Sport is slowly getting back on its feet even amidst the havoc and chaos of gargantuan proportions that the coronavirus has inflicted. Golf, football and motor racing have restarted to full effect with the resumption of their respective high profile seasons and leagues and that has somewhat breathed life into the sporting world and calmed some nerves.
Not everything has been smooth though and expectedly it will take time but nonetheless, it has instilled that little bit of confidence in everyone towards making the move back onto the field. Cricket will finally be taking it's first baby step towards resumption when West Indies take on England in the first Test in Southampton on 8 July. It has provided a glimmer of hope in the cricketing world where the players are filled with the enthusiasm, similar to that of a kid in a candy shop, to return to the pitch.
While international cricket is on the horizon, other international, domestic teams and individual players are slowly getting back to training. India is in the fifth phase of its lockdown with some relaxations which have allowed players to get onto the field to train. The unprecedented break has brought desperation and frustration among the players. Getting back onto the field after a state of inactivity over 100 days has definitely brought some relief. However, the challenges are endless. They don't end with breaking free from the 'house jail'. Not just the physical, it's important to gauge the mental state of the athlete post the lockdown and help them make a smooth transition to training and then competitive sport. An athlete might be grappling with many fears as he makes his way back into action.
The pandemic isn't going to completely vanish in the near future and one of the first mental challenges will still be the fear of getting infected and more importantly passing it onto the family members. Positive cases have popped up in other sports. The PGA Tour has seen a rise in cases, Premier League is registering some through periodic testing, Novak Djokovic's controversial Adria Tour which saw some high profile tennis players contracting the disease has created an uproar in the sporting world. Earlier, three members of the West Indies team had opted out of the England tour because of COVID-19 concerns.
"Initially that (the fear of infection) will definitely play on their mind. Even sharing bottles, or standing near to each other in the locker room or changing or in a queue, or sitting together in a bus or a car while travelling to the venue, all of that is going to change," Delhi based sports and performance psychologist Sumiran Tandon, who has 10 years of experience and has worked with national and international sportspersons explains. "So initially they would have apprehensions because there are apprehensions to new things, even for us. It will, in fact, be more for athletes who are going to face competition after that."
To manage this fear it's important to make the players realise what's in their control and what's not.
"Yes, the fear is very much there with a lot of players. For a few, it's not there. Those who have this fear they need to understand that they have to start doing whatever is in their control, contracting the disease is out of their control," says Chennai based sports psychologist Keerthana Swaminathan, who has worked with domestic and international sportsmen and various sports federations as a consultant. "What they can really do is take those precautions, so that acceptance needs to come in their minds where they do things in their control to stop or prevent disease coming to them. Once they take those precautions the fear shouldn't be that much."
Tandon, who is currently also consulting Squash Rackets Federation of India, feels that the innate adaptability power will slowly help them get the wheels into motion.
"After a couple of competitions, once they know the protocols and start following them, they will get slowly used to it.
"We as human beings have a very strong innate coping strategy so we are going to get through this by adapting to it. We will adapt to it. Initially, we must have thought how can we wear masks all the time? And now it has become automatic, the moment you open your door to go out, you wear it. It's just like that even with the athletes, once they start following the protocols, they will get habitual to it.
"We are not inculcating so much of fear in them, we are basically telling them that you are a part of global pandemic just like everyone else. Just like everyone is going out of home and working, you are also going out of home and working you are also doing that. It is not that you are doing this because you owe someone anything. You are just doing this as a part of daily work and routine. Just keep your eyes and ears open, keep sanitising and trust in the system."
The period of inactivity would have generated gremlins inside the mind. Doubts would have crept in. The fear of form is the biggest challenge they may grapple with. Will I get my form back quickly? How long will it take? When will I hit the peak that I had hit earlier? How long I have to wait for that? Will I be able to pick up from where I left? Or will I have to work towards it and if I have to work towards it, will I be ready in time for my competition during this training period? Will I ever be at the level I was 3-4 months ago?
There are numerous questions that might oscillate in the players' minds. The expectations they set for themselves then become crucial.
"They wouldn't know what to expect (when they return to the field)," explains Swaminathan. "They would have been playing at a certain level before the lockdown, but after the lockdown, their technical skills are going to be little different from what they were earlier. So with regards to expectations, they might under expect or over expect, that is going to be an issue. If they over expect then they might end up getting frustrated and angry with whatever they do."
When it comes to under expectation, some players might have a fear of going wrong since they might not be at the optimal level. There are certain players who don't like to underperform and end up trying a little bit harder but there are those who don't try at all. And that's where the problem gets aggravated.
Self-awareness becomes important in these situations. The awareness of what they have with them at the moment. They have to start from scratch and from there they need to try and reach the peak. The moment they try to compare with their earlier form, there is every chance of getting caught in a toxic web of doubts, desperation and frustrations. The past can be a very good benchmark of what they were but this is not the time where we can actually use that benchmark. Right now it's better to take it in a flow and as the days weeks pass by, actually have a goal for themselves and then let the momentum get going.
"When they get onto the field the first day after the lockdown, they shouldn't be expecting much out of themselves and just go with the flow," Swaminathan says. "And slowly after 2-3 days, they need to start working on whatever didn't really go too well in the first few days. They are going to play their sport after 2-3 months so there is going to be a change.
"They can't judge their performance based on the first practice session. They need to be understanding that this is the current situation and I need to be open to whatever I am right now and change even if I go wrong, it's very important. It should be like you are starting from scratch. And if they have any skill with them it's a bonus, so that's how they need to look at it."
There is also that desperation and eagerness to get onto the field and try to hit the ground running after a long break.
"There is no focus or direction," says Swaminathan. "All the energy is all over the place, that was one of the issues I faced from one of my cricketer clients in the last one and one and a half months."
"The fear we have for our athletes is that a lot of them who have not been able to train in the last 3 months, they are immediately going into high-intensity training because they are short of time, says Tandon. "So that is another big challenge - how to take it slow and then reach towards high performance else it will lead to mental stress and other stress injuries.
"They have to understand that this is not the first or the last competition they are facing in their lives," Tandon further explains. "Since they are getting back after a long gap and there is a lot of uncertainty, they have to take it slow. We are not asking athletes to create new goals. We are just pushing the reset button and resetting goals from six months back and in your head, you are starting from there. You are not losing your strategies or performance, you are just trying to rehearse it a little more thoroughly."
The physical challenges do have an impact mentally.
"One issue I was facing with a bowler was they are used to training in certain field conditions," says Tandon. "They sometimes create these conditions by watering or drying the pitch and the field during training but in these last 3-4 months, they weren't able to do that. So now they are facing the question that once we go to a new pitch or training ground, how are we going to adjust to certain pitches when we haven't trained for it or acclimitasied to those pitches according to our training and trained for it?"
Tandon is making use of video analysis by making players watch old videos of different pitches they have bowled on and carrying out visualiastion exercises on how they bowled on those pitches at that time in those weather conditions, to clear those doubts.
Another apprehension that some of Tandon's clients are having is how are they going to be as fielders? In the lockdown they could have worked on batting and bowling skills but fielding is something they haven't been able to train for.
There is that aspect of comparison that comes into the picture and might play into the players' minds.
"There are certain countries where the lockdown got lifted earlier, there are certain states where athletes weren't inflicted with the virus as much as say Delhi so they have been already training. Like I have a couple of athletes in tennis and they have been planning to compete with athletes from another state, now they have an apprehension that we were in lockdown and couldn't train for 2 months but they were training. They might have the fear that my competitors might be in better form than me. It might not be actually true but fear is fear."
What is also necessary for a smooth transition is regulating the emotions. There are a lot of negative emotions like fear, frustration, anger, anxiety, clouding the mind and it's very important for players to be aware of it and then regulate it.
"The process of regulation is different for different individuals," explains Swaminathan. "A lot of them can channelise the anger in the right way. They should be having certain routines and habits that they should keep doing regularly so that they are able to bounce back from whatever emotions they are going through.
"There are a few people who are not expressive they need to have a support routine. For example, athletes have taken up drawing as kind of a vent. Few of them use their workout as a vent and it's really helpful for them."
While mental health has been in focus in the last few years, the role of mental conditioning coaches and sports psychologists has become all the more crucial in these times. As England and West Indies get set to mark the return of international cricket, Stuart Broad has even sought the help of the England cricket team's sports psychologist to create a mindset best suited for crowd absence.
For a seamless transition, the work done on the mental aspect during the lockdown also becomes important. Which is what IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals (RR) are stressing about.
"This is the best time (lockdown period) to look at the mental side of the game," explains Rajasthan Royals head physio John Gloster. "It's is the chance for the players to develop mental skills that otherwise they can't. For example, COVID-19 is testing us mentally, it's taking us all out of the comfort zones and putting us into stressful and fearful environments. Now isn't that a great opportunity to start working out strategies on how to deal with that? Because there is nothing more fearful and stressful environment now than they will have to encounter in any sporting field. What they are going through now is going to be worse than any sporting environment or fear or stress they are going to go through.
"So this is an opportunity to look smack bang in the eye of fear and say 'right how do I deal with you?' And get some strategies to work on it because that's going to significantly benefit them post COVID-19 as well. Now is the opportunity to start things like decision making in this hostile, fearful environments. This is where we talk about one-percenters in sport, we never get the opportnity or environment to practice these. That's what we (RR) are trying to work on because it makes the transition back to elite sport much easier. You are developing patience, discipline, routines all the things you otherwise wouldn't have, you have got now as an advantage."
Rajasthan Royals are helping the players develop skills and strategies to help them deal with this situation which in turn will help them with their mental strength. The franchise has set up a four-tier system to deal with the mental side of things.
"The junior players are having the access of senior players to tap into their knowledge and experience," Gloster explains. "We have also got external support and built a network in and outside India that the players can tap into at a more professional level. So, first of all, we want them to access their own, the peers and players, then the management group: myself, coach Andrew McDonald and coaching staff. Then above that, we have built a layer of Hindi and English speaking professionals for more support and strategies to cope up with the mental side.
"Potentially, the biggest area of deficit when the players come out of COVID-19 is going to be the mental side. But it can also be the biggest area of strength if we handle it appropriately now," Gloster signs off.
It's clear that well-conditioned minds will be equally as important as honed muscles when sport returns.
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