Simone Biles didn’t win a gold medal. Her Olympic moment at Tokyo 2020, held last year, came when she stepped away from the stage. By prioritising her mental health over the maddening chase for medals, one she had dedicated her entire life to, the American gymnast stuck the landing on a very pertinent issue. “It just sucks when you are fighting with your own head,” the 24-year-old said.
USA Gymnastics came out in support of their star athlete. “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritising her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many,” the US’ national governing body for gymnastics said in a statement.
The one Indian athlete who has consistently spoken up about mental health is wrestler and Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat. But ask her if she might be bold enough to take a lead out of Biles’ book and pull out of a competition because she doesn’t feel mentally fit and you get an incredulous chuckle in reply.
“Itna bolna matlab aap ke liye sports khatam hi samjho (that would be as good as ending my sporting career),” Phogat says over the phone. “Federations or people in the system will be the first ones to say, ‘why did you send this person if they are not mentally strong?’ They will not understand. Moreover, they will not even let you participate in the next tournament. They will say you are not in the right frame of mind.”
Phogat knows the sting of censure only too well. She received a backlash after she opened up about her mental struggles leading up to the Tokyo Olympics and was reprimanded by the Wrestling Federation of India for her perceived below-par performance in Tokyo. After losing in the quarter-finals, she was suspended for “indiscipline” on her return—it all took a toll.
The US, of course, is much further ahead of the curve than India when it comes to sport, the Olympics and sports science. The US team topped the medals tally once again in Tokyo, with 113 medals, 39 of them gold. Meanwhile, India had its most successful Summer Games ever, with seven medals, including a gold for javelin star Neeraj Chopra.
But what athletes like Biles and Phogat have done is spark a conversation about the importance of mental health, which is, at heart, a basic and universal concept. Countries and societies around the world may be at different stages in their understanding and awareness of the subject but it is not the most comfortable topic of discussion anywhere.
Stigma and stereotype
In India, mental health and emotional well-being are still talked about in hushed tones.
“Whenever you say that you need to talk to a professional, people think you are mentally unstable,” says badminton star H.S. Prannoy, who reached the quarter-finals of the World Championships in December.
Prannoy admits that even he was reluctant to seek the help of a mental health expert almost eight years ago.
“People were not vocal about it back then. Now I feel like there is a lot of awareness and people are opening up about it. Things have changed but maybe only 10%; there is still a long way to go,” he says.
According to Divya Jain, sports psychologist and head of psychological services in the department of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare in Gurugram, Haryana, there is a great deal of stigma and stereotyping associated with mental health. And this becomes further heightened for athletes.
The assumption is that sportspeople, who have spent years in training and practice, building their bodies for battle, have bulletproof minds too. They are supposed to stand strong in the face of adversity, conceal any and all vulnerabilities.
“It is (because of) the atmosphere created around athleticism and athletes and how steel-minded and emotionless and pain-free they should be,” says Indian football team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. “Anything which challenges that notion, they don’t want to relate with.”
Former India hockey midfielder Viren Rasquinha, who is now the director and CEO of Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit that aims to help Indian athletes win Olympic medals, believes a lot of players still live in fear of being judged, even by those in their close circles.
“People judge a lot in our country,” agrees Phogat. “If an athlete seeks help, they think, ‘He/she is such a big athlete but is mentally not strong. How did they get to this level?’ People start giving an opinion. There are very few who try and understand. Rather than understanding you, they will put you down when you are already feeling vulnerable.”
But it is not people’s expectations alone that weigh down athletes. Jain, who has worked with a number of Indian athletes, says there is something called “self-stigma”, where players themselves perceive any mental health issue as a “weakness”.
Sakshi Malik, 29, burst into the limelight in 2016, when she won India’s first medal, a bronze, at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She competes in a full-contact sport where athletes wear their battle scars proudly.
Malik, who also became the first female wrestler from India to win an Olympic medal, struggled to replicate the results in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. She says there were times when she thought of consulting a sports psychologist. “But then I used to think, what do I tell them, that I am weak?”
Awareness and access
Malik says she would try to talk herself out of the lull and would not reveal the emotional turmoil to her husband, fellow wrestler Satyawart Kadian, or coach. “Now I have realised that just like a physical problem, like you have headache or backache, you go and tell the doctor and get a medicine for that,” she says. “So why should we not tell the experts about these problems?”
This understanding is a step in the right direction and goes some way in normalising the concept of mental health. After all, athletes treat physical injury as “part and parcel of the game”. But the concept of “why fix it when it ain’t broke” is prevalent when it comes to mental health. “I think rather than an athlete seeking help only when they are struggling mentally, sports psychologists should be part of the athlete’s team, like a physio or trainer or nutritionist,” says Rasquinha. “During our time (Rasquinha represented India in hockey from 2002-08), sports psychology was not even in our vocabulary. We had one coach who would look after everything. But this is the era of specialisation.”
Manisha Malhotra, a former tennis player and currently head of sports excellence and scouting at JSW Sports, elaborates. “It is not like taking a pill, that you go and speak to the psychologist and your problems will go away. It’s a process that comes into your training and something that is worked upon every single day, diligently, with a plan. That is when you can say that you are actually consulting a sports psychologist. This concept has not caught on in India yet. Their idea is, ‘Ok I have lost three bouts and I am struggling to win, let me go and talk to somebody.’”
We have always accepted that what separates the great athletes from the very good ones is mental strength, the Holy Grail. Yet we are only now waking up to the reality of training the mind like the body.
“When you listen to the commentary, any competition that you are watching, you realise that the majority of it is about the athlete’s head space,” says Jain. “They talk about their body language, how confident they are looking. And yet we expect people to be able to cope with the stress automatically. People who are, for whatever reason, able to cope with the stress tend to do better. People who can’t cope with the stress falter at different levels. You need to educate people that this stress, performance pressure, focusing, all of these are psychological skills that you can learn and master.”
Awareness of the use of mental health experts is one thing, but access to them is another challenge. A majority of India’s talent, especially in Olympic sports, comes from smaller towns and villages, where even access to basic sporting infrastructure is a struggle.
It is not until athletes are enrolled into any kind of structured programme, be it one run by the government or a federation or one designed by companies, that they can seek the expertise of professionals, be it in physical training or mental health. Even then, it is usually up to the athlete to put in the request to consult a mental health expert.
Given that sports psychologists have only recently started becoming a feature in the support system of Indian sports, there aren’t too many who have the experience of working with athletes on a day-to-day basis. So, as India develops as a sporting nation, grooming talent in sports science, including psychology, will be essential.
Most of us, in our lives, in our professions, face pressure. But elite athletes, who often operate in a black and white world of triumph and failure, face a more amplified version of it on a daily basis. There are days when they can stand up to it and days when they falter.
“If you take the example of Simone Biles, you can’t say, ‘She crumbled under pressure,’” says Malhotra. “Because she has done it before, she has won many gold medals before that. It’s not like she doesn’t know how to do it. But this time she couldn’t do it. Why? There are certain triggers that have been documented and now are being studied.”
For athletes in team sports, there may be anxiety over whether they will be selected in the playing group. Gurpreet, 29, has established himself as the No.1 goalkeeper for India and his club Bengaluru FC but says one “never quite gets over that feeling”.
“To know that you may or not play is something each kid, each player thinks about,” says the Red Bull athlete. “Nothing is guaranteed, even now.”
“It’s good to have a track record and be the No.1 goalkeeper in the side, winning trophies, keeping clean sheets. They are good to have in your corner. But obviously you want to play because you are still good enough. That is something you don’t realise when you are a kid. When you are not selected, you think maybe something is wrong, maybe the coach doesn’t like you. You start thinking about all the external reasons rather than focusing on yourself. As a young player, I wish someone had just told me that you need to focus on what you need to do,” he adds.
Apart from the pressure of performance, some of the biggest stress points for athletes are coping with injury, pressure from parents and/or coaches, impending retirement, and facing up to the microscopic attention from traditional and social media. None of these are quantifiable or easily diagnosed. Sometimes a broken bone may be easier to heal than a splintered mind.
While there are a lot of factors—including the individual athlete’s personality—that may determine the nature of their mental health problems, both Phogat and Malhotra believe that one problem prevalent in Indian sport is the battles against the system. “We have to fight for every little thing,” says Phogat. “One mental challenge for Indian athletes is the lack of a system and the lack of a transparent system,” adds Malhotra.
“A lot of the sports federations do cause pressures and problems for the athletes. We see time and time again that federations are only trying to control and manipulate athletes. It’s not always that the best people win, there are many factors that go into selection. So you are always swimming against the tide and that’s what makes it more challenging for Indian athletes to maintain their mental well-being,” says Malhotra.
Mental health issues can also be transient in nature. Just like athletes go through highs and lows physically, they do so mentally as well. “Body to phir bhi strong hoti hai, par mind bohot hi nazuk cheez hai,” says Phogat. “You never know which moment it (the mind) will hold on to and turn it into a disaster or a celebration.”
The weight of pressure that young Indian athletes face hit home in 2021: Four shooters—Namanveer Singh Brar, Hunardeep Singh Sohal, Khushseerat Kaur Sandhu and Konica Layak, all aged 17-28—died by suicide in as many months. A precision sport that demands considerable reserves of mental fortitude, shooting is also one of the most competitive events in India. The oldest of the four, 28-year-old Layak, reportedly said in the suicide note that she had failed to fulfil her parents’ dreams. Sohal allegedly took his life because injuries were hurting his career prospects.
This is the ugly flip side of the sports movement gaining some momentum and visibility in India. The constant comparison and the unhealthy sense of competition that seemed to pervade the ideas of success in academics have started spilling over into sports as players, coaches and parents start discovering the viability of sport as a career.
“I don’t think we are addressing these issues properly,” says Prannoy. “What we don’t realise is that sport is just a part of life…. A lot of athletes think this is life. We think there is nothing beyond this. Especially in India, we are yet to create that culture. Here, I feel, kids burn out very quickly. At the age of 10, they are competing. And it’s a constant competition.”
A fish-bowl existence
As sports, especially Olympic sports, have grown in importance and popularity over the past 20 years or so, so have expectations. While it is a welcome change from the cynical indifference of yore for a lot of athletes, they are still to come to terms with the extreme reactions that their results generate.
Neeraj Chopra caught the full force of Indian fandom when he returned with a historic gold medal in a track and field event, javelin, from Tokyo 2020. For almost four months, he was dragged from one city to another, one function to another, one media interview to another. The star athlete had to literally leave the country—he went to the US in December—to resume training.
“I think the reactions are a lot of the times insensitive,” says Rasquinha. “The fact is that there are still only a few athletes in India who have been able to perform on the world stage consistently. What happens is that whenever any important event, like the Olympics, comes along, it is these few people who carry the burden of expectations. Considering all that, I think Indian athletes have done very well to cope with the pressure.”
Five years ago, when she returned with the bronze medal from Rio, Sakshi Malik could feel the fog descending. “There were so many functions and felicitations, I was forced to attend a lot of events that I didn’t necessarily want to,” she says. “It cut into my training time. As athletes that’s what we do, that’s what we like doing.” Training is their comfort zone, a space where they can block out the noise. Malik says that was the first time she consulted a sports psychologist, to try and make sense of the chaos.
According to Malhotra, our overeagerness to put the few sporting heroes we have on a pedestal is forcing them into a “goldfish bowl”. “But we don’t have the systems or the safety net to catch them,” she adds. “As we have better athletes coming in and doing better internationally, without these safety systems in place, we will see it being detrimental for Indian sport in the long run. We need to make sure that athletes who are being made into heroes are groomed for that limelight.”
What comes after success
Indian athletes, of course, are not unique in trying to come to terms with the harsh glare of limelight. Success trips up just as many sportspeople as failure does.
When Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open last year, she revealed in a heartfelt note that she had been in a dark place ever since she won her first Grand Slam title. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote at the time.
The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, admitted that he had battled suicidal thoughts during his career. In the brilliant documentary Untold: Breaking Point, which chronicles tennis player Mardy Fish’s mental health battles, he talks about how the pressure started building once he replaced Andy Roddick as the No.1 male player in the US, following the footsteps of legends like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
Closer home, Abhinav Bindra stated that winning the gold for shooting in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics precipitated the biggest mental health crisis for him. “For me, dealing with success was probably the hardest time in my life,” he said during a YouTube panel discussion, titled “Mind Matters”, in May 2021. “Up until Beijing, when I had my greatest victory, I had trained for 16 years of life with a singular goal and I wanted to win a gold medal at the Olympics. One fine day, this dream was achieved but it created a very large void in my life. I think that, to me, was very challenging. I was depressed and I was really lost. I did not know what to do with my life.”
Sports psychologist Jain believes that the “athletic identity’ of the person may have some bearing on how they deal with success. “Athletes need to learn how to cope with success as well as failure, because both of them have an impact,” she says.
“You have to understand that how much this person is investing their time, their energy, into the sport. There’s a concept of an athletic identity, which is how much do you identify yourself as an athlete. And what other aspects of yourself are there beyond that identity. If there is just that one singular focus, if that’s the only area considered and all energy is diverted to it, other aspects of yourself are kind of neglected. There is a possibility that once you reach that high, that you may experience a low.
“Also, how you deal with the fame, how you deal with the kind of adulation you get, how many people you know who are able to relate to that kind of experience, all of those things matter,” says Jain.
The more successful the athlete, the bigger the target on their back. Tennis has something called the “second-season” syndrome. It pertains to how a player performs the year after their breakthrough. How do they stand up to the intense scrutiny? How do they prepare for their rivals’ increased preparedness? “It is always easier being the hunter than the hunted,” says Rasquinha.
Not everyone can take the heat of increased expectation and analysis. Malik could feel the ground shift after Rio. “Once you win a medal, the whole country expects you to repeat that performance,” she says. “Even though a lot of them deny it, athletes feel that pressure when so many people are looking at you to do well. You think, will I be able to do well or not? I underperformed in a lot of competitions because of this. I would think, if you lose, what will people say? I kept telling myself, ‘You are an Olympic medallist, you have to keep performing at that level.’”
While there has been a gradual change in attitude about mental health and well-being over the past decade or so, the pandemic proved to be a tipping point. No one has escaped the havoc unleashed by covid-19. People have lost family members, friends, their source of income. They were forced to face up to their mortality. They were forced to work from home, study from home, with no respite in sight, nothing to break the monotony and duck the looming fear of the virus. It brought unseen mental challenges, and reopened the door to old ones.
“The pandemic has brought a lot more focus on mental health. It has definitely become a bit more acceptable but we have a long, long way to go,” says Jain. For athletes, it brought a unique set of challenges. “Training had almost entirely stopped. They had been confined to small rooms, they had to be really creative to train. They missed out on competitions, some people lost out on qualifying for another competition (mainly Olympics) because of that. There was a lot of back and forth. They couldn’t have a calendar prepared. But they have been very resilient in the way they have bounced back,” she says.
When competition did resume, it was within bio-secure bubbles. Athletes were left with precious little to do apart from train and compete. There were very few avenues for them get away from the pressure. “Personally, I used to like to go on drives just to get away from everything,” says Gurpreet, who is currently competing in the Indian Super League (ISL), which is taking place within a bubble. “Everything is kind of heightened in a bubble. You feel like if you don’t have a good training session, that energy continues throughout the day.”
During the Olympic cycle, however, sporting bodies and federations were proactive in providing players with the tools to cope with these pressures. Before the Olympics, the Sports Authority of India was quick to grant athlete requests for access to sports psychologists. The Pro Kabaddi League, which goes by the combative slogan “Le Panga”, roped in two sports psychologists as the league resumed in a bubble in December 2021. Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC launched a mental health and well-being programme called “Care around the Corner” last year.
On 15 January, the ISL game between Bengaluru FC and ATK Mohun Bagan was postponed due to a covid-19 breach. India and Bengaluru captain Sunil Chhetri tweeted, “To any ISL player, across clubs, nationalities and experience—I’m up for a chat if you need one. We don’t have to talk football….The season, table, wins and losses will take care of themselves when they have to. We’re all going through the same thing and I just thought it would be nice if we could pick each other up when we need to.”
Chhetri has long been the standard-bearer for Indian football. His reaching out to the players, prodding them to open up, may go some way in removing the mask of stoicism that exists in Indian sport. As Chhetri reminded, compassion is the first step.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.