Say no to choking under pressure at Olympics; Mental training is the way forward

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Shooting turned out to be a major disappointment at Tokyo 2020.


Say no to choking under pressure at Olympics; Mental training is the way forward

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Madhav Agarwal


Indian athletes are slowly starting to excel in various sports and the country boasts of some of the best talents world, be it in shooting, badminton, boxing, or wrestling, to name a few. Now emphasis should be laid on mental training, so that athletes don't fail under pressure on the global stage.

It was a bright, sultry afternoon in Hyderabad, in the peak of summer, but I was chuffed at the prospect of interviewing the then two-time World Championship bronze medalist PV Sindhu at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, some 20 km away from the heart of the city in Gachibowli. The heat did not matter at all that day, since the uber-talented shuttler had finally agreed to speak with me about her preparation for the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics, after putting in a request a week earlier.  

After travelling for a little over an hour to the academy, it took us no longer than seven minutes to wrap up the to-the-point interaction. We spoke about her technique, the areas she wanted to improve upon, her stress-related injury in 2015, and expectations from her first Olympics; what I conveniently forgot to ask her was about her mental make-up going into the Games. Still satisfied having spoken to the champion shuttler, I was ready to leave. That was when, in a casual chat, Sindhu's father PV Ramana told me, "Sindhu is going off social media till the Olympics; she doesn't need extra pressure before Rio and just needs to focus on her game". That was perhaps the first time, the importance of being in a sound mental state before a big tournament like the Olympics, struck me.

The Indian sports setup too unfortunately finds itself in a similar predicament, where not a lot of focus is laid on the mental well-being of the sportspersons, or at least not as much as it should. Of course, the awareness is slowly creeping in, but not at a desirable pace. That is one of the main reasons our top athletes succumb to high pressure at global stages like the Olympics. Just imagine the kind of pressure someone like a 19-year-old ace shooter Manu Bhaker would have gone through in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020. Considering she was one of the biggest medal hopes for the country and was talked about widely, with no one expecting anything short of gold from her. If this was not enough pressure already, she was involved in an ugly spat with her coach Jaspal Rana a few months prior to the Olympics. 

Then there was seasoned archer, World No. 1 Deepika Kumari, who was into her third Olympics and was one of the favorites to win a medal in the women's recurve singles competition. But the pressure got the better of Jharkhand girl as she exited in the quarterfinals losing out to South Korean An San. This was just a repeat of 2012 London Games when Deepika crashed out in the first round despite being ranked the best archer in the world. While Indian sports is laden with instances like these, there are some athletes who seem to have found the right balance between handling pressures -- both external and internal.

Shooter Abhinav Bindra, India's first-ever individual gold medalist from Beijing Olympics, went into a bubble a year before the Games actually started. Drastic steps like commando training -- that involved putting him into high-pressure situations were taken too. "I had to conquer fear, fear that could grip me during an Olympic final," Bindra had explained as the reason for taking such measures, in his autobiography -- A Shot at History. Well, while Bindra may have conquered the world in peculiar ways, there is no foolproof technique to manage the mind successfully, that could help win medals. Simply put, what works for an athlete, might not get desired results for another.

Perhaps, that is where the role of a sports psychologist becomes paramount. Dynamique Minds' Sumiran Tandon, a psychologist who deals with some of the top athletes in the country, feels that in a country like India the athletes should be made to believe only in their performances and the processes involved, without worrying about the results. That could go a long way in helping them achieve the targets which are befitting of their enormous talent.

"Sports psychology is a branch of sports science where we help the athlete perform to their optimal level. Our focus is only on process and performance and not on results. And our job is to make the athlete believe so too as well," said Tandon in an exclusive chat with SportsCafe.

The constant talk about believing in processes and not the results might resonate with the cricket fans in the country, where former India skipper MS Dhoni used to harp about the same, day in and day out. This attitude worked wonders for the players as well as the team since under Dhoni, who was a champion of this philosophy, led India to two World Cups and a Champions Trophy title. So is it just upon the governing bodies of each sport to take care of the mental well-being of an athlete?

"Not really" feels Tandon. "The onus is also on the sportspersons to not neglect the mental aspect of their preparations going into a big competition. Having said that, it will only happen if they know the importance of it, have been educated about it. But as of now, these mental workshops are thrust upon them, and they don't really understand the value of it.

"I think our elite athletes go through extreme self-pressure to get gold at the Olympics (those in contention). Of course, they are good enough to do that and must have proven themselves at different levels, but the pressure keeps building up within which can lead to the downfall at major tournaments."

Then what is the best way forward for our Indian athletes, one might question. Just like learning the technique for a sport early is imperative for an athlete, having access to sports psychologists from a young age should be the norm going forward, explains Tandon. "In an ideal scenario, once an athlete starts competing from the age of 11 and above, they should have the support of a sports psychologist, maybe not regular support but someone should be there to look at their mental training in a span of few days. Even the youngsters should be aware that help is only a call away."

A scientific approach in dealing with the fears, worries, and pressures is the need of the hour for Indian sportspersons. Once again in the famous words of Dhoni, 'the result is just a by-product of the process', and it is no rocket science that we need to put our focus into the process.

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