Mental training is key to maintaining consistency at the highest level: Dr. Swaroop Savanur

Dr Swaroop Savanur, a mental conditioning and peak performance coach, says athletes and coaches should realise that mental conditioning is not a temporary thing.

Dr. Swaroop Savanur has been associated with India's 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup side in the past.   -  Special Arrangement

Mental health awareness has been the most talked about topic across sports over the last few years. In recent times, more athletes than ever before have come forward to open up on the mental issues they face. 

This change in trend is a welcome one, according to Dr Swaroop Savanur, the mental conditioning and peak performance coach, associated with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI's) National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru. 

Dr Swaroop, who has also spent time with India's 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup side, Vidarbha Ranji Trophy team and athletes like Sharath Kamal, Ankita Raina and Pooja Rani at Lakshya Sports in the past, spoke about a variety of problems related to mental health in a chat with Sportstar

What kind of tips did you give the athletes you train to cope with the coronavirus lockdown period?

COVID-19 lockdown is a difficult time for sports personalities. My suggestion for them was to take a short break. However, they had to maintain their weight and follow a good diet as well. I told them to enjoy time with their family, and suggested them to do some light physical training to remain in shape. 

I asked them to reset their goals. It could be short-term goals until the end of the lockdown and long-term ones post the reopening of national training centres. They should keep moving forward and shouldn't be stuck in a stagnant spot.

READ: Talking mental health with Paddy Upton

Too much of mobile use and dramatic changes in the sleep cycle can alter their biological clock and that shouldn't happen. So they were told to stick to the same sleeping and eating times as before the shutdown. 

For athletes involved in team events, patience is important because they would be eager to resume training as a group. For any sport, ample on-field training time should be given before resumption. 

I also encouraged sports stars to use this opportunity to develop a new hobby. They can maybe do something they always wanted to. The amount of free time they are getting now may not be on offer again. 

Why do you think most athletes weren't ready to come out with their mental health issues earlier?

I'm happy that athletes are talking about their mental health at least now. It's always been difficult for anyone to talk about the issues of the mind because others around them normally construe the problems as a weakness.

On the other hand, injuries or niggles are clear and objective. You can see that there are symptoms and signs the body shows on the outside. So the solution is pretty straightforward.

READ: How to handle mental health issues? Sportsmen spell out

But mental health is abstract and so many factors are involved. Most of us are not aware of the mind because it's complex. Here the signs and symptoms are not as clear as a physical injury. Hence people are not able to understand their own mind. 

When Australian cricketer Glenn Maxwell came out and told the media that he was taking a break because of his mental health, it made every person realise that anyone can be affected. This paved the way for several other athletes around the world to openly address their mental health issues. 

If you see even outside the sports world, people have started taking mental problems very seriously. They've started looking at it more objectively, despite these still being early days.

Dr. Savanur during a session at the National Cricket Association.   -  Special Arrangement


What are the common factors leading to mental health issues in the case of junior athletes? 

We must differentiate between mental health issues in younger athletes and adults. In the case of teen athletes, studies suggest that they start having mental problems because they stop having fun or lose interest in the sport. If someone who once loved the sport wants to quit now, then that's because of two reasons - over-training and early specialisation.

The idea of quitting would sometimes enter the athletes' mind if the parents push them to be too perfect. Eventually, they lose interest in the sport and start to develop mental health issues. This should be avoided.

The next factor is related to mood and behavioural disorders that an athlete can have. This can be due to an inferiority complex or coach favouritism. If this goes beyond a level then it might lead to a negative impact on the mental health of the athletes. There will be an identity crisis too. So, parents and coaches must understand their mental needs at all times.

The problems senior athletes face.....

For senior sports stars, the main mental issue is burnout. For example, consider the Olympic athletes. Tokyo Olympics was just around the corner and many had qualified. They were enjoying a momentum, however, suddenly there's a one-year postponement and they are now stuck at home. 

So there's a vacuum in their lives. They might not know what to do next. Their weight might increase, their diet might go for a toss, they might lose focus and these things might lead to a burnout which has to be handled correctly.

READ: Supporting mental and psychosocial well-being need of the hour

The next point of concern is depression, which may be due to any personal or professional reason. It may be because of a financial crisis or loss of popularity. Here, the athletes will experience heavy mood swings, with negativity and anxiety always surrounding them. Depression, which is uncontrollable stress, makes people feel as if they are running a never-ending marathon. So this is a big problem which has to be addressed.

How has mental coaching in sports evolved over the years?

When we used to talk about mental health in the past, an athlete was treated like any regular patient. Many years back, the sports stars used to directly go to a general surgeon for everything. The surgeons can only look at issues from one point of view where they are experts. 

But now, with the advent of physiotherapy, you can prevent an issue before it can peak or even avoid surgery. Similarly, there are mental coaches and sports psychologists who can help athletes too. They spend ample time to clearly understand the needs of the athletes and they cover different points of view. 

Over the years, another change in treatment which I noticed is that only at the extreme level of depression is an athlete given some kind of medication now. This wasn't the case earlier. Certain drugs or other forms of medicine were frequently used to overcome the stress and these would take a toll on the health of a person.

Would you recommend some sort of mental training to be included in an athlete's daily routine?

It's high time that athletes and coaches understand that mental conditioning or coaching is not a temporary thing. I believe mental coaching is more of an art than a science. Just as you train your body, you need to keep training your mind. 

These cannot be looked upon as separate entities. If athletes don't satisfy the minimum requirement to keep their mind at the right balance daily, how can they be consistent?  This differentiates the best performers from others. Mental training is the key to maintaining consistency at the highest level. Therefore it should be part of an athlete's daily routine and regimen.

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