'A Barrier to Performance': How Mental Health of Athletes Is Perceived in India

In India, a country where the sports fraternity functions in an unorganised environment, questions about the athlete’s psychological health, especially when participating in big-ticket events, is a mirage.

Listen to this article:

Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s 2022 Roland Garros tour may have come to a disappointing end with a first-round loss, but all is not in vain. The Japanese player made headlines in last year’s French Open by withdrawing from the tournament, citing mental health reasons. The furore caused by this shocking exit has since then thrown the sporting fraternity into incisive deliberations about the pressures of high-performance events on young athletes.

One of the key changes Osaka’s bold step has provoked can be seen in the 2022 edition of the French Open, where the authorities have built a mental health programme with on-site psychologists and psychiatrists to deliver anonymous walk-in appointments to contestants.

“We treat athletes like race horses. We can see injuries on the outside, a limping player, a bleeding boxer, but the scars inside are not visible. We want them to run and jump for us, win medals and then we dump them. How many of us walk up to an athlete and not ask the speed or the kilometres but just hug him/her and ask ‘how are you today?’” Joydeep Karmakar, Indian rifle shooter, said.

According to Indian athletes, sports psychologists, and representatives from sports administrative bodies, it is easy to make a blanket claim that mental health of Indian athletes is not recognised, let alone diagnosed and treated. In India, a country where the sports fraternity functions in an unorganised environment, questions about the athlete’s psychological health, especially when participating in big-ticket events, is a mirage.

Delhi-based sports and performance psychologist, Sumiran Tandon, who has worked with athletes in England and India, said: “In 2015 in Fenesta Nationals, Delhi, one of the athletes was running a high temperature and came to my office to take medicine and rest. He later went out, played, and won the games. This was glorified to say that he had pushed through his weaknesses to victory. I had no say in the proceedings as a psychologist. It was only up to the coaches, the federation and physiotherapists.”

Also read: Are Invisible Battles Unreal?

The frustration Tandon feels is common among the sports psychologists in India. Most of them feel that mental health issues of sportspersons are often overlooked. Many people view sports psychology to be linked to only elite athletes like golf players. Therapists are mostly seen as “fillers” during international athletic events, and are tasked with achieving a last-mile readiness for star athletes before they are pushed into a highly stressful world of performance anxiety and related complications.

The emphasis is always on robust physical health, which is deemed to be translated to “mental toughness”. In fact, the image of a “mentally tough” athlete is given an uneasy pedestal by coaches and federation officials, leading to players being reticent to speak up about their psychological issues as it would most likely lead to them being dropped from teams.

“The major obstacle in the identification of mental health issues in athletes is the framework of “mental toughness” – the perception that if you are an athlete, you have to be mentally tough. Physical well-being and exercise are always equated with mental welfare,” said Abhilasha Saharan, a Delhi-based sports psychologist.

The COVID-19 pandemic further pronounced the repressed psychological issues that athletes were facing in India.

When seven-time Olympic medallist and star gymnast Simone Biles chose to step back from the final competition at the Tokyo Olympics 2021, she said that Osaka inspired her to focus on mental health. Biles was reportedly suffering from a case of “twisties” – a mental block that prevents gymnasts from knowing where they are while flipping through the air. She told the host of NBC’s Today show, “We’re human too and we have emotions and feelings and things that we’re working through behind the scenes that we don’t tell you guys about. And so, I just think it’s something that people should be more aware of.”

Bajrang Punia, an Indian wrestler and silver medallist at the Tokyo Olympics 2021, told this reporter: “During the lockdown, all of us [athletes] faced problems because training had stopped, the grounds and stadiums had closed and then the Olympics were also postponed. I also experienced some mental discomfort and insecurity during this period. When training started again and the Olympics were announced, I could get back on course with my dream to win a medal for my country.”

Bajrang Punia in Tokyo, at the Olympics. Photo: PTI

In November 2020, the Bengaluru FC officials began a mental health support programme called ‘Care around the Corner’. The mental health initiative saw athletes receiving mental health support inside endless bio-bubbles. A slew of group and one-on-one sessions with an appointed mental health professional was started to spread awareness and deal with problems such as loneliness, boredom, anxieties about restarting the game season and so on.

Kunaal Majgaonkar, head of media, Bengaluru FC, said, “Mental health is not spoken about enough and we anticipated it’s going to escalate in the lockdown period. We have knowledge that around 10-12 boys out of a team of 30 have taken advantage of the programme and had more than one personal session with the expert. This was very encouraging for us as it validated our actions. We are going to continue the programme and introduce it to our junior teams.”

Confirming the stressful conditions athletes were exposed to during the pandemic, Sourav Ganguly, former India cricket captain and president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), told veteran Bollywood superstar and game-show host Amitabh Bachchan on Kaun Banega Crorepati (reality television game show), “Mental health struggle is real. Even Ben Stokes pulled out at the last moment after being named in the India-England series. There is extreme performance pressure for all players, all the time. It has always been there, some can speak out and some can’t.”

Deep Dasgupta, cricket commentator and former wicket-keeper of the Indian National team, agreed, “There are more down days than highs – everyone faces it [in sports]. I remember Sandy Gordon [senior sports psychologist accompanying the team] came and spoke to us when we were touring in 2002 – it really helped me. It’s become usual with golfers and tennis players to have sports psychologists with them, and I strongly support it.”

Also read: My Story With Bipolar Disorder, and How to Talk and Not Talk About Mental Illnesses

‘Mentally strong under performance pressure’

The opposite view that athletes are meant to be different – i.e. mentally and physically strong – has a huge following within the sporting world itself.

Bhaichung Bhutia. Photo: Twitter

When asked about how mental health problems are impacting Olympic athletes, Bhaichung Bhutia, former Indian football captain, said, “I feel sorry to see athletes of today becoming softer and softer. When you are competing at the highest levels, performance pressure is expected.”

“We have had great sports personalities in the past that have battled tough conditions, entire administrations, and situations far worse. Legends like Muhammad Ali come to mind…the South American football team had to fight the mafia, there was a Columbian goalkeeper whose brother was shot dead after he conceded three goals…those were the real things! Now you can just have a bad dream one day and don’t show up for the game on the next!” he said.

“I feel mental health issues have become glamourised after the Simone Biles incident. I am not saying real issues aren’t there, but there are more people now trying to create issues that don’t exist after seeing these examples! I mean, if you look at us as Indians, the daily life struggle that more than 50% of the population goes through is more likely to equip us with mental toughness than the foreigners we are comparing ourselves with!” said Jharkhand-based sports psychologist, Karanbir Singh.

One of the major reasons for the downward spiral of Indian athletes may be the drastic jump in their stature after winning international sporting events. Sports psychologist Tandon said that athletes are made demigods and disposed of like rags in a matter of a single medal won or lost. “(In England) athletes are driven by finances, here they are controlled by finances,” she added.

Indian rifle shooting legend Joydeep Karmakar said, “I can emphatically say that the Olympic athletes of India are technically at par or maybe superior to their counterparts abroad. One of the major things holding them back from performing to their potential is the mental barrier/patterns that our society creates for them.”

Mugdha Dhamankar-Bavare, ex-professional swimmer and founder-director of Mind Sports, told this reporter, “As a psychologist, I have always tried to shift the focus from winning to enjoying the sport. This will help more talented people to join the sport.”

Sreemanti Sengupta is a Kolkata-based freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer.