The Olympics is not just a test of an athlete's sporting skills, but also their mental strength. The latter is under tremendous stress this year owing to a curtailed training period and Covid-19. Pullela Gopichand calls the Tokyo Olympic Games ‘difficult and different’
The Olympics are usually marked by a vibrant environment, with world champions and athletes meeting and greeting each other warmly. But this year is different. There is massive security, daily testing, isolation and locked-down bubbles at venues and training sites. Handshakes and hugs aren’t allowed any more. Besides these restrictions, players also have to deal with mental and physical stressors of injury, social media scrutiny and competitive pressure. “It’s a tough fight, both mentally and physically, to play and perform under these extremely challenging and exceptional circumstances. You can’t sit in the cafeteria, roam outside, do gymming or weight-train. At best, (you can) read a book in the room or meditate… there’s nothing much you can do… spend more time indoors, with yourself or team members… this can help beat the mental pressure and create an environment to avoid anxiety,” said Pullela Gopichand, chief national coach, Indian badminton team, in a telephonic chat. “Or simply put down your head, do the job and come back.”
Talking about the importance of the Games in an athlete’s life, he says, “It’s an achievement to perform at the Olympics and the Games mean life for some players. So despite the unavoidable situations and restrictions, players are happy to return to the ground and perform,” says the 47-year-old, who guided India to two Olympic medals in 2012 and 2016.
This year, Gopichand opted out of India’s Olympic-bound badminton contingent after IOA cleared a five-member support staff group— three coaches and two physios. Each player has been trained under an assigned coach— star player PV Sindhu is training under Korean coach Tae Sang Park, shuttler Sai Praneeth is being coached by Agus Dwi Santosa, and Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy are being guided by Denmark’s Mathias Boe in their maiden Games.
The lull of the past one year, feels Gopichand, may have recharged players, but restlessness and anxiety because of the Games being postponed last year added to the stress and fear of losing out this year. “Each year in sport is equivalent to five years in another profession. If you miss one year of competition, you miss out on the age criteria of any competition, be it national or international level. Unlike the education system, there is nothing like a pass in sports. No competition means no chance to play another level. Insecurity, fear of missing out and anxiety are bound to happen,” he says.
This is the reason the coach emphasises on mediation as a mental health parameter, which, he feels, has benefitted him throughout his career, both as a player and coach. “The stress levels are high and so is anxiety and the mental pressure to perform better. In such crucial times, measured quality of mediation helps,” says Gopichand, who won his first national title in 1996.
Traditionally in India, mental well-being in sports has been restricted to family support. It is only in the past two-three years that it has gained pace in the form of counselling sessions, but only for top players. “Sports psychology is a very niche subject and not everyone has expertise. Only the top players have access to experts. I have myself meditated, used visualisation, affirmations in my coaching career, but in a manner which is not refined. What’s most difficult is to measure or track the time spent in counselling sessions… whether you are active, distracted or switched off in a session,” says Gopichand, who spent more than 10,000 hours to refine the data-driven smart meditation ring Dhyana. The device has elements like ‘quick calm’ to avail calmness in 30 seconds. “Sometimes you may not have 20 minutes to rest or meditate, but this ring gets you to a space of relative calmness in 30 seconds. This calm is the need of the hour,” shares Gopichand, who is also the founder-director of Dhyana.
Gopichand is known for being a strict disciplinarian, one who regulates an athlete’s eating, sleep cycle as well as mobile-time use while training them-something he did between the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2019 World Championship with ace player PV Sindhu. Playing sports can require one to spend more than 10 hours a day doing practise and 14 hours just thinking about the game, he says. Talking about the state of restlessness felt by many in the age of social media, he says, “Today, it is a dynamic world of technology… there’s social media that affects you in certain ways unless one is mentally very strong,” says Gopichand, who has gone through his share of professional ups and downs, be it a clash with Jwala Gutta or the estrangement of Saina Nehwal, who decided to join Prakash Padukone’s academy to train under Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru after the 2014 World Championship. His spirit, however, remains undeterred, with his name being synonymous with badminton glory in India today.
Gopichand set up the now-famous Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad in 2008, which has gone on to revolutionise the game in the country. The star coach has also been recognised by the International Olympic Committee for his contribution to the development of the game. Besides Sindhu and Nehwal, Gopichand has trained many big players, including former world number one Srikanth Kidambi, P Kashyap, HS Prannoy, Sai Praneeth, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Gurusai Datt, among others. “The future of the sport is bright in India,” says Gopichand, who wants more players and coaches in the game. “Not just Hyderabad, but Bengaluru, Chennai, Kerala and Delhi… all these cities have seen humungous improvement in infrastructure and player support. But it’s like a chicken and egg situation… we want players to produce players and unless players come to play the sport, you can’t produce players. We have been able to crack one cycle and if we continue like this, the sky is the limit for Indian badminton.”