Depression - the unseen pain in Indian sports
Alan Shearer and an elite sports psychologist spoke to Sportskeeda.
With merely five seconds left on the clock, the score read 5-5. In an attempt to break the deadlock, Sakshi Malik coerced the Kyrgyzstani into losing balance. In doing so, the Indian wrestler produced a rock-ribbed 3-point move and famously clinched the bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
That last ditch tackle spoke volumes about Malik’s frame of mind. Only an extremely mentally strong individual could have mounted such a stellar comeback. After all, she was trailing 5-0 early in the match, eventually registering an 8-5 win.
Roughly 12 months prior to the 2016 Olympics, the SAI (Sports Authority of India) actively began looking for sports psychologists. Most of the tournament hopefuls would have had their blinkers on from 2012. The path towards greatness is extensive and arduous. Isolation might be a gift but beyond a point, where do you hoard these gifts?
Radhika Gordhandas, a sports and performance psychologist associated with the SAI, decodes the method behind the dedication, “While depression can impact anyone, the probability is higher for an elite athlete. Primarily because there’s a lot of self-worth and self-esteem largely related to sport.”
Their identity is directly related to their performance. A drop may lose its identity when it falls into the ocean. Out here, where excellence is relentlessly pursued, there are no oceans. Not even a lake. It is more of a coffee mug, within which 117 Indian athletes attempted to rise to the top in 2016.
Psychology plays a major role in sport
The English Premier League’s record goal scorer, Alan Shearer was recently in Mumbai and recalled the situation during his playing days, “Psychology is a huge thing now, not only in football but in sport. Some players like to use them, some don’t.
“Some managers demand that you use them. Personally, I never felt it was beneficial to me. I have sat down with them before but it didn’t help me. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be to someone else. Everyone’s different.”
When athletes approach psychologists, it’s largely from a performance enhancing perspective. It’s only when both parties start building a rapport over a certain period that patterns begin to emerge.
“There are instances when I can sense athletes are moving towards depression but we’ve been able to control the situation and stop them from completely getting into it,” says Radhika, who has engaged with a handful of elite sportspersons over the last few years.
During one such instance, sometime in January 2016, a Taekwondo player, razor-focused in the midst of preparing for his Olympic trials, abruptly suffered a knee injury. It came as a huge blow to him as he had to undergo surgery just months before the date of the trials.
“You’ve waited for an event for 3-4 years, prepared for it and suddenly, snap! You know you’ve lost all your chances of competing. That was a major setback for him. He had to first accept the reality that he can’t participate. Because the initial reaction is to deny reality.”
But what happens next? The trials were the only thing he was eagerly looking forward to for the past couple of years. That is when Radhika intervened and helped him focus on different goals in life.
“Maybe temporarily taking up another sport could be a possibility. If the knee is bad, one can try rifle shooting or another less intensive sport for the time being.” Since the athlete had a habit of being part of a physical routine, it was paramount that it continued in some form.
His rehabilitation period lasted for six months and he’s now finally back on the mat. During this period, he even took formal music lessons which helped him take his mind off the injury.
Now you might be wondering why an elite athlete would be interested in taking up music lessons. Radhika has the answer: “See there are people who like these things but have never had the time to really pursue their interests because sport as a career is extremely demanding. They have morning training, then gym sessions, afternoon conditioning and again evening training.”
A single-minded focus on their goals results in a rather mundane but necessary pattern – rest, train, rest, train. Hence, anything that breaks the pattern is cherished.
Heading into the 2016 Olympics, one particular male athlete had every reason to believe. Aspirations of a medal were in no way far-fetched. He was making all the right moves during practice, clocking record times and was arguably at his peak.
But aspirations soon turned into accusations. To his coaching staff’s surprise, he made an early exit from the competition. “When the athlete comes back early, people throw accusations like he went there to have fun which is completely wrong. He was suddenly in the limelight because he qualified and the entire world was watching him.”
To him and the people around, his early exit almost seemed implausible. Questions began to spring up as to whether this was his last Olympics. A cloud of uncertainty hovered above him. He didn’t have the answers, however, he did have help on his side.
Cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness
For a couple of days, he had no interest in talking to anyone. But it is paramount that this vicious cycle of negative thinking snaps. Cognitive behaviour therapy is one of the most common techniques used to break this cycle.
The objective of this therapy is to make the athletes more aware of when a negative thought enters their mind thereby helping them develop an alternative form of thinking which leads to positive outcomes.
Mindfulness is another therapy that these athletes are recommended to put into practice. To put it simply, mindfulness – a Zen concept – involves being completely engrossed in the present moment and razor-focused on the task at hand.
A Zen monk always carries out a single task at a given time, multi-tasking is a no-no. This ensures the mind never gets cloudy with multiple thoughts.
The grind is real, it’s human. We as viewers have the responsibility of viewing them in that way – to look beyond the tackles and the record times they clock. Instead, we need to look at their minds and hope they’re doing well.