In conversation with Radhika Gordhandas - the Sport Psychologist preparing Indian athletes for the 2016 Rio Olympics
Hey Radhika, could you tell us about what exactly you do? What kind of sports are you involved in and your role specifically for the 2016 Olympic Games?
I work with athletes on building a winning mind-set for high performance in their sport, in short I work on their mental toughness. I work with teams like Taekwondo and Rowing as a Sport Psychologist and I am also working with players in athletics who are currently preparing for their Olympic qualifiers
If you’re sitting in front of an Indian runner who is about to run in the 2016 Olympics 100 m race final. He/She hasn’t won a single medal in this category ever. What would you be saying to them?
In case of human mind “there isn’t a one size that fits all” hence each individual athlete has to work out his/her pre-competition routine that facilitates a winning mind-set and this routine is unique to each athlete.
For most athletes who are first timers at any international competition, sometimes their thoughts can lead to anxiety, build pressure and lead to loss of focus.
This can lead to a chain reaction of negative thought pattern like
- I must win, what if I don’t win (I have put in years of practice and this is my only chance)
- What will happen / will I perform well – will I not perform well
- What if my competitor performs better than me/ I think he is looking better than me
- I have always lost at this level
- Everyone is watching me, they expect very highly of me. What will they say if I don’t meet their expectations?
- Having a pre-competition mental routine and regularly training the mind can help athletes deal with the pressures and focus on performance
- Focusing on performance rather than outcomes, mental repetitions like “I can, I will”, “I am strong, confident, powerful”, “I am the best, I will give my best performance”, using visual imagery, thinking here and now and learning to enjoy competition pressure is what helps.
- Pressure is inevitable but what’s important is dealing with and even better is to learn to enjoy it.
What do you love about the psychology of sports? Why do you think it is important in today’s day and age?
“Mind controls our body” and the beauty of sport psychology is that it can do wonders to athletes who believe in it and believe in themselves. What you think is what you do - If you believe in your mind you are going to be the best, you will be inclined to focus on activities that make you the best.
Sport psychology in today’s world is important to help athletes unleash their potential to the fullest to achieve a level of greatness with consistent high performances.
It gives the athlete an edge over others because the fraction of a difference between winning and losing is not in the skills or effort but it lies in the minds of an athlete.
Could you tell us a couple of specific interesting stories when you worked with players on their mental aspects?
Well, there are many experiences. An experience I can quote is with a young player who in his first international competition nearly defeated an Olympian. In most cases I have worked with, it’s not capabilities and skills that a player lacks, it’s the self-belief.
If an athlete believes he/she is the best then who is the competitor does not matter, what matter is giving the best performance…and with best performance, the desired outcome follows.
They say depression at the highest level isn’t surprising anymore. Why do you think so? I mean they’re international players at the top of their game.
When you are at the peak the expectations are high and so are the stakes… it’s not easy to be up there and still climb higher. There is always a fear of failure, injury and sometimes even the fear of being victimized within the game.
There are many reasons for depression in athletes some of the reasons I have come across are injury, failure, relationship problems, loneliness-being away from family and loved ones, uncertainty about future etc.
For a lot of serious athletes I meet, there is only one aim in life and that is the game. They may forget the world beyond their sport and this can sometimes lead to an imbalance and uncertainty in the life.
What do you do to help them overcome this depression? Could normal amateur players like us also benefit from a sports psychologist?
I work with players to help them build a high self-esteem and a positive mind-set which is independent of performance in one match and/or even an overall performance in sport. I also encourage players to think about here and now and live each moment to the fullest. Sport psychology not only applies to sport, it’s a life-skill that most players learn.
Depression among athletes – most cases I have come across is because of a low self-esteem and feeling of helplessness. People feel depressed because they find themselves in a situation that is unfavourable and they believe that they cannot cope with it.
For eg: Injury just before the most important match. It is very difficult for a player to accept the injury and move on with new goals in life. Having a high self-esteem helps you believe in yourself to cope with the toughest of situations in sport and life.
Players across all levels can benefit from sport psychology. In fact starting mental training early in life helps players build a right mind-set to take up serious competitive/professional sporting.
What makes an athlete mentally strong and supreme? I mean you see football players like Messi and Ronaldo put in impeccable performances week in week out. It’s almost unreal considering the fact that their scrutinized every day. What’s the secret?
Every great athlete has a dream to be the greatest in the sport, to be a master and to master the perfection. The secret ingredient to make this dream into a reality is discipline and there is no substitute to discipline. Discipline consists of training, practice and continuous learning. Great athletes like Messi and Ronaldo, never compromise on discipline.
If you have the discipline and rigor to train your mind and body to achieve perfection, self-control to keepaway distraction, a continuous learning attitude and firm self-belief, your dream to greatness is sure to be a reality