The mind guru who helped India win the 2011 cricket World Cup, South African Paddy Upton, is worried about the mental health of players dealing with long-spells of isolation in the bio-bubble and fluctuations in their performances on the field during the ongoing Indian Premier League being played in the time of the pandemic.
With the experience of coaching five teams in IPL, Australia’s Big Bash and Pakistan Super League behind him, Upton says that following the restrictive COVID-19 protocols for more than two months in an alien land can get “mentally exhausting”. This fragile mental state, the Masters in Sports Science infers, can further result in players pulling out of the tournament or allowing the trauma to take a “toll on their mental health”. Raising a red flag, Upton gives a subtle but serious warning by saying “it remains to be seen how hard it is going to get”.
The most vulnerable group, according to him, are those who can’t afford to walk out of this multi-million league and miss out on a hefty pay cheque. “I feel most sorry for those players who are not financially well off. They have to dig deep and realise that ‘I have to be here to make money’ and it will take a toll on their mental health,” he says.
Painting a depressing picture of a player finding it difficult to cope with isolation without the option of flying out home, Upton says nothing could have prepared the cricketers for this unprecedented situation.
“There will be those who wouldn’t be able to manage the situation very well. They can lose motivation, self-discipline and stop exercising. They can overeat, get up late and put on weight. It also can be too much internet, TV, or social media in an effort to numb themselves and try to run away from the experience.”
He says only a “lucky” few can eject out of the bio-bubble. “As for the few lucky players who will have the financial reserves, they can afford to say that this is really not working, ‘I want to get out of here and return to a little bit of normality,’” he says. Upton says some pull-outs have already taken place and more will follow. “You will see more players going home and just saying ‘I can’t handle this and it is getting too uncomfortable. And it is affecting my mental health.’”
The one-time Rajasthan Royals coach says this season could turn out to be “extremely difficult” for foreign players and those who don’t find a place in the playing XI. “For players who are not in the playing XI, IPL is very difficult even when it is being played in India because they don’t get playing time for two-and-a-half months. The foreign internationals when not playing in the past years when in India, they would go and see their friends in other teams. Now, they cannot socialise, it is going to be a very long and tiring and mentally exhausting IPL for them.”
But virtually every player is in the same boat, Upton quickly adds. “Most of these players (Indians) have already been in lengthy isolation at home during the domestic lockdown experience. And some players like the Australians and the English have been in bio-bubbles during their series in England. So, these players have already gone through isolation fatigue and it is only going to get worse in the IPL because everyone is in a foreign country. No one is at home. Even the television channels are unfamiliar, so I think it is going to be very difficult.”
Fresh from the success of his best-selling biography-cum self-help book, Barefoot Coach, Upton has some remedies that can help players deal with the tedium of staring at the same roof lying in bed for close to 80 days.
He suggests that in case the cricketers want to take their minds away from the failure on field or the claustrophobic feeling of being indoors for long hours, they “need to have a productive, proactive building block in their life that is away from cricket.” He suggests learning a new skill, taking up an online course, or even something as simple as “putting on the video to learn dancing”.
Though, he does add a disclaimer. “What is so important is they find activities away from cricket where they can get a good experience. It could be some success or learning. But by it, I don’t mean getting good at Playstation and XBox or spending more time on social media.”
There are a couple of aspects about the bio-bubble that puzzle Upton. For one, he can’t understand why players aren’t allowed to invite teammates to their rooms. This, he says, is a rule that throws up more problems than solutions. And secondly, he can’t get the logic of teams who have opted to stay in high-rise hotels in city centres and not some resort with a private beach.
“I find it quite remarkable that some teams have actually known that they are going to a bio-bubble but have procured a high-rise in the middle of a city. It is certainly going to work against their players and teams at the back end of the tournament. Some teams have booked themselves in resort- type hotels that have their own beaches where a person can go and swim. I know it is hot there so they can’t spend much time out but it is going to get cooler. The teams that have got outdoor facilities will manage a lot better and longer than the teams in high rises or a city centre with no open spaces,” Upton says.
Anything he would do in case he was coaching an IPL team this time? “I would start talking to the England and Australia players who have been in a bio-bubble for a long time. Those experiences can be translated immediately. Those learnings can be brought into the IPL.”
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