At one time, it would have been taboo. But American gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka, cricketers Ben Stokes and Chris Gayle publicly announced that they would prioritise their mental health over professional sport.
It was a big step. Over the years, sportspersons have grappled with mental health issues in silence, fearing they will lose their place in the team. Fearing they will be written off as ‘weak’. Fearing they will not be considered for the big matches.
Medium-fast bowler Chetan Sharma faced harsh criticism for years after conceding a last-ball six to Pakistan’s Javed Miandad in an ODI in Sharjah in 1986. He confesses, “I would wake up with nightmares of that terrible moment.” He faced his demons alone. Hockey goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi, known for his excellent performances, was a shattered man following the 7-1 drubbing by Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games final in New Delhi. He not only lost his position in the team but also lost close friends. “I was a lonely man,” he recalls. He was tormented by memories of that afternoon at the National Stadium. It impacted his career and he was never the same player again.
Sportspersons compete in a crushingly challenging arena even when they are not in the best state of mind: “It means you begin by conceding ground to the opponent much before the competition has begun,” says cricketer Yuvraj Singh, who battled a life-threatening illness to emerge as player of the tournament at the 2011 World Cup.
Yuvraj is candid as he talks of the fear of failure. “It’s common in every sport; you keep getting the feeling ‘what if you fail?’ You need to address it and understand it as an important aspect of mental health. But it is a topic that’s not discussed because the players are just supposed to go out there and perform.”
Stresses of sport
Chaitanya Sridhar confirms this. “Mental health is a neglected subject in Indian sport and swept under the carpet,” says the physician, who describes herself as a ‘holistic sports psychologist and organisational performance consultant’. She has trained Indian athletes in the past three Olympics and also works with cricketers. “Mental health is the psychological and emotional well-being of an individual. How does it impact performance or day-to-day life? Are you enjoying what you’re doing? Do you suffer from anxiety or depression? Do you have suicidal ideation? There are so many aspects to it,” she says.
Most athletes know that ups and downs are part of sport, but how do they deal with it? “One chapter, one page, is how you deal with it,” says Dr. Sridhar. “Does the athlete need a break? Are you burnt out? Are you overworked? Much depends on the person.” Obviously, players like Kohli and Nadal are always under intense scrutiny, so downtime can be stressful. “When down, you hold a mirror to them to show what they have achieved,” says the doctor. “Sometimes taking a break can be relaxing. Sadly, our society expects robotism, but you have to learn to switch off.”
As Indian sport struggles to find a spot in the spotllight, it is only now beginning to address this vital aspect of training. Sports psychology might have been around in developed countries for decades, but it’s still fairly new and untested here. For Ramji Srinivasan, a former head of strength and conditioning for the national cricket team, mental health is a subject close to his heart. “It’s easy to be in total control of the body,” he says, “but to control the mind and tune it to success is a different ball game.” He blames the Indian ecosystem. “It prevents people from coming out of their shell and expressing themselves,” he says. “They are shunned or ridiculed or held responsible for team or individual failure.”
Before the Tokyo Olympics, some shooters as well as table tennis and badminton players had sought counselling, made available to them through the Target Olympic Podium Scheme. The idea was to overcome ‘tournament anxiety’. One Olympics participant says, “I had concerns about my preparation. There were first-timers who needed guidance. A mind coach is now an integral part of training.”
Indian sportspersons discussing health issues that impact performance and seeking help is a recent development. Women athletes, for instance, would rarely disclose their menstrual cycle to coaches. Some athletes have conditions such as bipolar disorder, others are battling divorce and breakups. They are now beginning to share worries and personal issues.
Ace table tennis player Sharath Kamal says, “Mental health is being given importance now because there is awareness. Earlier, we did not know who to approach. When you compete professionally, it is tough. There can be extraneous pressures too. I have a mind coach to guide me.”
Yuvraj echoes this, “I think a sports psychologist is a must. I remember [coaches] Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton talking to us about mental health. Now the quarantine has added to the stress. There is a big impact on the minds of the players, going from bubble to bubble; a huge toll on mental health. And I say this from experience.”
In one sense, the pandemic might have been a blessing because it has compelled the sporting ecosystem to take notice. The forced isolation made people confront mental health issues. “Wellness goes beyond the absence of mental illness,” says Delhi-based psychologist Divya Jain. “It encompasses emotional and social well-being. It impacts our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, our capacity to cope with the challenges of everyday life, and the ability to reach our full potential. While sport psychology interventions largely focus on performance enhancement, personal wellbeing needs to be prioritised too.”
The pandemic has placed unprecedented restrictions on players. “The inner struggles that athletes have endured during this time will probably not be comprehended even by sportspersons themselves,” says Olympic shooter Suma Shirur. “The public only knows about the concept of the bio-bubble through cricket. But what about other sports? There have been equal restrictions on mobility and social interaction. Sometimes they’ve been confined to their hotel or hostel rooms for a week or more. All this affects the athlete’s mental health, especially as they approach a competition,” says Shirur.
Euphoria and isolation
For athletes, as for any individual, interacting with other people is important. “They need a sense of coming together, of connecting,” says Dr. Sridhar. “They must build new routines that help them keep in touch with family and friends.”
“You can go mad,” says a top cricketer, who takes books with him to stay sane in the bio bubble. It’s a strange dichotomy — when athletes emerge from the isolation of a bubble, they have to instantly engage with training, practising intensely and peaking at the right time. The euphoria of success is often followed by isolation again.
“Fear of failure, fear of success, the pressure to perform, everything affects sportspersons,” says Dr. Sridhar. This is where the sporting ecosystem has to kick in. Athletes must be empowered, their mental strength bolstered. It’s here that the role of the sports psychologist becomes critical. As Jain says, “The focus needs to be on building mental health literacy, encouraging help-seeking behaviour, creating social support networks, and providing access to treatment.”
The lack of access to experts has been a stumbling block. Seeking help has been considered shameful. “The fear of stigma is rife in sports because we expect our athletes to be ‘strong’ and larger than life,” says Jain. “But if we want players to achieve both well-being and peak performance, mental health needs to be given the same importance as physical health.”
Indian sport today needs the right people, both in management and as support staff. Till that happens, athletes will not be able to fight from within the system or depend on the system; they will always have to fall back on their own efforts and resources.
Slowly, a sense of the magnitude of the issue is beginning to seep through. Dealing with mental health has now become an integral part of every national sports federation. Mind coaches and sports psychologists are in demand. The Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) have both accepted that sportspersons have to be given space and accommodated during tough times. Officials are encouraging players to talk about problems, whether depression, fear of failure, or relationship issues. SAI has been organising mind-strengthening sessions with experts, and players have willingly shared their inner demons. Thanks to the likes of Osaka, Biles, Stokes and Gayle, there’s hope that Indian players, too, will not punish themselves or push themselves over the limit. And that talking about mental health will no longer be taboo.