In hard times, mind coaches get busy

Updated on Mar 27, 2020 08:18 AM IST

In lockdown mode with all competitions and training cancelled, some of India’s elite athletes are calling up their mental conditioning coaches to keep negative thoughts from creeping in.

Boxer Amit Phangal, who has qualified for the Olympics, frets over maintaining fitness so that his hard work doesn’t go to waste.(HT Photo)
Boxer Amit Phangal, who has qualified for the Olympics, frets over maintaining fitness so that his hard work doesn’t go to waste.(HT Photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByAvishek Roy

The unprecedented decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics by a year should’ve come as a relief to most of the professional athletes around the world. However, despite the end of the overwhelming uncertainty of whether the Games will be held in this calendar year or not, athletes around the globe -- and in India -- remain ridden with enough anxiety that some of them are now reaching out to mental trainers for professional help.

Like the rest of the country, athletes too are in lockdown mode -- with camps and tune-up competitions having been cancelled a while ago. And because academies and training centres (second homes to these athletes) are also now out of their bounds, India’s Olympics aspirants are finding it difficult to spend the hours where they would ideally have been expending their energies; remaining idle at home, therefore, makes it easy for negative thoughts to creep in.

“It is one of the many challenges the Olympic-bound athletes are facing in the current situation,” says Dr Swaroop Savanur, a mental conditioning and peak performance coach who works with Pune-based sports NGO Lakshya Sports, which provides support to many elite Indian athletes. “Athletes are used to a routine, training timing, rest, etc. Suddenly they have a lot of time on hand with nothing to do. And with the Olympics qualification on hold and time on hand, it is natural that the negative switch in their heads will be on.”

Savanur works with top boxers, wrestlers and table tennis players. Some of them have already made the cut for Tokyo. Others haven’t -- and for them the stress is understandably more. “This is something unprecedented. Ambiguity is more stressful,” says Savanur. “The second issue is every player has a flow, a momentum that builds towards a tournament. Now that there is a sudden break in that momentum, the athletes may find it very difficult to gain that flow back.”

Dutee Chand is a prime example of this particular kind of stress. Chand was looking qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 100m at the Indian Grand Prix in Patiala, but the event got cancelled at the last minute. “There is so much tension in the mind right now. There is no place to train,” she says now, from her home in Bhubaneshwar.

The extra time at home should ideally have been a stress-buster. But in the current situation, it is quite the opposite. “The training centres are closed, gyms are shut, you can’t do anything. I am doing my bit of running and also do some weights at home, but it is still difficult,” she says. “There is no competition to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics which is on schedule. Even if things get better and there are qualifiers within a few months, how will we do that without training.”

“People around me keep asking are you going to Tokyo? I have no answers,” Chand adds.

The other big worry for athletes around the world is also everyone’s primary concern these days -- to not get infected by coronavirus. Many of India’s athletes were in training camps and competitions abroad and returned home only recently. And once again, they turn to their mental coaches for answers.

“They want to know about the spread of Covid-19, what isolation means, whether it means sitting in a closed, dark room. They have fears of being infected and ask questions to better understand being in quarantine,” says sports psychologist Gayatri Vartak Madkekar, who works with badminton players, weightlifters, archers and tennis players. “And one of the reasons for this panic is the smart phone.”

One sportsperson who claims to not use his phone to check updates on the virus anymore is Sunil Chhetri, India’s football captain. “Scaremongering is not my idea of fun,” says Chhetri. Although India haven’t qualified for the football event of the upcoming Olympics, the fear and stress is common among all elite sportspeople.

“They are constantly coming across information which might not be authentic. I have advised them not to use their phones frequently. They should limit it to basic needs and training schedule,” says Madkekar.

Table tennis player Achanta Sharath Kamal, who recently won the Oman Open, said it is very difficult to maintain a disciplined regimen under the current circumstances. “When practice happens, it is an automatic thing. When there is no practice, you tend to relax, eat and then think of working out. Mentally it is going to be a very tough phase,” says the seasoned player, who is also yet to qualify for Tokyo. “There will no tournaments in the near future. The most difficult part about that is to keep the motivation up when I don’t know when I’ll play a tournament next. For that, I am getting help from my mental coach.”

Unlike Kamal, boxer Amit Panghal finds himself in a mental knot despite having qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. The big challenge for the Asian Games gold medallist and World Championships silver medallist is to remain in top physical shape. “I have worked so hard to win a quota, but now I sometimes think ‘what if Tokyo Olympics do not happen’. Then my dream of winning a medal for the country is gone.

To keep the juices flowing, Panghal is currently training in his village with his childhood coach. But not everyone has been that lucky. When contacted, Parupalli Kashyap -- the Commonwealth Games gold medallist from 2014 -- said: “ I have lost the motivation to keep a routine or sleep. I’m sleeping and waking up whenever I want, as it doesn’t matter.”

To beat that, the mental trainers are suggesting various tools such as mental imagery and visualisation techniques to be in a positive frame of mind. Athletes are also being asked to maintain a sleep pattern and diet and also maintain a daily routine.

“This is something we use a lot for players undergoing injury rehabilitation,” says Savanur. “Players should not view the current crisis as too big. They should take it as just another challenge and should know how to deal with it in the best possible manner.”

Madkekar says that she is also encouraging them to watch their own match videos. “A lot of visualisation will help during this time. But it needs to be specific, like visualising one’s matches,” she says. “There is anxiety surrounding their fitness. Of course home training won’t live up to their usual standards, but they are elite athletes. They have been working with us and they have the maturity to deal with it.”

But what is the advise for someone like the wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who is experiencing distress remembering the scenes at the airport from when she returned home to India. “What I saw around the New Delhi airport disturbed me greatly. There were masks all around — from airline staff to people standing in queues, everyone looked tense. We athletes are not used to such scenes and I just wanted to get out of the airport as soon as possible,” says Phogat.

“My advice is also to not panic in general,” says Madkekar. “Take it as a break, and use it to spend quality time with family. They all know the skill of focussing on one match at a time, one ball at a time. And this is exactly what they need to put into application right now.”

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