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A Love For the Game And A Desire To Help: Meet India’s Sports Mental Health Professionals

(L-R) Maithili Bhuptani, Nanaki J. Chadha and Radhika Kawlra Singh explain the challenges faced by Indian athletes and how they help them to deal with it.

Naomi Osaka’s public acknowledgement of mental health concerns paves the way for younger athletes and gives them permission to be vulnerable, to be human, said Radhika Kawlra Singh, a Delhi-based mind coach, who deals with the subconscious mind of her clients and tries to introspect the way they think. For the past 16 years, Singh has been training Indian athletes for the Olympic Games and other world championships.

The four-time Grand Slam champion, Osaka, opted out of press events saying they caused her “huge waves of anxiety.” She eventually dropped out of the French Open too, citing mental health issues. Her statements have triggered conversations about women having the right to put their health and sanity before work.

In India, a few in the more recent generation of celebrities, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Virat Kohli and Robin Uthappa, have spoken of their mental health issues. While speaking with The Cricket Monthly, Kohli shared his experience about a phase in his career in England in 2014, when the player played 10 innings without hitting 50. “I felt like it was the end of the world,” he said. Kohli was 25 in 2014. A talent being groomed for leadership during his initial years, Kohli said that he feared the consequences of admitting that he needed help. “I couldn’t have said I’m not feeling great mentally and I need to get away from the game because you never know how that’s taken,” said the 32-year-old captain of the Indian national cricket team.

For Robin Uthappa, the off seasons were very difficult times. Uthappa has previously said that he had been diagnosed with clinical depression and suicidal tendencies between 2009-2011.  “Cricket kept my mind away from being suicidal” he told the Royal Rajasthan Foundation last year.

While mental health is still not widely discussed in India and the rest of the world, sports mental health experts are working and encouraging athletes to talk and remove the stigma associated with mental health. “Sports Psychology is a new and developing field of psychology in India,” said Maithili Bhuptani, a sports psychologist at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai.

“The field is in its budding stage in India. People have just started to hear about this field of psychology. There is still a stigma attached to mental health in India. It will take time, but at least the process has started,” Bhuptani added.

There is still a stigma attached to mental health in India. It will take time, but at least the process has started

Sports psychologists help athletes perform at peak levels. They may function as trainers, consultants, or therapists. Sports psychologists who provide therapy need licensing. Sports psychology is recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a postgraduate specialty. In India, students with a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Psychology can pursue a doctorate in sports psychology at institutes like The Sports School in Bangalore, National School of Leadership in Pune and the National Sports University in Manipur.

We spoke with three sports mental health experts to understand the challenges faced by Indian athletes.

Radhika Kawlra Singh, the Delhi-based mind coach with over twenty years of experience, has trained athletes of different sports like shooting, swimming, badminton and tennis.

Nanaki J. Chadha, is a chartered sport and performance psychologist under the British Psychological Society (BPS). Chadha, who has also competed as a golf player for almost 10 years, said that she did not enjoy competing and suffered from intense anxiety. Chadha chose to quit and combine her passion with a degree in psychology to make a difference in the lives of other athletes.

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Maithili Bhuptani, a Mumbai-based lead sport psychologist at the Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, has also been passionate about helping people by combining her love for sports and the desire to bring a change in the society. She played basketball for almost 13 years and represented her school, Dhirubhai Ambani International School. She then played for Mumbai North District. Bhuptani still plays the sport recreationally. She also has a blue belt in Judo.

Bhuptani believes that as the conversation around mental health grows in India, sportspersons who are struggling will come forward and seek help, and encourage others to do the same.

READ: Mental Health 2020 vs 2021: Struggling With Peak Stress, Unresolved Grief And Bad Public Health Messaging

What is your take on the recent withdrawal of Naomi Osaka from the French Open, citing mental health issues?

Singh: The issue of mental health is not new, it’s a phenomenon that she has been courageous enough to address. This speaks of a person who has an awareness of an athlete and who knows what it takes for accomplishing peak performance.

Chadha: I support the stance taken by her. The current issue could have been dealt with in a more sensitive and empathetic manner, considering her age and a person who has previously suffered from mental health issues. It is very important for us as a society to understand how these psychological challenges or issues can be crippling for an athletes’ performance and for their mental wellbeing.

Bhuptani: Finally, athletes like her are removing the stigma attached to mental health and openly talking about it. This shows us the impact of mental health on sportspersons where it makes you take such bold decisions like withdrawing from French Open.

What is the most prominent or prevalent issue athletes face in India?

Chadha: Immense anxiety is experienced by athletes of all sports. It crops up from stressors present in the sporting environment like fear of failure, uncertainty about the future, performance expectations and expectations that others have from them. The sporting environment is a breeding ground for these stressors since it is chaotic and unpredictable.

Singh: People come to me with a variety of skill sets but they perhaps lack faith and trust in themselves. They also lack a sense of understanding of their game, that is, how the mind of an athlete reacts to the game. In India, athletes lack awareness about their game, knowing that they have the strength and the confidence to take this strength forward.

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How does the limelight, paparazzi impact the mental well-being of a sports person? 

Singh: Every sports person deals with pressure when they are at their peak. Either they are focussed on what others think about their performance, are they living upto the expectations of their fans, or they are focussed on how to beat the previous records of themselves and create a new record. For the mind, these two pressures are the same. So, an athlete’s mental strength and the image of themselves are the determining factors to deal with the outside challenges.

Chadha: The language used in media has a devastating impact on the mental health of sportspersons, especially for those athletes who are introverted and not fond of limelight. Someone with a history of depression and anxiety like Naomi Osaka, responding to media questions may further trigger anxiety. The notion of sports that players must win games, portrayed

Bhuptani: Self-confidence will be constantly affected positively and negatively due to social media coverage. A bad coverage may motivate the player to do better next time or it may pull them down.

READ: Covid-19 Trauma: How People Are Coping With The Incredibly Hard Reality Of Grieving Alone

How has the pandemic impacted the lives of sportspersons?

Bhuptani: The biggest impact has been the uncertainty. Athletes are left in a dark spot where they do not know when they are going to perform or go for training again. They do not have venues to train themselves. At home, there is a lack of physical consultation with their coaches and they cannot meet their physios. This affects their physical and mental well-being. Isolation affects their motivation.

Singh: A lot of athletes are taking their personal lives seriously. They are spending more time with their family which has given them a push to be more optimistic towards life. But they also suffered from Covid-19 due to which they are lacking in strength and confidence. The major disappointment among athletes is not being able to train themselves during the course of the lockdown. As a result, they have lost the momentum that an athlete lives with. The time gap makes it difficult for the athlete to find the same routine.

 What is the difference between the mental health issues faced by an actor celebrity and athletes?

Chadha: Mental health concerns do not vary between a sports person or celebrity. They go through the same pressures, the limelight and the expectations from people. It is the kind of stressors that trigger these concerns.

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Singh: There is a difference. When a celebrity is showing you their vulnerability, they are not facing the camera or saying it on camera. While it’s deep and dark for them, it is not the same as it is for a sports person. Their match is live, in front of the audience, the competition is immense and there are a lot more skills attached to an athlete’s performance. So the intensity differs.

How do you train these athletes to perform better?

Singh: The most important tool that I share with the athlete is awareness – does their mind control them or do they control their mind? We get the answer to this question through observation, visualisation, projection, hypnosis and understanding how to refocus. These tools help to dismiss all the irrelevant information stored in the subconscious mind of an athlete that may have hindered their performance. These tools help athletes to make them believe in themselves and reach to a conclusion that they are controlling their mind.

Chadha: We try to intervene and introduce behavioural techniques like pressure training and exposure techniques wherein the athlete is exposed to stressful situations which they often avoid in the sporting environment. It conditions them to face these problems and come up with coping mechanisms.

Bhuptani: There are a number of interventions that can be applied for specific concerns. If an athlete is going through a negative emotion like anger or frustration, we equip them with interventions that can control them like breathing techniques, relaxation techniques, and initiating positive self-talk. The tools differ with respect to a person’s age, culture, gender and how their mind responds to them.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1800-599-0019, India’s 24/7 toll-free national mental health helpline or 08047192224, a free helpline number being run by the Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists.

WATCH: Mental Health in India | 2020 vs 2021 | Stress, Unresolved Grief and Bad Public Health Messaging


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