How Indian athletes are conquering the mind during lockdown

Written by Shivani Naik
| Mumbai |

Published: April 15, 2020 11:56:45 pm

Athletes like like Neeraj Chopra are being advised to mature and prepare themselves for heavy competition schedule. (Source: Twitter/Neeraj_chopra1)

Sports psychologist and former international shuttler Gayatri Madkekar, who now helps elite athletes at Pune’s Lakshya Foundation, had never seen “happiness” as a problem needing a cure. This was until the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown.

Tasked with helping an elite athlete negotiate this tricky period, and expecting routine queries about schedule uncertainty, dips in motivation, and fear of losing form or gaining weight, she was left speechless when the athlete told her: “I’m not feeling anxious at all about this lockdown or about going back. I’m very worried I’m enjoying this comfort zone of home a lot and am very happy right now. I feel guilty about liking this.”

This was in total contrast to Tokyo Olympics-bound boxer Vikas Krishan, when he was told to enjoy the still pace of this forced break. Former India tennis player Manisha Malhotra, who now works for Jindal Steel’s sports wing that looks after Vikas, calls this typical OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) behaviour of athletes.

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“Vikas was already calling saying ‘I need to train, I’ve gone crazy in my house,” she says of situations that are unprecedented and need mental trainers to coax athletes to do the one thing they tend to not be good at: doing nothing.

Some are confused.

During a Sports Authority of India-organised online insta-consult, where sportspersons got a chance to interact with professionals, an athlete asked an expert “if masturbation affected rehab and recovery adversely.”

Dr Gayatri is also left vetting athletes’ Netflix choices, so they steer clear of what she calls “dystopian, diabolical, dysfunctional content” which can trigger anxiety for being scarier than the nightmare that’s already thrust on the world currently. “I send them activities, ask them to solve puzzles and tell them to unwind and revive,” she says.

Dr Swaroop, who routinely handholds athletes funded by Lakshya through stiff challenges, faced the first wave of questions around mid-March when sport was braking to a screeching halt.

“There was fear of the unknown at the start. Questions like, ‘How far it’ll spread, how contagious is it, on travel — fear of quarantine, the taboo, prospects of isolation’. They were in the same boat as the rest of the world, but athletes are peculiar social animals not accustomed to suddenly being confined in one place.”

Then when they were safe inside homes, the reality of what to do with themselves dawned. “Will I be as ready for Olympics as I am today, the guilt of not following routines, inability to follow diet, uncertainty about how it’ll be once they resume training, frustration that they have to do it all over again for those still looking at qualifying and the real fear of newer players snapping at their heels — that was the next set of doubts.”

Slaves of regimented routines, a large part of the challenge for mental trainers was to wean athletes away from constant thoughts about the game — owing to the danger of burnout. “I kept telling them to do physical training for love of physical training. Not aiming at Olympics because resumption of competition is uncertain.”

Pulling them back from overdoing core strengthening-training because that was the only workout possible, and nudging them away from social media-created peer pressure of keeping in shape were the other challenges. “They watch someone do some workout at home, and a little pressure thud begins. Because they are such physical beings, sitting at home is going against their instinct. Some couldn’t stop stress-eating, others were bingeing on watching news updates on mobiles. We had to monitor both.”

Divya Jain, guiding athletes associated with Gosport from Bangalore, stresses that she’s had to factor in the physical constraints of athletes being used to training in larger areas and feeling hemmed in. “But we tell them that you are not left behind… it’s ok to slow down, you won’t forget skills. This is not square 1,” she says. She’s also needed to urge athletes to refrain from forwarding messages about treatments and sticking to verified news to avoid needless panic.

Staying at home throws up its own set of issues. “People with families are dealing with different challenges… Those alone dealing with different ones,” Jain says.

What all psychologists agree on is what recovery expert Dr Nikhil Latey sums up: “Olympics is 15 months away. Athletes should come down to 50-60 per cent and understand this is only maintenance period. Accept capacity is down and work on flexibility, core control, strengthening. Don’t panic,” he says.

Eight-month off-season

Malhotra says planners are left to plan “eight-month off-seasons” with competitions unlikely to take off before December. Saying athletes crave insta-gratification, she says in her two decades of mentoring sportspersons, Abhinav Bindra is the only athlete who she saw negotiating the down periods well.

“He was very experimental in training, seeking the proverbial edge always, and never stressed about dips in performance, valuing the process. He had long periods of low performances but saw it as results of tweaks, and valued improvements. He’d say body stability has improved or something else, never that he was shooting poor scores.”

Malhotra reckons Indian athletes are, in fact, dealing with this situation well. “This crisis debunks the thinking that Indian athletes are mentally weak. In the West, they are panicking and rushing for counselling and therapy and struggling to cope with this pause. Our athletes are actually OK. They are strong. And you realise that compared to the hardships they’ve suffered to come up — financial and social constraints. What they’ve gone through was much harder than this, so they can cope,” she says.

While those like Neeraj Chopra are being advised to mature and prepare themselves for heavy competition schedule from December to regain match sharpness, someone like shooter Manu Bhaker is being sequestered from the realities of the world altogether. “She’s young, fearless, with a chip on the shoulder, and her attitude is her biggest asset. The question is do we want her to grow up in this tough time?” Malhotra wonders.

Paddler Sharath Kamal attempting to qualify for yet another Olympics saw his season cruelly cut off after winning a title at Oman, but has discussed with Dr Swaroop the possibility of extending his career to the 2022 CWG and Asiad — not too far from Tokyo. He warmed up to the idea of talking to a psychologist pretty late after finding his first experience with Westerners a tad futile. “I was working with Europeans in 2011-12, but there was a huge cultural disconnect. If I said ‘I need to go home for Diwali,’ they just wouldn’t understand why. Working with Indians has really helped,” says the athlete who reckons the current situation is far graver than when he was in a wheelchair for four weeks unable to move.

Athletes are now advised to revisit their matches in detail and keep diaries, along with portion controls and sticking to sleep discipline and treating this period like mid-season or off-season.

So, questions like ‘Can I freak out on ice-cream?’ or ‘Can I wake up at 11 am?’ fetch a firm ‘No’.

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