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Sports psychologists working on emotional vulnerability of athletes

Sports psychologists working on emotional vulnerability of athletes


Published: 14 April 2020 1:03 PM GMT

Uncertainty is so intrinsic to sports that elite athletes will not have much trouble coping up with a pandemic-forced lockdown, feel India's top sports psychologists as they become a part of their journey into an unchartered territory.

Rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted minds as much as health and productivity, sports pyshologists Dr Chaitanya Sridhar, Nanaki J Chadha, and Keerthana Swaminathan are dealing with athletes across disciplines and economic spectrum, being their "sounding board, friend" and enabling them to process the magnitude of the situation. "When you are dealing with athletes, you can broadly divide them in three categories -- the elite, the ones who are at national level aspiring to make it and the next group is academy bunch. The reaction to lockdown will be different," said Dr Sridhar, who is associated with JSW Sports and has worked with 'GoSports' Foundation and IPL franchise RCB.

For performance analyst and sports psychologist Nanaki, this is the time when "you help them steer clear of negative thoughts." For Keerthana, there is light at the end of the tunnel where a lot of athletes, who probably had injuries or may have been going through slump in form, get a chance to "recuperate both physically and emotionally" in the time away from sport. But yes, there is also the disappointed lot, which was hitting the peak in what was to be an Olympic year. "As a psychologist, it breaks my heart to see those who were really peaking before the big tournament. They are the ones likely to be disappointed more. But I am a big believer in Rahul Dravid's statement: 'Control the controllables'."

Sridhar said reactions of various athletes vary -- from being overtly positive to that of denial accompanied by mood swings and anger.

"These are people who are accustomed to movement, so all your dopamine, serotonin, all feel good hormones are reduced as you are not on the go. Even if you have a big house, how much can you train?" Dr Sridhar spoke about the technical aspect. "We have a tendency to jump into worst-case scenario, like 'Oh my god' and the constant feeling is 'what if, what if, what if'. The first weekend was like, some of these guys were so much on the road, they were like okay, we have finally got some time with our families. By the second week, it starts hitting them that what lockdown is all about," she said while narrating her interactions with wrestlers under the aegis of JSW.

Nanaki J Chadha Nanaki J Chadha(Image: Nanaki J Chadha/Twitter)

Nanaki, who is a doctoral and research student at the Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, said that challenge for any psychologist is to convince the athlete that negative thoughts are not real. "Negative thoughts are not reality. They are just thoughts. But yes, the performance anxiety is very real. You lose focus and sense of purpose. I was preparing for this event and now what's next? Will I be able to perform?' Emotions are stress and anxiety. Isolation is also a big thing," she said. So how does he deal with it? "I just drop in a text to check if they are doing alright. I tell them I am there if they need me. I also tell them to involve in some other activities, have a different vocation," Nanaki added.

Having a different vocation is something that even Dr Sridhar feels can be very helpful. "One of the athletes told me 'Ma'am, I am learning how to play piano online'. I found it heartening. But I get worried with those athletes who are always trying hard to be positive. Now that's the problem with our Indian system. This 'be positive' has reached such a cliched space that we have stopped acknowledging our feelings." "So for these athletes who use the 'be positive cliche' to hide their vulnerability, I say, not required. Be vulnerable, it's natural. It helps you process emotions better," Dr Sridhar added.

Keerthana Swaminathan Keerthana Swaminathan (Image: Keerthana Swaminathan/Facebook)

Keerthana feels the "acceptance of uncertainty" comes with another aspect. "You have to regroup and re-calibrate your goals. Think that you have had a career-threatening injury and you are on a road to recovery. You are taking that time and preparing for the Olympics now that it has been pushed by a year," she said. Dr Sridhar cited an interaction with a swimmer to drive home the point. "One swimmer came to me and asked, 'Ma'am what if I don't qualify for Olympics?' I just asked 'Would you stop swimming if you don't qualify?' The answer was 'No'. I told him you have the answer."

This is also time when exposure to social media can be distressing especially for a top sportsperson with a lot of following. "I don't make much of social media posts. Yes, you put up posts for fans, people are liking, but don't rely on that. It is very good time to reflect, on your values, where you are heading, what's working and what's not working in your life. Just don't sit on playing PUBG and remain hooked to Facebook and instagram, scrolling posts. Your brain will just be dead. Learn something to stimulate your mind."

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