Conversations around mental health have slowly begun to seep into mainstream discussions. The mental health of sports players, however, has been brushed under the carpet for too long. While the country enthusiastically cheers for their victory when they are on the field, little attention is paid to their pressures and concerns, both on and off the field. From dealing with losses, injuries and criticism to staying away from loved ones — athletes undergo a host of mental issues that have largely been unaddressed.
Recently, the topic came under spotlight after Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Ben Stokes decided to withdraw from their respective sports tournaments to prioritise their mental well-being. Sport psychologist, Sanjana Kiran, who has worked with around 200 Olympians, said, “When the ‘elixir’ a high performer derives from their peak performance experiences become a ‘trigger’ for mental ill-health, it is best to take a break.”
In India, however, the conversation has still not seen the light of the day. We reached out to a few sportspersons to delve deeper.
Dealing with losses
While wins and losses are a part of the game, dealing with a defeat can be quite challenging. Indian shooter and 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist Gagan Narang said, “It is always difficult to get over your losses, but it is the only way to go ahead for any athlete.”
Agreed former Indian cricketer Deep Dasgupta, who added, “While defeats are a part of the game, they are still not an easy thing to take. Every sports player deals with losses differently. Sports teaches you to emotionally stabilise yourself when dealing with wins and losses”.
Explaining the impact of losses on athletes, Kiran told indianexpress.com that the “impact of loss depends on how the athlete defines success. Loss has the ability to propel the athlete to come back stronger than ever before and thus realise full potential. But, it also has the ability impact self-worth negatively.”
Constant scrutiny and criticism
With immense appreciation comes an equal or even more amount of criticism, and social media has accentuated the prevalence of hate comments further. Indian athlete and 2016 Summer Paralympics silver medallist Deepa Malik said, “People, sometimes, think we are their property and we can be criticised, put pressure on and discussed to any extent. Social media adds to the whole pressure. That’s why I had cut off from social media when I was training.
“With the right mental health guidance, I eventually learnt to block those negative thoughts away. That’s why mental health training is so important.”
Dasgupta agreed: “Criticism and vile comments impact a lot. You just have to develop a thick skin and not let them affect you”.
The sport psychologist further explained, “Criticism and scrutiny can be a highly traumatic experience. Harsh criticism and scrutiny from the sports ecosystem can serve a major catalyst to mental ill-health.”
Often, the outcome-oriented approach puts mental pressure on athletes. “The weight of a medal robs the ‘joy and thrill of competing’, that which elite athletes thrive on,” she added.
Injuries and physical challenges
Injuries are common in sports. But, they can be life-changing for athletes, determining their participation in important tournaments and sometimes, their future in the sport. “I have seen some of the biggest players struggling with injuries that affected their game. It is difficult and not easy to deal with. In those moments, it’s important to have the support of your friends and family,” Dasgupta said.
Malik, who is braving chest-below paralysis, said, “Physical challenges can, at times, really bring you down. With the right mental health training, I learnt to accept and get comfortable in my body. I was menopausing when I made the third consecutive Asian record at the age of 48. Had I let external intrusion of stereotypes bog me down, I would not have played and won. A strong mental framework allows you to overcome your physical challenges.”
Impact on personal life and isolation
Sports require long and intense training periods that often keep the athletes away from their loved ones. The pandemic, further, forced them to live in bio-bubbles for months, isolating them from everyone around them.
“Staying away from the family can make you homesick and this is what I feel happened with our shooters this time. Most of them are young and had not stayed away from their families for such a long time before this,” Narang said.
He added that the game often ends up impacting the personal lives of players. “It does take a toll on your personal life no matter how much you try. My mother developed diabetes before the London Olympics because she used to worry so much about my shooting. You try to draw a line and not take your sport to your dining table, but eventually, it reaches there.”
Indian mixed martial artist and 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling Championship gold medallist Ritu Phogat said, “It is difficult to stay away from your family for so long. I, however, try to channelise that energy into my game to perform better.”
“My marriage suffered a lot due to separation. There are a lot of sacrifices involved. My family really stood by me and we all together found our purpose,” Malik added.
Dasgupta highlighted the mental health concerns faced by sports players after their retirement. “Mental aspect is not just when you are playing but after your retirement, too, because a sportsperson’s career is very short. When most people in other professions are at their peak, we have to retire and our career is suddenly over.”
Agreed Kiran, “Including post-retirement plans for every athlete in the long-term athlete development programs is key. Sports policies must include a compulsory clause in this regard”.
The way forward
The athletes advocated the need for sports psychologists and a focus on the mental well-being of players.
According to Narang, “each athlete needs to have access to a sports psychologist. They should be talking to people they are close to. I feel we need to understand that talking about mental health is absolutely normal. We should encourage players to talk about it publicly and should applaud those who want to take a break from their sport”.
Phogat agreed and said, “A sport psychologist is very necessary as they can reboot our mindset before a game and help us deal with situations better.”
“The sports authorities should recognise that athletes are humans first and not just medal churners. They should educate themselves on the importance of mental health and its impact on peak performance and the future of the athlete. More importantly, they should focus on their mental well-being as well, because a sports ecosystem with compromised well-being can’t provide psychological safety for athletes where the athlete feels accepted, respected, and safe for interpersonal risk-taking, which is a key aspect to good mental health,” Kiran concluded.