Conversations regarding mental health — often brushed under the carpet — have slowly started to become part of mainstream discussions. A slew of retirements and breaks by sportspersons due to mental ill-health has increased focus on the aspect in sports. While fans cheer for their victory, they pay little attention to the pressures they are under. From losses, injuries, and criticism to months of separation from loved ones — athletes deal with several mental issues that go largely unaddressed.
Recently, the topic came under the spotlight following the decisions of Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Ben Stokes’ decisions to withdraw from their respective tournaments and prioritise the wellbeing of their mental health. According to sport psychologist Sanjana Kiran, it is best to take a break when the ‘elixir’ an athlete gets from their peak performance becomes the ‘trigger’ for mental health issues.
Such conversations in India, however, are still rare.
In an interview to The Indian Express, wrestler Vinesh Phogat said she was diagnosed with depression for three months in 2019, adding that she could not sleep and stayed awake for days.
How to deal with losses
Victory and defeat are integral to sports, but dealing with losses can be challenging. Shooter Gagan Narang, who a bronze in shooting at the 2012 London Olympics, said it was difficult to get over losses but, as an athlete, that is the only way to move forward.
Former cricketer Deep Dasgupta said defeats were not easy to take. Every sportsperson has different ways to deal with losses, adding that sports teach one to be emotionally stable when dealing with wins or losses.
Kiran told IE Online that how an athlete defined success decides the impact of defeat. She added defeat could propel an athlete to return stronger and realise their full potential, but could also impact their self-worth.
While sports offer immense appreciation, it also brings equal or more criticism, with social media adding the hate comments. Deepa Malik, who won silver at the 2016 Summer Paralympics, said people often thought that athletes were their property and can be criticised, pressured or discussed to any extent. She added that social media added to the pressure, which is why she cut herself off from social media when training.
Malik said she learned to block those negative thoughts with the right guidance on mental health.
Dasgupta said criticism and vile comments can have a lot of impact and athletes needed to develop a thick skin to not let it affect them.
Sport psychologist Kiran explained that criticism and scrutiny can be traumatic. She added harsh criticism, scrutiny from the ecosystem could be a major catalyst for mental ill-health.
The outcome-oriented approach to sports often puts mental strain on athletes. The weight of securing a medal robs the athlete of the joy and thrill that competition, which an elite athlete thrives on, brings, Kiran added.
While injuries are common, they can have a life-changing impact on athletes, and determine their future in the sport. Dasgupta said he had seen some of the biggest names struggling with their game because of injuries. He added that it is important to have the support of family and friends during those moments.
Impact on personal life
The months-long training periods often keep athletes away from home and their loved ones. Covid-19 worsened the situation, forcing athletes to live in bio-bubbles away from everyone for months.
Narang said the separation from family can make athletes homesick, adding that he felt the Indian shooters faced this during the Tokyo Olympics.
He added sports also impacted athletes’ personal lives. His mother developed diabetes ahead of the London Olympics as she was constantly worried about his shooting.
Indian mixed martial artist Ritu Phogat said while the separation from family is difficult, she channelised that energy into her game. She added that her marriage also suffered because of the long separation, but her family stood by her.
Dasgupta said sportspersons dealt with concerns regarding mental health even after retirement. A sportsperson’s career is very short, he said, adding that their careers get over when people in other professions are at their peak.
Kiran said having plans for post-retirement for athletes in development programmes was key.
The way forward
The sportspersons voiced the need to have sports psychologists as well as focus on their mental wellbeing.
Narang said each athlete needs access to a sports psychologist, adding that talking about mental health needed to be normalised. Players should be encouraged to publicly talk about it and those who want to take a break should be applauded, he said.
Phogat said sport psychologists are necessary because they can reboot an athlete’s mindset and help them deal with situations.
Kiran said in conclusion that sports authorities needed to recognise that athletes were humans and should first educate themselves on mental health and its impact. She added that they should also focus on their mental wellbeing because a sports ecosystem that has compromised wellbeing would not provide psychological safety for sportspersons.