By Yajurvindra Singh
Sports are flooded with a regular stream of sporting superstars succumbing to pressure that ultimately leads to mental illness. Simone Biles, the famous gymnast from the USA, was one such victim at the Olympics in Tokyo, and the world’s leading all-rounder in cricket from England, Ben Stokes, was another. He opted out of playing an important Test series against India and has still not given any confirmation that he will return.
These are just two examples of others who face similar traumas. One wonders if athletes and women previously had the same mental health issues but were afraid to expose them.
The very concept of playing a game and participating in a sport was to teach and acquaint young people to integrate and form a bond with each other, create teamwork and friendship and learn to ride the good days with the bad ones. Winning was important, but it was just as good to participate. Playing sports and good ethical values by competing against each other and playing by the set rules were what made sports special. Even the great battle in Mahabharata had norms where the haulier, the mahout and other unarmed persons were not attacked.
The huge, phenomenal increase in bringing sporting meetings through the multimedia channels to one and all has athletes and women facing a situation like never before. Winning at any cost has taken precedence, and therefore an athlete is now facing great pressure.
The admiration and financial generosity rightly bestowed on Olympic gold medal javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra is wonderful. He deserves everything to make every Native American proud. However, all the other Indian Olympians have also worked just as hard to qualify and participate. It is hoped that those without a medal for display will take their failure well and without future psychological consequences. This is where sports administrators and coaches play a big role in keeping them going.
Mental issues concerning sports people have become an important issue that needs to be taken seriously. In the earlier days, if one could not cope with the pressure to perform, one was written as a person with a weak temperament and one who did not have the strength to compete.
“The psychological trauma that leading sports personalities are facing now is very worrying,” said the acclaimed clinical psychologist from Emotionally.in, Dr. Roma Kumar. The pressure to perform can cause fear, excessive stimulation of what to do or not to do and confusion in one’s mind. This, she says, leads to stress, anxiety, negative thoughts that affect an athlete’s basic processes. This therefore also leads to low concentration and reduced coordination of movements that inhibit their normal performance.
If one analyzes Dr. Kumar’s thoughts, these could have been some reasons why our best step shooters, archers and even gymnasts who had brought laurels to the World Cup earlier, failed. Our leading archer, Deepika Kumari, rightly said when she returned that she seemed tense due to the pressure from the five circles. This was her third Olympics, and although she was praised for being one of the frontrunners to win a gold medal, she unfortunately failed to live up to her billing.
Both the Indian hockey teams, the women and the men did extremely well at the Olympics. But by winning the bronze medal by the men, they have gained them far more generosity from well-wishers than the gallantly women’s narrowly missed medal. The mental and emotional state of the women’s team emerged when Prime Minister Modi had a call to him to give them comfort. He meant well to give them comfort in their defeat, but it led to tears and the coach had to stop the interaction before some of the women completely broke down. The thought of not being able to win a medal for the country made some of them even more depressed. Similarly, in golf, Aditi Ashok was a worthy fourth place against the best in the world. But without any medal to boast of, she received no recognition of herself from her state government. These are the athletes who now require going through sessions with a psychologist, as one never knows what mental problems may arise in the future.
It has become imperative that one seriously consider tackling mental issues about an athlete right from school to the international level.
Sachin Tendulkar, the icon of Indian sports, has also recently revealed the pressure he went through mentally. Virat Kohli did the same before. One wonders what is going on in the minds of thousands of future athletes who are striving to follow in their footsteps. Reading about their international sports heroes struggling through such issues may make some of them worried about pursuing their dream.
This is a time of plenty of choices and opportunities for individuals. Sports coaches at all levels need to be trained, qualified, and trained to assess their students’ mental state. Individual sport is an area that puts even more pressure on a sports person.
Therefore, it has become important to monitor an athlete regularly on all aspects of their health physically, emotionally and mentally. This, it is hoped, will reduce the possibility of a deterioration in mental health, which has never been encountered so extensively before.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former cricketer in India. The views are personal)
singh / am