Accept, adapt, prepare: Mind coach Sujith Somasundar’s guide to fighting physical inaction and conquering mental blues

Had all other things been equal, Season 13 of the Indian Premier League (IPL) would have just ticked over into its second week. But all other things are not equal, are they? International sport has come to a grinding halt as the world grapples to minimise the devastating effect of COVID-19.

Sport might appear an insignificant pursuit in these troubled times, but it’s worth remembering that for millions, it is not just a burning passion but also a source of livelihood. The current uncertainty is unlike anything professional sportspersons might have encountered in the past.

 Accept, adapt, prepare: Mind coach Sujith Somasundar’s guide to fighting physical inaction and conquering mental blues

With all sports suspended, the athletes ought to accept, adapt and stay mentally strong. Representational image

Time away from their chosen vocation through injury is almost inevitable, especially the higher in the sporting stratosphere one soars, but at least there are time-frames for recovery, rehab and return. In the existing scenario, what can be debilitating – physically as well as psychologically – is the stress stemming from the unknown.

Restrictions on movement preclude visits to the gym, let alone outings to the practice facilities. From physical inactivity, therefore, can emanate mental staleness and crushing seeds of self-doubt. It thus becomes incumbent on each individual to devise means of keeping oneself fresh and motivated within the constraints at hand.

One of the first requirements in the battle against cynicism is an acceptance of the situation, insists Sujith Somasundar, the former India opener and currently Head of Education at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. Somasundar’s versatility extends beyond direct involvement with the sport – the former Karnataka captain, who has also coached at the first-class level, is a qualified mind coach who finds himself in the unique position of understanding the psyche of a cricketer and therefore offering prudent, practical, first-hand solutions.

“The off-season is what we call a period of active rest, where there is no competition but you are making sure that the working muscles are getting low-to-moderate exercise and blood flow while you play a different sport,” Somasundar points out.

“The reality now is beyond that ‘active rest’ phase because there isn’t any option of going outdoors. First up, you have to accept that this is something you can’t do anything about. If you live in denial and start feeling like a victim, then you will become resigned to and cynical about the whole situation. That’s a very real danger, of losing motivation, especially for those sportspersons who had been preparing for a particular competition and would have been raring to go. Take the IPL, for instance. So many cricketers would have prepared for the tournament for so long; if you are not careful and if you allow it to mentally impact you, then you can easily lose perspective.

“Physically as well, weakness in muscles can set in,” Somasundar goes on. “If you can’t exercise, then the muscles can become weak. On both counts, there is a definite impact.”

Before you can ask him, Somasundar comes up with the answers himself. “So, what can one do? Like I said earlier, it is imperative to immediately accept the situation. Accept that this is something beyond your control. Once you come to terms with that, you can work out action plans. There are a lot of things you can do to change the context of the situation. You could look at this as an opportunity to develop other faculties or introspect. You get time to look at your own game and analyse yourself, what are the areas that need work.

“Psychologically, you can look at working on your mind - neuro-muscular psycho-motor exercises. You can do visualisation and (mental) imagery. You can sit in your drawing room and actually visualise bowling or batting or throwing… involving all the senses. The kinesthetic (the feel), the visual and the auditory, all three combined is called (mental) imagery. When you practice it, it is proven that whatever activity you are visualizing, that activity will trigger and activate the same muscle groups in the body. It’s likely that there can be a loss of both muscle memory and muscle strength from inactivity. However, through mental imagery, you make sure you don’t lose touch so that when you return to your sport, you quickly regain the same kind of form and feel as before.

“The other important aspect is physical upkeep. If you look at the astronauts in space, they find ways to keep their muscle strength intact. They do resistance training. In space, there is no gravity, so there is scope for muscle atrophy. At home too, we can do resistance training using resistance bands and/or our own bodyweight exercises – push-ups, lunges, sit-ups, pull-ups, all those things don’t need any equipment.

"With these activities, it not only builds you up physically, it also keeps you fresh and strong mentally. When you feel strong, your self-esteem won’t go down. When I say self-esteem, it’s the way you value and see yourself – in other words, self-efficacy. You may start falling in your estimation of yourself because you feel you have not practiced or done anything productive. Doubts and fears can creep in, and the confidence level may go down because you don’t see yourself as game-ready. To prevent that, if you follow some kind of routine physically and mentally, you know you are doing something. That will help retain self-image and maintain confidence.”

Given the reluctance in India, particularly, to seek out mind coaches, it’s no surprise that Somasundar has hardly been approached for assistance/support in the last two weeks. Even though he is not practicing privately as a mental game coach because of his role at the NCA, Somasundar reveals that he has been contemplating throwing open a free channel of communication so that people know there is an avenue available for guidance should they feel the need.

“I am sure there will be many sportspersons in other parts of the world who would have reached out (to mind coaches). But in India, the mental aspect of the game is perceived to be a taboo. There is a fear that they might be bracketed as weak in the mind, so they don’t want to open up. I am thinking of coming up with a medium where I can make myself available. The advantage is that you can work on the mind remotely. Then again, it’s not something you can push on to people, it can only be a pull. You can open up a channel; if people are keen, they can hop on to it.”

Somasundar also warns against trying to overreach physically in the immediacy of a return to the normalcy of the practice-play routine.

“If you have not kept physically fit,” he points out, “injuries can sprout if you push yourself too hard and want to do the same things that you could do when you were in constant touch with the sport. It is about managing oneself. We often talk about peaking. On a match-day, for example, you reach the (cricket) ground before 8 am for a 9.30 am start. You know exactly when to start your warm-ups and when to end them so that your warm-up is at the right level. You are not too warmed-up and you are not too cold. That is difficult now, due to the uncertainty in the resumption of normalcy. Therefore you need to maintain at least some momentum so that when the time comes, you are not found wanting. One needs to be really motivated to find ways of being in the game, find ways of preparation.”

As things stand, a return to competitive sport is a long way away. All one can do in the interim is wait, accept, adapt and prepare, knowing that assistance and guidance are just a click of the mouse away.

Updated Date: Apr 06, 2020 13:21:32 IST



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