Desire or the gold medal? When young athletes fall in love and lust

Pulasta Dhar August 13, 2015 14:12:05 IST
Desire or the gold medal? When young athletes fall in love and lust

After beating Roger Federer for his third Wimbledon title, tennis world No 1 Novak Djokovic said that the secret of success was to 'get married and have kids'. But he didn't marry a sportsperson.

Caroline Wozniacki almost did marry one — golfer Rory McIlroy — before he called it off at the last moment (even the wedding cards were out). Wozniacki struggled on the court for a while after their breakup but McIlroy went on to become world No 1. At the time, he said, his priority had to be golf.

Then there's Tiger Woods who got caught cheating on his wife. He hasn’t been the same since, though injuries have played their part in his fall as well. Manchester United's Angel di Maria seemed a shadow of the player he can be after his house was burgled while his family was at home.

These are some of the best athletes in the world and yet their heart ruled their body when it came time to perform — for better or worse.

So imagine what could happen to the thousands of Indian athletes, aged between 15-18, spread across sports campuses in India? Teenage boys and girls are thrown together and eat, train and live with the same people for months and even years.

Certainly almost all of us have stared at a crush in school rather than the teacher scribbling on the blackboard. The stakes for athletes aiming to win medals for their countries is exponentially higher. So how do India's administrators, coaches, parents and fellow athletes cope with the most basic of human emotions – love and desire? What happens when two young athletes are attracted to each other? Are they forced to stay away from each other? Or are they encouraged to continue their relationship under close supervision? What about the parents? Do they pull their kids out of camp? What if the two athletes are from a different religion? What if a female athlete falls for a male coach?

Firstpost spoke to sports psychologists, top athletes and coaches to find out how these questions are tackled within the bastions of Indian sport and discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that attitudes have come a long way towards accepting the reality of desire. Most acknowledge now that there is nothing necessarily wrong with two people, confined in closed space for long periods of time, wanting to be with each other.

Two-time national badminton champion (2008, 2011) Arvind Bhat married fellow badminton player Pallavi Sengupta in 2008 after dating her for roughly five years.

"I had some fear initially too - when I thought what my coaches would think of me dating, but now I look back and think why - why was I afraid? It's hard to explain. Yes, there was some secrecy maintained when I started dating," Bhat told Firstpost.

Desire or the gold medal When young athletes fall in love and lust

Arvind Bhatt and Pallavi Sengupta on vacation. Image source Arvind Bhatt

Bhat believes that 'India has grown tolerant in accepting two sportspersons in love'.

"Very few had girlfriends when I was younger - now, I see all my juniors, they all date. Even drinking alcohol - it was a big deal earlier but now juniors tell their coaches that they drink and it's cool," the 36-year-old said.

Bhat adds that it eventually comes down to how the individual athlete deals with the ups and downs of relationships: "Focus is affected, yes - if there is a fight or something - but this depends on maturity of the people involved."

But an adolescent athlete's mentality does not depend just on the invidual. Their environment also plays a significant role. Most sports campers start living at a Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre or an academy (the Pullela Gopichand Academy for example) between the ages of 15-18 — a sensitive age which moulds you as a player and a person.

So while coaches and parents have the biggest influence on the athletes, Indian sport has seen a rise in the number of sports psychologists hired specifically for national camps and also as full time employees.

"Over the last ten years, things have changed," Dr Chaitanya Sridhar, who has worked with SAI athletes and various top sports academies for over a decade, told Firstpost. "This includes SAI and national camps — in every major centre, there is a sports science department where there are psychologists to help. Still, I think more work needs to go into acceptance of certain basic things. It's more about understanding and educating those who call the shots — until an athlete is 23-24, the parents and coaches call all the shots."

Another sports psychologist, who has worked with athletes who have represented India at the Olympics but wished to remain anonymous in order to protect her relationship with SAI, said: "Athletes come to us with relationship issues. We ask them to ask themselves: what's your priority? Are you able to handle the pressures of a relationship? Are your performances getting affected? They need to evaluate everything - whether they are here for sports or for something else."

Dr Sridhar tells us that athletes have called her from events such as the Commonwealth Games because of relationship issues. One athlete, mentioned by a psychologist who doesn't want to be named, travelled abroad, 'had a fight' with the partner, but after a phone counselling session, won a medal two days later.

"Athletes face a lot of pressure as it is — performance, comparison with others, coach's evaluation and finally the biggest issue of parents trying to live their dreams through their children. I'm not just blaming parents, but to live up to expectations in sports and studies while maintaining discipline all the time is not easy at a young age," Sridhar said.


Heena Sidhu — Commonwealth gold medallist and only the third Indian shooter after Anjali Bhagwat and Gagan Narang to win a gold at a Rifle/Pistol World Cup Final — is another athlete who married within her sport. In 2013, Sidhu married Ronak Pandit, who went on to become her coach.

Sidhu had an interesting courtship — she initially rejected Pandit's approaches (through a love letter) because his 'mumbaiyaa' reputation preceded him. Both met at a TV studio later as experts and started fresh — as friends, after burying the hatchet — before figuring that they were perfect for each other. Sidhu had to 'block out the gossip about Ronak within shooting circles' and convinced her parents to get married at 23. She got her way.

However, trouble would come — and to her credit, Sidhu handled it well: "The only rocky period in my relation was when this man with whom I was in a relationship with was suddenly also my coach. The 4-5 months before the Olympics were especially tough for the both of us. He wanted to coach and had me shooting in a way and I was set in a way, so there were those issues."

But not everyone is as tough as Sidhu.

"I know of athletes who have been into relationships with fellow athletes and suffered," she said. "What happens is they get into relationships between the ages of 15 and 19 and then due to some reason have to split. A split is more harmful than a relationship: maybe because they have to move to different camps and so on. Then there's the fear of being reported by federation officials and coaches - to avoid this, many have dropped out," she said.

Dr Sridhar, the psychologist who SAI hires occasionally for camps, gives numerous examples of athletes facing trouble both at home and at academies just for dating a fellow athlete.

"I know of athletes - and I am talking about athletes who have gone on to win medals - whose parents checked every message on their phones when they would return home from training. I told the parent: 'listen he/she is about to be 18 now. They are not kids. They need space after a hard day's work.' So all this is a societal issue."

One of her case studies illustrates how hard it can be to handle parents — the most difficult of whom 'live their dreams through the achievements of their children'.

"Two athletes from different religions were in a relationship and their parents revolted against it. There were a lot of issues for which I needed to have multiple counselling sessions with them. What happens is that parents need to be educated here. It's very rarely an athlete's fault because this is bound to happen - you are almost always together and seeing the same people everyday," Dr Sridhar said. The athletes eventually got married and are happy together.

As one sports psychologist who has previously worked with the SAI says, "We rarely recommend a break-up."


When it comes to coaches, however, things are less clear. An insider tells us that 'there is already an unwritten rule that you should not get into a relationship with a fellow athlete and to avoid any sort of attraction'.

"Coaches keep an eye - they come to know by talking to athletes about other athletes' lives — athletes are not united, they talk about each other," says a source close to athletes who have come through academies told Firstpost.

While Sidhu said she never faced disciplinary action from a coach, he also said breaking rules was a no-no. "If you break rules, like for example going into each others' hotel rooms during a camp or a tournament, things can get difficult. In shooting, our federation is quite accepting. Boys and girls are allowed to hang out together — but issues happen when you openly flaunt rules: like say drink and experiment at that adoloscent age."

Firstpost also learnt that there is no disciplinary committee for cases like these. Athletes and coaches, with the help of sports psychologists, are expected to sort it out among themselves.

"The main priority is to reason with coaches — you have to tell them why it's happening: age, hormonal changes, confined to one area and so on. You need to be intelligent when you try to convince them. If it's a conservative coach, bring his thinking down to a level playing field. Ask the coach not to develop his own defence mechanism because that will make the athlete feel unworthy," a sports psychologist told us.

As for administrators, they prefer to stay away unless absolutely necessary.

"(SAI) is a massive operation. All these issues don't get diluted per se, but things are less obvious than let's say a badminton or a swimming academy — where the groups are smaller and closer," Dr Sridhar says before citing another case study: "Things don't really get out of control unless there is something like, for example, when a coach (Arjuna Awardee) had an extra-marital affair with an athlete. I still think that could have been handled better than to have him sacked. There is always a way to set these things right without creating a huge uproar. But administrators usually don't come in unless things are so serious."


The advice to the athlete is simple: communication with coach is important, assess your priorities - when training, train - no phones, no presence of partner, and be okay with the relationship ('shoot the coach down in the head') because if you don't accept it - it will lead to unneccessary guilt.

Dr Sridhar dumbs it down to three words: "Evaluation, prioritisation, decision. You have to sit with the athlete and ask him/her: do you think it's worth it? If it is, then what is your priority... can you handle both? Decide soon. Those who drop out because of a relationship issue probably realised that they were not good enough for the sport anyway. If they are ready to give up on a sport for a person then you already know their priorities. There is a very small number of athletes who would sacrifice their main aim for a relationship."

She also has a damning verdict for those who drop out of a sport due to relationship issues: "I would go so far as to say they'd be dumb to do so," she says, like most mothers would, to their children who think life is finished because they got dumped.

And it's not always about relationships too. Psychologists are constantly trying to bridge the gap between athlete and coach. The ratio of male to female coaches is ridiculous in India — and most male coaches find it very hard to handle a female adoloscent's behaviour. Whichever person we spoke to — associated with these academies and centres — said that younger coaches are more understanding and the incoming group of coaches makes their jobs easier.

"If it is smooth, then the type of advice changes - it veers towards issues like avoiding pregnancy and not making things more complicated. We give them different options and scenarios depending on their choice. Realistic evaluation. The final decision is on the athletes. You cannot ever point out to a cause and effect here - there are lots of perceptions but if the coach doesn't mind, things are usually fine," a sports psychologist informs Firstpost.

But, as Bhat says, sometimes choices are not about just sport. At the end of the day, you want to come back home and feel loved by someone special.

"Some might believe that their sport is everything,” Bhatt said. “But I believe your sport is not your whole life - it will be there for 10-12 years and you give it your all, yes, but then you have your companion — and maybe a bad session or a bad performance is worthy sacrifice if you want to spend your life with a particular person."

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