By Yajurvindra Singh
Sports is being inundated with a regular flow of sporting superstars, succumbing to pressure which eventually leads to mental illness. Simone Biles, the famous gymnast from USA, was one such victim at the Olympics in Tokyo, and the worlds leading cricket allrounder from England, Ben Stokes, was another. He opted out of playing an important Test series against India and has still not given any confirmation of his return.
These are just two examples of others facing similar trauma. One wonders whether in the past sportsmen and women had the same mental issues facing them but were scared to reveal them.
The very concept of playing a game and partaking in a sport was to teach and familiarize youngsters to integrate and form a bond with one another, create teamwork and friendship and learn to ride the good days with the bad. Winning was important but participating was just as good. Sportsmanship and good ethical values of competing against one another and playing according to the set rules was what made sports special. Even the great battle in the Mahabharata had norms wherein the charioteer, the mahout and other unarmed individuals were not attacked.
The huge, phenomenal rise in bringing sporting encounters through the multimedia channels to one and all has sportsmen and women facing a situation like never before. Winning at all cost has taken precedence and therefore, an athlete, is now faced with pressures galore.
The adulation and financial generosity that is being rightly bestowed on Olympic gold medalist javelin thrower, Neeraj Chopra, is wonderful. He deserves every bit of it for making every Indian proud. However, all the other Indian Olympians have also worked as hard to qualify and participate. One hopes that the ones without a medal to showcase take their failure well and without any future mental repercussions. This is where sports administrators and coaches play a major part in keeping them going.
Mental issues relating to sportspersons have become an essential topic to dwell upon seriously. In the earlier days if one could not stand up to the pressures to perform, one was typed as a person with a weak temperament and one who did not have the strength to compete.
“The mental trauma being faced by leading sports personalities now is very worrying,” said the well acclaimed clinical psychologist from Emotionally.in, Dr. Roma Kumar. The pressure to perform can cause fear, excessive stimulus as to what to do or not to do and confusion in one’s mind. This, she says, leads to stress, anxiety, negative thoughts that affect the basic processes of a sportsperson. This therefore also leads to low concentration and reduced coordination of movements hampering their normal performances.
If one analyses Dr. Kumar’s thoughts, these could have been some reasons why our top rung shooters, archers and even gymnasts who had brought laurels in World Championships earlier, failed. Our leading archer, Deepika Kumari, rightly said on her return that she seemed to buckle down due to the pressure of the five circles. This was her third Olympics and even though she was acclaimed to be one of the front-runners to win a gold medal, she unfortunately, failed to live up to her billing.
Both the Indian hockey teams, the women’s and the men’s did extremely well at the Olympics. However, winning the bronze medal by the men has got them far more generosity from well-wishers than the narrowly missed medal by the gallant women. The concerning mental and emotional state of the women’s team came to light when Prime Minister Modi had a call with them to give them solace. 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 broke down completely. 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. However, with no medal to boast of, she got no recognition by even from her state government. These are the athletes who now require to go through sessions with a psychologist as one never knows what mental issues may surface in the future.
It has become imperative that a serious thought be given to tackle mental issues of a sportsperson right from school to the international level.
Sachin Tendulkar, the icon of Indian sport, has also revealed recently the pressure that he went through mentally. So did Virat Kohli earlier. One wonders as to what must be going through the minds of thousands of upcoming sportsmen aspiring to follow in their footsteps. To read about their international sports heroes struggle through such problems may make some of them worried about pursuing their dream.
This is a time of plenty of choices and options for individuals. Sports coaches at all levels need to be trained, qualified and educated to assess the mental condition of their students. Individual sports is an area that puts even more pressure on a sportsperson.
Therefore, it has become important to monitor a sportsperson on a regular basis about all aspects of their health physical, emotional and mental. This, one hopes, will reduce the possibility of a deterioration of mental health which was never encountered so extensively before.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former India cricketer. The views expressed are personal)