With uncertainty being the only certainty in post-pandemic professional sport, the modern-day Indian athlete is toughening up
By R. Krishnakumar
Published: Tue 3 May 2022, 6:19 PM
Last updated: Wed 4 May 2022, 12:15 AM
In October 2021, Virat Kohli posted an image on Instagram in which he was seen tied to a chair with ropes. The accompanying text read – “This is what playing in bubbles feels like.”
The India cricket superstar’s post generated interest from professional athletes, many of them familiar with the rigours of modern sport that require them to deliver peak performances for public consumption, even as their inner battles get increasingly private.
Six months later, as Kohli struggles for form in the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL), as analysts recommend ways for the former India captain to regain his touch, the image is finding greater context.
“Virat Kohli is overcooked,” former India cricketer and coach Ravi Shastri said about the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) batter’s string of low scores. On Saturday, Kohli did stitch together a 58 off 53 deliveries against Gujarat Titans but the season has been middling at best for him.
“He needs a break because he has six-seven years of cricket left in him and you don’t want to lose that with a fried brain,” Shastri said.
Shastri, in November last year, had spoken about the challenges of playing in the bubble after India’s group-stage exit from the T20 World Cup. “I’m mentally drained, but these players are mentally and physically drained,” Shastri, then coach of the national side, had said.
Jasprit Bumrah, India’s pace spearhead, had said during the tournament that bubble fatigue hit the team which, at the time, had been on the road for six months.
The choice to disengage
With the pandemic shaping a backdrop of caution for professional sport across the world, India could be warming up to the idea of bio-secure bubbles but results will emerge only with a greater understanding of and focus on the mental well-being of its athletes.
In over two years since its pandemic-induced introduction, the bubble has emerged as an inescapable new reality in post-Covid sport. It comes with its own disclaimers on possible breaches and the certainties of its impact on the mental health of its residents.
These, still, are early days; there’s no strategy template yet and the managers are only working in line with the evolving health protocols and stipulations enforced by the governments. The future of the bubble is likely to be shaped by a series of customisations, the most critical of them involving the mental space provided to athletes to tune out.
Dr Chaitanya Sridhar, Lead Wholistic Sport Psychologist who engages with elite athletes across disciplines in India, feels that putting together a “safe”, exclusionary environment for a sporting event should be complemented with efforts to address the concerns of the individual, to help him or her deal with the day, with the now.
Connected in isolation
Dr Sridhar who worked as the team psychologist with RCB in the 2020 season of IPL makes her case with a reference to Dr Stephen Porges who introduced the Polyvagal Theory in 1994.
Dr Porges has argued that “safety” cannot be interpreted as a mere absence of threat and that humans seek cues of safety from their proximity with other humans, from the takeaways of their social interactions.
“In a bio-bubble, the nervous system is on overdrive. There are restrictions of all kinds that even limit, say, interactions with members of another team during practice. The athletes need systems within this environment that calm them down. It’s important to keep their connections going (even in an environment that encourages exclusivity),” Dr Sridhar told Khaleej Times
In January this year, Sunil Chhetri, captain of the Indian football team, took to Twitter for his take on life inside the Indian Super League bio-bubble; he said it was a challenge no amount of skill, experience, or training could help overcome.
“Only if you’re in the bubble, will you know how hard and frustrating this is. You’re away from family for half a year, cooped up in a room, anything outdoors is a luxury, there’s no change in setting to help you shake off a bad result – I could go on,” Chhetri said.
If the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)’s reported plan to discard bio-secure bubbles for the upcoming T20 home series against South Africa is an indication, the scheduling is moving closer to normalcy. The shift in the Board’s position, however, is not necessarily indicative of official acknowledgement of concerns over the cricketers performing under stressful conditions.
Let’s talk, let’s help
Top international athletes who have talked about mental health – Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Ben Stokes are among them – have also set off conversations in India’s sporting circles. Dr Sridhar sees athletes opening on mental well-being as important – “there’s only so much that you can brush under the carpet” – and is hopeful of a start, at least, in authorities investing more in the area of mental health in sport.
“In my work with the athletes, I see that psychology is becoming as critical as any other facet of sport, across disciplines. There’s greater acceptance, from the athletes themselves, that this is a part of them,” she said.
In October 2020, the Bengaluru Football Club launched Care Around The Corner, a programme designed to provide professional mental health consultation to the players and support staff. The idea of tailoring bio-bubbles and mental well-being programmes into professional sport is fairly new in India. Many of these programmes were driven by conversations around the pandemic and its impact on the athletes.
Learning while unlearning
With a universally accepted Covid-19 appropriate protocol for conducting sporting events still elusive, the administrators will have their task cut out in designing customised schedules based on the case numbers of the day.
In April, as India was grappling with a fresh spike in the number of Covid cases, arguably its most-followed post-pandemic distraction, the IPL, was hit by a round of infections in the camp of one of the league’s 10 teams, the Delhi Capitals (DC).
The development was significant – last year, the hugely popular league was held in two phases. The second phase was shifted to the UAE after several infections across teams forced the organisers to close the tournament midway in India.
The 2022 edition of the league has broken the tradition of home-and-away games with the BCCI limiting the 70 matches, played between March 26 and May 29, to three venues in Mumbai and one in Pune. The scheduling was expected to ensure less travel for the teams.
The infections in the DC camp came two weeks after the BCCI was reported to have scrapped the bubble for two domestic tournaments, the under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy and the senior women’s T20 trophy. The move, at the time, was seen in line with the waning daily caseloads in the country.
In January, India’s national football side was forced out of the Women’s Asia Cup following a Covid-19 outbreak in the team camp. In the same month, a bio-bubble breach led to the cancellation of matches in the Pro Kabaddi League.
In April last year, seven national women hockey players who were among probables for the Tokyo Olympics had tested positive at the SAI centre in Bengaluru, leading to larger questions on the efficiency of bio-bubbles.
It’s okay not to be okay
Sport analysts feel that it’s premature to gauge the effectiveness of measures including the bubble when the pandemic itself is evolving through new viral variants and newer normals. There is also the need to factor in socio-cultural aspects that make social distancing and breach-proof bubbles different propositions in India.
The start will be in accepting caution as indispensable and the role of the psychologist in team camps as critical – as a facilitator for both the superstar slipping in form and the novice trying to make the best use of the opportunities.
This, perhaps, is also a time to stop celebrating the machine-like composite of the modern-day athlete; a time to stop judging “emotional” players as “weak”, in terms of what is deemed as more desirable – absolute composure, unshaken by success or setback.
Dr Sridhar points to media narratives that diminish an athlete’s worth when he or she displays human emotions, but she says change is incoming – “We’ve always seen Australia (the cricket team) as this highly competitive unit that goes for the kill; now, they are talking about the vulnerability of their players.” – The writer is a senior journalist based in Bangalore.
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