When Loitongbam Ashalata Devi had a knee injury in 2016, she feared it would end her career. The current captain of the Indian football team remembers feeling very low at that time; she suspects that she might have been depressed about it. She was working away from home in Bihar and did not have anyone to confide in. The rehabilitation was not going well, she had to go to the office, and the concern about her career was overwhelming.
Ashalata headed to Bengaluru for rehab with Dipali Pandey, the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) physiotherapist. Ashalata confided in her, crying as she narrated her worst fears. Pandey suggested a sports psychologist because Ashalata, unlike other players, had lost weight during her break instead of putting it on and was neither eating nor sleeping well.
“My weight dropped 4-5 kilos. So for two weeks, I went to a sports psychologist,” says the footballer who is right now in Kochi, where the Indian team is currently camping ahead of their upcoming AFC Asian Cup in January. “If I started crying, I would cry the whole night. I had not told my family that I could not play for nine months because of an injury. I had no one to share with,” says Ashalata, recalling the diary her psychologist gave her to record her feelings. “It got better after 2-3 months,” she says.
Since then, Ashalata regained the mental and physical strength to come back into the Indian team.
The Asian Cup, from 20 January in Mumbai and Pune, comes on the back of the Indian team’s visit to South America, where they played Brazil, Chile and Venezuela in a four-nation tournament. India lost all three matches. The tour was a mix of excitement and anxiety for Ashalata, playing against accomplished teams. While she was excited to play against Brazil’s renounced veteran Formiga, she felt nervous two days before the game. However, team coach Thomas Lennart Dennerby said it was a good sign because it would help her focus on the match.
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“My belief is that being nervous is not a problem. When I am nervous, I try to concentrate more. I am a leader. I cannot show to any player that I am weak or the match is affecting me. The stronger I look, the stronger I play,” says the 28-year-old defender. She says the most important decision she has to make as a centre-back is the timing of her tackle. “Football is a physical game. I cannot back away; that cannot happen. Decision making is the most important. It’s not that I have to be calm all the time—aggression and anger is important.”
Besides, she says that she knows how to control her emotions. “The stronger I am mentally, the more I can control it. On the field, I shout at players; I even get angry. But I curse myself the most when I play bad. I sit in the washroom; I curse myself and cry. Then, when I shower, I am done. I don’t think about it anymore.”
The team routinely does meditation after gym or practice for about 10-15 minutes. Training is usually in high intensity, so the players use meditative practice to calm down. Her other distractions are Korean dramas online, she says laughing, and shopping, which has also moved online in these days of bio-bubbles.
The most challenging aspect of being an international sportsperson, Ashalata says, is handling the different kinds of opponents they face. Since April, the Indian team has played against Belarus, UAE, Tunisia, Bahrain and Chinese Taipei before the tour to South America. In Sweden, the weather was cold while UAE was hot. For example, Sweden’s football had a different intensity and style to Brazil’s.
The AIFF player of the year in 2019 remembers her best (and most important) moment: Entering the second round of the Olympic qualifiers for the first time in 2018. By then, her worst was already behind her, the knee injury.
“Everyone said that no player has ever come back to football after a knee injury,” she says. “That was the lowest, most difficult time of my career. I felt that I would not play for the national team anymore or hear or sing the anthem on a ground.”