crucial and solid role; she’s been a pillar of strength. As far as our children are concerned (son Yogesh is also hearing-impaired), we faced every challenge together, and together we decided to see how best we could put things back on track. There are a lot of variables, and every individual can only make a sincere effort and try. But, we are happy, which is a kind of success.

Are there times when you feel you must hold back from offering advice? And how do you deal with the differences of opinion that are bound to crop up when you’re together so much?

Col. Dagar: I’m learning a lot. In fact, I am learning more from Diksha than she is from me! Initially, maybe I was making too much effort to make her learn certain things. In the process of teaching you get a lot of feedback. Even if you have certain things in mind that you want to tell, how you communicate them is something you learn gradually. Maybe now I’m learning more being with Diksha,  than I want her to learn. So, I correct myself in many ways when I am with her. And it’s a wonderful journey in the sense that you are active and you are involved, and are able to contribute whatever you can.

Of course, there will be times during competition when you would rather figure things out for yourself than seek advice from your father… 

Diksha: We have been travelling a lot and we have been together a lot, so there is a bonding that builds. It’s also amazing how our brains work so much alike – I have experienced that whatever I was going to say, he would say it, and whatever I was about to speak he would end up saying it. It’s a beautiful experience. And we discuss everything. We point out weaknesses and areas that need improving. However, when it comes to the game, and when we are out on the course, I sometimes tell him, ‘Don’t act like a father, act like a caddy’. For, a father starts giving a lot of lessons, which he shouldn’t be doing – because on the course, the focus should be on the game. 

How does a parent ensure that a child is in the best possible mental space to give her very best in competition?

Col. Dagar: We try to improve every day. We follow the careers of sportspersons like (Novak) Djokovic, (Rafael) Nadal, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. We follow how they are doing and how they go about their preparations, and learn from them how to stay within yourself and how to be centred. Diksha has been playing as a professional for the last five years, and before that for about 7-8 years as an amateur, right from her junior days. So, we have been making small notes on all those things, trying to understand what we can do better, in terms of practice and preparation, and with respect to time, intensity and productivity. At times some of these things are not always correct and we don’t always make the best decisions. Then, we would take stock, accept that, yes, this is what we would do but it isn’t working so well – and this is what we need to change, and it’s working better.

How does having your father around allow you to switch off from golf, and get your mind off a poor round? 

Diksha: It’s a part of life, a part of the game, when you have a bad round, but every day is a new day. After a bad round I would feel a little bit emotional and a little bit frustrated, and I would think, ‘This can’t be happening’. But we would then discuss and work on things, trying to find out the reasons why I played badly. 

What have you learnt about Diksha as a person while seeing her grow as a golfer? 

Col. Dagar: Diksha is like a blessing to us. Many times I am amazed the way she handles herself and the way she handles a lot of situations – in and out of competition, travel, decision making. I have gone through a sports school, and trained for a career in the Army in operations, so I have a mindset that this is how people should be. Adults sometimes believe that we are right because we have more experience, but often I learn from her that there is always a better way – and a different way – of doing something. I would say that we as adults sometimes become too cautious, especially when it comes to decision-making; we think too much before reaching a decision. Sometimes we carry too much baggage and we have to shed that baggage. We have to trust our children to make their own decisions. So, though I’m there with her most of the time, giving her support and assurance, she handles everything so well, whether it’s booking her flights and hotels or organising her training. It’s a very healthy thing, and it makes me happy and proud to see that as a parent. 

If a parent is a coach to a budding athlete, what do both sides have to keep in mind for that association to be enduring and successful? 

Col. Dagar: Ours is a very unique journey, and a unique understanding. Yet, you have to constantly work on improving communication, between any two individuals – including between a child and parent. Also, the understanding is never perfect because the scenario changes every day. I believe that flexibility is the key; you have to keep yourself flexible and open to different ideas. I have been learning and Diksha has been learning, and we have been taking help from a lot of people. The environment around us has been very supportive, with the biggest support coming from the Army. So, people around us have helped a lot and that is why we have been able to keep this going. My wife has played an equally– if not more – important role in shaping Diksha’s career and keeping us together. Sometimes, we might find it difficult to see through, understand or handle a situation, but we talk every day with her wherever we are, sometimes three or four times a day. So, we are able to resolve a lot of things and to move forward.

What advice would you give to parents who are personally and emotionally invested in their daughter or son’s sporting journey?

Col. Dagar: Every child is unique. Parents have to understand that being passionate is one thing but knowhow is very important. Sometimes, if you are too committed but your knowhow is shallow, then there is a mismatch and you end up pushing the child in the wrong direction. Initially the role of the parents is larger because a child – especially in the initial years of starting an activity – doesn’t understand too much about how things are unfolding. So, here the role of the parents is very, very important. In the Army, we are taught to know yourself, know the terrain or the environment, know all the aspects. I also apply that rule to parenting. Do all of these and only then will you be able to assess better and understand how you can help the child in the right way, and when you should seek the assistance of professionals. Also, the role of parents is much more important in sports than it is in academics. In fact, I would say that in the case of about 80 percent of athletes, it is their parents who have given them a platform and the launchpad to succeed.