She is not a cop. Nor is she a doctor. But she is equally occupied in the time of the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shuttler-turned-sports psychologist Gayatri Vartak is working overtime to conduct telephonic and videoconferencing sessions with more than 100 international athletes from her home in Pune.
Having represented India at age-group levels as well as seniors, including Uber Cup, Vartak feels Indian athletes should set an example for the society on how to deal with the impasse.
In a chat with Sportstar , she elaborates how the athletes should deal with the current situation when most of the tournaments have either been postponed or cancelled.
How can one find out if a person is mentally unstable?
If your sleep pattern is disturbed or if you are getting negative thoughts — for instance when anxiety increases, one tends to binge-eat and consume a lot of sweet — then they should definitely consult a mental health specialist. I would also like to stress that one should not only touch base with a mental health professional only when you have a problem. You should consult them to improve your overall well-being and overall performance. I think in India, people haven’t accepted it properly. Sports psychology or mental health should be looked at as a preventive measure.
How should athletes deal with the current situation?
Leave aside dealing with themselves, I feel a layman can learn quite a lot from athletes in a situation like lockdown. The first is to live in the moment. An elite athlete often resorts to one ball at a time or one session at a time or one point at a time or one game or match at a time, depending on the discipline. It helps an athlete think of a small thing and stay in the present. For example, even a roti has to be broken into pieces, you can’t eat it as one morsel, it will be stuck in your throat and may create panic. Similarly, if you start thinking about three weeks or five weeks of the lockdown, you will start feeling anxious. Instead, if you break it down and concentrate on one day at a time, you may avoid stress and be relaxed.
What are the other factors?
Athletes are often prepared for uncertainty or events that are uncontrollable or unpredictable. For instance, a cricketer may be prepared to his best ability but rain washes out an entire match or he is dropped from the match at the eleventh hour, or is shuffled in the batting order during a match. I feel those who have played sport competitively should remind themselves and their family members with such examples to help everyone deal with the situation better.
Discipline is a factor. Everyone is following some sort of a routine in life. Athletes tend to be more disciplined about their habits or body clock, like following a sleep pattern or haves and have-nots when it comes to diet. Self-discipline has to be applied even in the current situation. Just because we are home doesn’t really mean we should eat anything any time or sleep abruptly. It’s critical to form and maintain a routine so that mental state remains focused and positive.
And the last thing is resilience. If an athlete loses form or has a slump, he or she tends to make a stronger comeback. For instance, if a quality batsman was being dismissed in 40s or 50s before losing his touch and gets into a phase of getting out in single digits, he or she ends up scoring big hundreds upon return. That’s resilience and it’s important to imbibe this in our day-to-day life. Most of us haven’t done anything for the past two weeks and we don’t know how long will this phase be stretched. When life gets back slowly and steadily, we shouldn’t lose confidence in our skills. We can utilise this phase by reminding ourselves about our strengths.
How does an elite athlete maintain focus as one can neither practise skills nor prepare for any next at the moment?
Humans in general — whether high-performance athletes or not — understand that trying to stay fit with simple things is critical rather than thinking about when they can peak. Goals have to be set with regards to simple things of the day and not with regards to tournaments. Generally while goal-setting, an athlete sets a long-term goal — an Olympic medal or qualification, for instance — and then you reverse-work for that so that you be at your peak three weeks before the tournament. Since we don’t know when the sporting calendar will resume, I would advise them not to set goals for success in tournaments or rankings till everything settles down. Have a goal with your sleep pattern, or maintaining your weight or doing fitness activities based on the advice by your trusted strength and conditioning expert. These kind of goals will hold you in positive frame of mind.
Can you elaborate on concentrating on a tangible goal?
I can cite the example of an 18-year-old athlete I am working with. In the last year or so, he has had a lot of emotional issues inside the arena, which affected his performance in matches. We are working on him so that he doesn’t react to anything impulsively all through the day. Today is the 10th day, and he told me some time ago that how he is trying to get a hang on his emotions. That’s a tangible goal we have set for him.
What, according to you, has been the biggest challenge for athletes at the moment?
The biggest challenge for them is boredom. So, dealing with idle time should be the goal. Even while playing big tournaments, they do have a lot of idle time since most of them play a round or a match every day. They tend to either sleep or devise strategies in the remaining time. My approach is more like helping them draw parallels. They shouldn’t get caught up with this drill of everything is bad, everything is frustrating. And a majority of them have taken this into their stride.
Have the top athletes, with whom you are working, made peace with the situation?
Those who have already qualified for the Olympics and have already peaked are understandably going to take slightly more time to accept it than the rest. Their approach to this has to be similar to an injury layoff or a weather intervention. The biggest factor here is they are all on the same page. No athlete in the world is able to train right now, so it’s not that they are lagging behind.
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