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Vishal Koul

Stress Buster

Sport At Work
Payback India CEO Rahul Rana finds table tennis a good way to stay focused and nimble

Himanshu Kakkar

"Since you play with better players, table tennis also teaches you adaptability"- Rahul Rana, CEO, Payback India

It’s been more than a year since Rahul Rana took over the top job as the CEO of the Indian operations of Payback, the world’s best-known loyalty points company, and he clearly seems to be enjoying the role. What makes work fun for him is that unlike his peers, Rana beats the stress by staying at work when the day ends.

What does that mean? The native of Assam, who joined Payback as its COO in 2010, sounds rather euphemistic when he says, “When the going gets a little tough, small wins give you the chance to maintain the momentum.” The meaning of these confounding sentences comes across clearly only after Rana explains that he was talking about what he feels after winning a game of ping-pong at the company’s office in Gurgaon. Payback’s corporate office has a ping-pong table where, between breaks, Rana shows off his moves. Besides keeping him on his toes, Rana says the game increases blood circulation and improves concentration. “Since you play with better players, it also teaches you adaptability.” What better way, then, to learn at work?

Born in the northeast, Rana took to football, hockey and trekking in his teens, although it’s only at Payback that he got to learn table tennis. “I picked it up only two years ago,” he reveals. Learning the game was quite easy as Rana had played tennis and badminton in his early days. “Learning a third racket sport wasn’t difficult,” he says. What Rana loves about the game is that it isn’t as strenuous as most other sports. “Though it is anaerobic in nature being such a fast game, you don’t have to commit a lot of time to it,” he says. If he has to put in more hours at work, Rana takes a break to play; usually, just one game is good enough to refresh him.

Since he often plays with colleagues, we ask if they let their boss win easily. He laughs, “I actually play for fun, but yes, I do like to win, although I don’t play to win. Bonding with the team is the greater motive.” But his colleagues aren’t easy on him, given that they regularly bet lunch or drinks at the table. This, he says, adds to the fun and the bonding. Rana knows that he isn’t the best player in his office but he is getting there quickly. “I used to lose a lot earlier, but I am picking up pace now.”

He has learnt quite a few nuances of table tennis to strengthen his game. “I have developed the ability to handle spin. I play the game a little further from the table now and have realised that some rackets are better than others.” However, his greatest learning has been about adaptability and strategy. “I have learnt that if the opponent is an aggressive player, I should slow my game down; I don’t want to play to the opponent’s strength. If the player is more watchful, I play a fast game.” 

Friendly bets apart, there is a formal TT tournament held each year at the Delhi and Bengaluru offices of Payback. The winner either gets a voucher or Payback points. There is a pretty high degree of participation, points out Rana, “Everybody plays for pride. We usually have four formats: men’s and ladies’ singles and doubles and mixed doubles. Half of the organisation’s employees participate in the tournament.”

Beyond table tennis, Rana has always had a special fascination for the Himalayan state of Nepal and its mountains. A wall in his office has a photo of a mountain that permits trekkers to scale Mount Mera, which is at a height of 6,100 metre. But the highest that Rana has trekked thus far is 5,500 meters — up the Kala Pathar near Mount Everest.

Revealing the reasons for not scaling the Mera Peak, Rana admits that the period that he chose to venture for the 14-day trek was wrong. “We chose the wrong time — April, which is a lot colder and it snows a lot then. We had to be airlifted,” he smiles. Though the outcome was not to his liking, the extreme excursion has only rubbed off positively. “It allows you to rethink, as the only task at hand is to scale the peak,” comments Rana, who goes on such treks every year.

Unlike table tennis, trekking requires a higher degree of planning. “There is a very specific climbing season, from mid-April to May-end — only about 45 days. You have to plan the trip, booking and licences in that time.” The second leg of the preparation is physical. “I put on five to seven kg because I know I will lose it. I do a lot of endurance training, climbing stairs up and down 12 floors, sometimes with weights. You have to plan your vaccinations well in advance as you can take only one shot over two or three weeks,” says Rana.

For now, he is content dabbling with both, and not without a reason. While ping-pong helps him bond with his team better, trekking improves his endurance — attributes that Rana need the most to be on top of his game.

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