There is something about being on a flight that brings out troubling thoughts for Sakshi Malik. The wrestler, who won a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, is used to travelling in her career as an international sportsperson. While staying away from home for competitions does induce some amount of loneliness, her biggest fears come alive inside an aircraft.
“I don’t know why,” she exclaims over the phone. “On air, if I feel sleepy, then it happens more… thoughts such as, ‘oh, you are on air, you are going somewhere, to another country’. These kind of weird thoughts come to my mind. Then I try to bring my mind back to the point that I have a goal, I am doing this to achieve that goal.”
She often finds herself thinking about the sacrifices required to pursue sport, leaving behind her family and travelling alone. But then she lets her mind wander towards more joyous thoughts—about the many medals she has won since starting out in the juniors’ category, the happiness they caused and how this present suffering (of fear or anxiety) is nothing compared to that. “You forget about all of that (the negative emotions) with one medal,” Malik says.
Among all the challenging facets of being a sportsperson, training is the easiest for her—Malik can do that for any amount of time. Travel is bearable too but what becomes claustrophobic is the pressure leading up to a major competition. There is apprehension, some anxiety, especially in the last 24 hours. She starts to wonder: Was the preparation enough? Will something go wrong?
“Everyone feels it,” she says, when asked about a fear of failure. “It wasn’t so much before, but since the Olympic medal, expectations have increased. It’s not like I had never lost (a bout) before the Olympics. So, in that sense, it’s ok to lose again—that’s the kind of positive messages I give myself. Victories will come again and so will the good times.”
Malik has access to psychologists like Chaitanya Sridhar—over the last few years through her association with JSW Sports—with whom she has conversations on keeping focus and dealing with negative thoughts. She also mentions books, like The Secret and The Secret – The Power by Rhonda Byrne, which help her deal with the notion that something will go wrong.
During training or during rest, she visualises her success; for example, she may convince herself that a forthcoming event has already happened. “If I want a medal, I imagine that I have won it, I am on the podium, and have the (Indian) flag in my hand. That motivates me and gives me strength to do better. I write down what I want, draw it and pin it to my wall,” says the 28-year-old.
Then there are occasions when she feels that she can’t give her best. But eventually, what she has trained for kicks in, with coaches stepping up the motivation, pep talks. She doesn’t think of winning her bouts but on doing well, focussing on what she has learnt, on her strengths.
The lowest phase of her career came at the 2018 Asian Games semi-final, Malik adds, when she was leading 4-0 and then 7-6 against Aisuluu Tynybekova with just moments left on the clock. But her opponent managed two points on an erroneous attack from Malik, which denied the Indian a place in the final. She was shattered, also because the Asian Games is held once in four years and her one mistake, she believes, stopped her from getting a medal.
“After that match, for a few days I was low. I kept thinking: What can I do to make things better? My husband (wrestler Satyawart Kadian) has seen it too, wins and losses. I was in Jakarta (for the Asian Games) when he spoke to me on video calls, remembering how he missed an Olympic qualification by a narrow margin. Having a wrestler partner is positive for me because he motivates me a lot.”
“In sportspeople’s lives, this goes on. We get back on schedule, the training and then it becomes a routine again. Sports life is filled with good and bad, ups and downs.”
When she won her Olympic bronze in the 58kg category in Brazil, though, Malik says she could not believe it for hours. Her decade-long dream had come true. “Those days felt like I was in clouds,” she says, laughing. “My life was wonderful. Here was a person no one knew before, but was now being wished by celebrities, the country’s President and others. For 4-5 days (after winning), there was no tension. I enjoyed (that phase) like never before and didn’t train for 2-3 days.”
Competitive wrestling, a contact sport, is on hold currently owing to a pandemic-induced suspension of events. While some other sports are limping back to the stadiums, like football, cricket and tennis, wrestling may take longer because of the nature of play.
While Malik has been training in the limited way possible, enjoyment for her includes watching a lot of television because social media doesn’t do the trick. “I can’t spend the day on my phone. I don’t mind (watching) even movies on repeat, real life stories, shows, dance-singing shows. I love watching TV.”
'Mindgames' is a new series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure