As hundreds of athletes converge in Birmingham for the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG), let’s say a silent prayer for their mental strength. Behind many of those brawny physiques and fiery spirits, are minds that constantly wrestle with the stressors of being in competition, representing their country and meeting expectations.
India’s Olympic bronze medalist Lovlina Borgohain, who will compete at CWG, recently broke her silence about feeling “mentally harassed” due to the absence of her coaches at the Games. “How am I supposed to focus on my game,” she asked in a social media post, steering attention to a subject that deserves fair play.
The mental health narrative around sporstpersons has witnessed a tectonic shift in the past few years. Credit to those who chose to break the bubble around ‘true sportsmanship’- that most times, being a good sport is about pushing yourself even when you feel pulled down.
Turns out, there’s a limit.
“When we look at athletes, we look at their medals, ranks and personal bests. What we often overlook is the person behind the player – the thoughts, emotions, experiences and circumstances that make a person who they are,” sports psychologist Divya Jain tells Health Shots.
In the past year, several top-rated athletes, including four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka, pressed on the need to pay heed to mental health in the world of sports. “I have to focus on my mental health,” said Biles as she withdrew from the finals of Artistic Gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2021.
“Athletes are humans,” wrote Osaka in a Time magazine piece titled ‘It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.’, after skipping a French Open press conference to tend to her mental health.
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Their brave admissions came as an eye-opener for the world, becoming a game-changer for every athlete who felt stifled under the weight of emotions and expectations. It reminded people that stress, anxiety, depression, anger and suicidal thoughts, are as much a part of an athlete’s life as they are for any human.
“Close to one billion people in the world suffer from a mental health disorder, and these conditions are just as prevalent among the athlete population. Unfortunately, the stigma that exists with regards to athlete mental health is also just as prevalent, if not more,” adds Jain, Head of Psychological Services for the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences.
If you don’t know it already, mental health conditions impact every aspect of an individual’s life.
* Thought processes
* Interpersonal relationships
* Physical health
“In such a scenario, it is imperative for athletes to prioritize their mental health, both for the sake of well-being and as well as to reach their full potential on the sports field,” explains the expert.
Competing at a national or international level comes with immense pressure, which all adds up to mental health issues for athletes.
Dr Kersi Chavda, consultant Psychiatrist at P.D.Hinduja Hospital & MRC, Mahim, Mumbai, tells us, “There are pressures of team expectations, pressures of the country, pressures of the family and also self-induced pressures, with the knowledge that one-tenth of a second or a metre can make the difference between a winner and loser.”
Add to that, living away from family, disturbances in schedules due to competition calendars, the public scrutiny that follows mistakes, the fear of injury and impending retirement.
“These are all challenges experienced by athletes through the course of their careers. And just as important as technical and physical acumen, it’s essential for athletes to have the mental skills to navigate these challenges,” says Dr Jain.
Haven’t we always been taught how to be a sport; to accept our success
with humility, and failure with dignity.
Sportspersons, more than most others, are familiar with wins and losses as a part of everyday life. In fact, it’s their ability to learn and move on from mistakes that makes athletes resilient, and successful in the long run.
Six-time world champion, boxer MC Mary Kom, who couldn’t make the CWG cut
after a knee injury during trials, in a Health Shots interview earlier this year, had opened up about what has kept her strong throughout her career.
“It’s God-gifted,” she said of her mental strength, and added: “It’s a sport. Sometimes we can achieve and sometimes we can’t. But when I can’t achieve something, I tell myself to go for it next time. That hunger keeps me going.”
Still, it’s important for athletes also not to avoid dealing with failures.
“Just don’t dwell on them for too long. Instead, focus on your strengths. Back yourself and remember the successes you’ve also experienced. Focus on the efforts. Setting process goals rather than results- oriented goals is key,” Dr Jain asserts.
Watch Mary Kom open up about her struggles and journey in this Health Shots exclusive interview!
* Ensure that you eat well, get adequate sleep and time for recovery
* Invest in relationships, within the family, friends and the sporting community
* Take time out to do things outside the sport that you enjoy or give you a sense of purpose
* Enjoy the process of training and the excitement of the competition
* Reach out and talk to a friend, family member, coach or psychologist if you are experiencing any distress
News that South Africa’s Paddy Upton has been roped in by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) as the Indian team’s mental conditioning expert shines a spotlight on the growing need for professionals to handle the pressures that sportspersons experience.
“Sports psychiatry is playing an important role. It enables a sensible balance between perceived dreams and actual reality,” says Dr Chavda.
What do these sports psychologists do?
“Sportspersons are explained the realities associated with win and loss, relaxation and focusing techniques, and how to become somewhat balanced even in extreme situations,” he explains.
On a philosophical note, he adds, “One has to accept that life may not always be fair. One has to ‘survive’ the losses along with the wins. Eventually, the person is more important that the game or the glory.”
Can’t fight that, can we?