April 2013, Changwon in Korea. It was the most important moment in the career of markswoman Rahi Sarnobat, who had been emerging as a strong medal prospect for the country. Up against some tough opponents, what made it more challenging for Rahi was that the partisan crowd was loudly cheering for their local hope Kyeongae Kim, whom she faced in the final. Whenever Rahi fired a good shot, it would be met with a deafening silence. But she went on to win the gold in the ISSF World Cup and became the first ever pistol shooter from India to do so.
Sport pyschologist Bhishmaraj Bam, who had been associated with her, was keen to know what she did to handle the pressure. She revealed, “In my mind, I told the spectators that whatever amount of clapping they wanted to do for the Korean girl, they should do it now. For the final claps will have to be for me.” Bam points out that she had found the “correct self-talk” on her own.
No sportspersons in India have understood better about the powers of the human mind than the shooters whose rich haul over the years has proved to be an eye-opener for their counterparts. They have all started demanding sport psychologists for their national squads, as confirmed by experts and officials. Jiji Thomson, director general of SAI, told this newspaper, “We have engaged mental trainers for the archers, shooters, boxers and wrestlers. But I feel that mental training should begin at a very early stage in the career of an athlete and not at the elite level. We will try to impart this at the junior level as soon as possible.”
Agreeing with him is Bengaluru-based Dr Chaitanya Kumar, a psychologist who has worked with different national teams. “Thankfully, it (awareness) has picked up quite a bit in the recent past, with access to training abroad and overseas professionals. But we are nowhere close to the international scenario. However, a lot of younger players are seeking ‘mental training’ which is a very positive sign.”
Challenges faced by sportspersons need not always be professional in nature.
Varsha Tomar, one of the best trap shooters in the country, had a ‘problem’ for which there were no easy solutions. With just three weeks for the Nationals, her marriage was fixed and she was worried about the break in her practice. “When she sought my advice on how to handle the situation, I explained to her the method of Role Segregation,” says Bam, a former police official.
“I asked her to forget from that very moment about being a shooter and enjoy the role of a bride. Even after marriage, she was not to think about shooting till the moment she reached the shooting range. Once she stepped on the range, she was to forget that she was a newlywed and live the role of a shooter fully. We then worked on her self-talk and focus. In the Nationals, she surprised everybody by winning her first title and went on to win her first international medals too.”
Bam, who was a shooter himself, had got interested in sport psychology when he was recovering from a slipped disc. One of his seniors presented him with a bunch of motivational books that helped him recover and he decided to take up the science seriously. One of the first to receive his help was Om Agarwal and he went on to work with top sportspersons like Anjali Bhagwat, Suma Shirur, Geet Sethi, P. Gopichand and others. He shot to fame when Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar sought his advice.
It may be the link between psychiatry and mentally unsound people that prevents many players from approaching sport psychologists, opines Bam. However, such stigma about sport psychology is a thing of the past, argues Irina Singh, seven-time Golf champion who is the only sport psychology consultant in India to be certified by the prestigious Association for Applied Sports Psychology, based in the US. “On the other hand, several of my clients think that it is cool to take the help of a psychologist.”
Irina, who was India’s No. 1 lady golfer for nearly a decade, was forced to take a break from top level golf and eventually quit the game because of back injuries. She went on to do a Masters degree specialising in sport psychology from the US, as she had realised the desperate need for qualified sport psychologists in India when she was playing golf. She set up Sport Psych India in Chandigarh in 2011 to provide consulting services and training programmes for athletes. Working as the official sport psychologist for the Indian Golf Union, she agrees that there is an increased demand now for sports psychologists but says there are not enough experts in applied sports psychology.
Bam points out that the mental skills required for various games are different in nature. “Sailing is a game of continuous activity without any break and golf is an exactly opposite game with long breaks in between two shots,” he says. “Human mind tends to get focused on temptations rather than the required choice of focus. Tennis players will think more about the scores while playing than the ball which they have to deal with. Most of the players get awed by the reputation of their opponents or by the form exhibited. Controlling thoughts and moods is an essential factor and the player has to train himself for that.”
In February this year, Ankit Rajpara, a chess player from Ahmedabad, approached Bam. He was going to France and then to Holland to play tournaments and had set a modest goal of winning a few rounds. “But he was finding it difficult to focus due to his nervousness. We analysed the challenges of the game of chess. Then I gave him some tips about focusing and self talk. He created history by winning all the 18 matches he played and came back with two trophies and the title of an International Grand Master,” says Bam.
Chaitanya says that while one of the most common problems cited by athletes is lack of concentration; it is hardly the reason but more an offshoot of the root cause such as lack of confidence or stress. “My approach is eclectic in nature, using many methods and principles to create the ideal treatment plan for each player,” she says.
Dr Sandip Tiwari, who is an assistant professor with the Indira Gandhi Institute of Physical Education and Sports Sciences in Delhi, says that many still think mental training is a waste of time. “No attempt is made to assess a player’s goals or objectives. There are many standard questionnaires available but most are in English, so many players find this a problem.”
Awareness may have increased but India’s sporting fraternity is yet to realise the importance of mind training, says Chaitanya. “While sporting countries like Australia and the US have a psychologist on board for every team, especially during major events like Olympics, we have a few psychologists attached to the entire Indian contingent. Peak performance is an amalgamation of physical and mental skills. The sooner we realise it, the better it will be for our sporting scenario.”