Ashutosh Mehta subscribes to tennis legend Billie Jean King’s dictum that “pressure is a privilege”. The footballer understands that feeling the strain of expectations is inevitable when playing at the highest level of the sport. “I like it. If I don’t feel it (any pressure), then what am I doing here?” he says.
The right-back from Mumbai, who was selected for the national team for the first time at the age of 30 in March, will represent ATK Mohun Bagan in the 2021-22 season of the Indian Super League (ISL). Bagan will play the opening match of the season on 19 November against Kerala Blasters FC.
To deal with the pressure, Mehta says, he is always prepared. Though he has never used a mental conditioning coach in helping get ready for challenges or to get out of rough times, he is constantly learning, either from watching others or using his own tools to expand his knowledge.
“When I see (Manchester United and Portugal’s Cristiano) Ronaldo, I notice that his mentality is different. He sees everything differently. I am learning from (watching) him. His mindset and winning mentality make the difference. People talk of (India football captain) Sunil Chhetri. His mentality and knowledge make him different from other players. I did not know that before. Knowledge plus mindset equals power.”
Mehta’s quest for learning encourages him to take help from anyone who might be willing to offer it. Like when he shared a room with Chhetri, Mehta observed what he ate, when he went to sleep and how he trained. “He (Chhetri) does not tolerate losses and he has to win, at all costs,” Mehta says.
Part of Mehta’s learning process also includes reading, like (former Manchester United manager) Alex Ferguson’s autobiography or learning yoga (from a friend). “If you read a book, you can learn new things from it,” he says.
Mehta’s professional football career began with Mumbai FC, before his ISL debut with FC Pune City in 2014. He moved to Mumbai City FC in 2015, and then on loan to Aizawl FC in 2016-17 where he won his first I-League title.
He says he has not felt fear on the football pitch. “It’s never happened. My mindset is always positive. Whatever knowledge I lack, I am trying to learn it. This includes what to eat, when to sleep, technical and tactical matters on the football pitch. Every person can teach me something.”
The lowest point in his career came when he was injured and out of the Pune City team after the 2018-19 ISL season. It was difficult for him—professionally and personally—and for his family as his career appeared to be stagnating. But it also strengthened his resolve, to prove himself. Mohun Bagan AC came up with an offer that rescued him and Mehta won his second I-League title in the 2019-20 season.
“You can mess up, but you still can succeed,” he says over a call. “You should never give up. I knew my time would come. I have come here (as a professional footballer) and I want to stay here. But I have to work harder to stay here (in the India team). Twelve years of professional sport is a good thing. My fitness is such that I believe I can play for another six years.”
“Football has good and bad aspects to it,” he adds when asked about his coping mechanisms. “You need the right personality for it and it’s a true test of your character. You have to be strong. Even if you fail in one match, in the next you have to make sure you deliver what the team, the coach and fans want. In the beginning (of his career), I used to get upset a lot (with losses) because I was young. I realised I can’t dwell (on failures). I can’t hold this in my mind. What has happened is over and you have to move on.”
His second I-League title was a gateway to more developments, particularly in the last two years. He played a key role—even scoring a goal—in NorthEast United FC’s 2020-21 season when the team qualified for the ISL semi-finals, and then joined ATK Mohun Bagan this July.
He says playing for the country makes everything challenging because the players are dealing with the expectations of a billion people who they represent. “When you wear the India jersey it has a different feeling. Whatever team I play for, I give everything to the team.”
“When people say I am underrated, I like the appreciation,” he says.
'Mindgames' is a series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure