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Athletes termed superhuman, perfect but are incredibly vulnerable: Bindra

In the hours after news broke of the death by suicide of upcoming shooter Konica Layak, former Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra wrote a letter to Raninder Singh, President of the National Rifle Association of India. In the letter, Bindra, who as part of the IOC’s Athletes Commission played a role in the committee’s mental health working group, offered the services of his foundation to conduct virtual sessions for athletes, coaches and others in the shooting ecosystem on mental health.

Speaking to ESPN, Bindra emphasized the need to come to terms with the unique challenges faced by sportspersons, the need to set up mechanisms to deal with mental health issues and most importantly, the necessity to create a psychologically safe environment for athletes to be able to compete.

The subject is close to Bindra’s heart. In his autobiography ‘A shot at history’, Bindra detailed his own struggles, where after single-mindedly pursuing his quest for an Olympic gold, he found himself struggling for motivation to continue. “My own mental health challenges have been documented. I’ve seen a lot of athletes suffer in silence. It’s a subject I’m passionate about,” Bindra says.

According to Bindra, the conversation on mental health support for athletes is still filled with inaccuracies. “The big one is that athletes are termed superhuman, who have to be perfect. Yet, they are incredibly vulnerable. There are many red flags. It’s in the nature of sport that you are constantly dealing with pressure and failure. If you are a competitive sportsperson, you have constant travel that disturbs your sleep cycles and inadequate recovery which in turn could lead to mental health issues. And you face it on a daily basis. That in turn leads to expectations and pressure that somehow need to be channeled,” he says.

While every athlete passes through that cauldron – some even winning medals – Bindra says it’s not sustainable. “It’s not conducive to human wellbeing. There’s a lot of emphasis on outcomes. You either win or are a loser. Sport is not just about winning. It’s about effort which counts. It’s something that’s personal for me. Post my retirement, I’ve dedicated time and energy to create tools that might be needed.”

In a perfect world Bindra would want there to be more balance in the way Indian athletes approach sport – not the all-or-nothing view that dominates currently. “The foundation of performing under pressure is balance. It’s not some kind of killer instinct or some great ability to handle psychological pressure. It comes from how you are balanced in life. One of the greatest errors athletes make is when their self-worth is determined by where your name appears on the medal list. It’s not a sustainable way to go through a sporting journey or even have a sustainable path to sporting success.”

Presently though, Bindra is worried that the subject of mental health is considered too loosely by those in a position to combat it. While many theories have sprung up to explain the spate of recent athlete deaths by suicide – including isolation brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bindra thinks the issue is a more fundamental one. “COVID-19 may have amplified the issue, but it’s a deeper matter that has to be looked at seriously. These examples in shooting are alarming,” he says.

Bindra doesn’t reckon that mental health requirements are going away anytime soon. “The number of kids getting involved with sports in India is only going up every year. That’s a good thing, but while the next decade will be decade of sport in India, it will be a challenge. The nature of sport is that in an athlete’s journey you will have more failures than success. As participation increases, failure increases with it as well. That’s why it’s about time that sport – and not just shooting – makes a more concerted effort to set up more mechanisms to deal with these matters,” he says.

While the NRAI has in the past spoken about the need to have more mental training for athletes, this has been touted mostly as a way to improve performance at major events. However this isn’t what Bindra is referring to. Indeed it’s another misconception he hopes to clear. “There’s a clear distinction that has to be made between mental health and sports psychology. Mental health is not a sports psychologist’s job. A sports psychologist’s job is to deal with resilience of athletes and performance. Mental health might be connected to performance. However, it is a separate issue that has to be dealt with different resources,” he says.

While symptoms of mental distress are common, Bindra says it’s important to understand when exactly they cross over to dangerous territory. “I hear a lot of loose statements. There is a difference between mental health issues, disorder and symptoms. Every athlete will face symptoms. The night before Olympic competition, every athlete faces a certain amount of anxiety. I faced anxiety but… that is human and acceptable. However, if things go out of control then there is a problem. Suicide doesn’t happen from one moment to another. It suggests things have been boiling over but these are the sort of red flags that can come up when regular assessments are done,” he says.

Those red flags are what Bindra opines need a vigilant eye. “Organisations need to create resources for mental health the same way many already have a medical committee. They need to get mental health experts on board. Maybe not full time but at least on a contract basis. The same way that athletes are assessed for their physical health, their mental health needs ought to be assessed a couple of times a year as well,” Bindra says.

He adds that the same processes need to spread to the grassroots where not every athlete might have the same resources available. “We need to make sure that the same system that you set up goes down to your grassroots and state associations. If athletes are assessed for physical health, there are tools available to assess where they stand on mental health. Let’s not confuse it with performance. If at all red flags come up, you have to make sure that athletes get medical resources to deal with it,” he says.

While the wellbeing of the athlete has to be central to the whole project, Bindra says, the environment surrounding them is as essential. “What’s actually really important is the education of an athlete’s entourage. It’s not just about taking care of the health of said athlete but also that of coaches. An unhappy coach can never create a psychologically safe environment for an athlete,” says Bindra. As part of the IOC’s Mental Health Working Group, Bindra had been involved in the creation of resources directed not at the medical practitioner but for the athlete’s entourage and he hopes that more coaches and trainers would be able to access that. “There are resources – courses specifically available for coaches, physios and trainers. So at least they gain a little understanding or knowledge around mental health. Thus, if they see certain patterns they can intervene and get help at the right time,” he says.

With psychological stress unavoidable in competitive sport, Bindra says it is critical to ensure as supportive an environment as possible to compete in. “It’s about creating a psychologically safe environment to push yourself outside your comfort zone. That’s what athletes do. We are always challenging ourselves. Whenever you do that you will fail and fall. Some of us will be able to have enough strength and get up and try again, some will need a helping hand. You need to create a safe environment to go after their ambition,” he says.

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