For a young Haryanvi weightlifter with immense strength, an admirable physique, an impressive collection of medals, and marked for potential greatness, it’s not easy admitting to being mentally fragile. But, Deepak Lather, 21, is different. Lather, who set a national record in snatch at the age of 15 in 2015, acknowledged this weakness and help was at hand.
The weightlifter found a sounding board in the Centre for Sports Medicine in Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai. The Reliance Foundation Hospital (RFH) and Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) provide sports science and medicine support to several athletes across the country, including Lather.
“When I was in rehab in 2019 following an injury, I was in touch with Maithili ma’am (Maithili Bhuptani, Lead — Sport and Exercise Psychologist at the hospital). She told me what’s gone is done, you can do nothing about it, but you can have a say in what’s going to come,” says the 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist.
Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur with physio Nitya Marwaha. – Special Arrangement
“Initially, I did not grasp the importance of mental health and did not think too much about it, but gradually I realised how important it is. In fact, it’s the most important facet. Mentally, I am a stronger athlete now,” says Lather, a Naib Subedar in the Army.
Bhuptani remembers this phase clearly. “Initially, he seemed sceptical. I would hang around the gym where he was going through his rehab. This continued for about a week and we got talking. I realised he is a simple and friendly person. So, how to show him the right path was as important as the path itself. I understood that a simple approach would work. These days, he speaks freely and I am not always the psychologist,” she says.
Bhuptani accepts it’s challenging at times to get athletes to warm up to the importance of sports psychology . “Many come from backgrounds where this field hasn’t been exposed to them. The first step is increasing awareness and education. We start with that before doing an intervention plan.”
Lather is excited about his future and lets on that a climb up to the 81kg class from his current 73kg category is on the cards.
Progress such as Lather’s excites Dr. Aashish Contractor, Director: Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine at RFH. “What we’re essentially trying to do is create an infrastructure and a backbone for athletes to have the support of science and medicine,” he says.
“We always use the word potential when it comes to India. I hope that with the current effort being put in by the whole ecosystem, the potential gets realised. That’s the aim,” says Dr. Contractor, who used to play tennis as a youngster and is now training to compete in a gruelling ironman event. He appreciates the fact that private entities are putting up their money to back the growth of sports.
This Reliance support for sports works on a hub-and-spoke model. Mumbai is the hub and the foundation has smaller teams and individuals across the country, paying close attention to the well-being and improvement of athletes.
Dr. Tvisa Parikh, Sports Physician, Department of Sports Medicine, says, “We are one of a kind of team in the country. All the specialists are under a single roof and we are the team behind the team. Our programme has central specialists and then we have the referral or satellite teams posted pretty much throughout the country. The satellite teams work on ground with the athletes and relay information to the central team and decisions are made together.”
There is a lot of travel involved. At times, the Mumbai-based experts visit teams outside, and on other occasions, athletes and their satellite team allies pop in. “Our programme also gives this flexibility, plus the expertise, which stands out,” she says.
Amoj Jacob has given up the 800m to focus on the 400m and has made stunning progress. – Special Arrangement
This team effort has also come to the aid of talented track athlete Amoj Jacob, who ran a blistering anchor leg in the 4x400m men’s relay at the Tokyo Olympics, as the Indian quartet clocked 3:00:25 to set a new Asian record, failing to make the final by a whisker.
“To be honest, Reliance has been very helpful. It has greatly helped with rehab,” says Jacob, 23. “There is a huge difference from when I started. Here we work on each specific weaknesses,” says Jacob, who initially caught the eye of sports fans as a young boy from Delhi excelling in both the 400m and 800m.
He has given up the 800m to focus on the one-lapper. He has also had to give up a bit more. A Malayali, Jacob, however, has the taste buds of a Delhiite. “Chhole Kulche ka dukh hai,” he laughs, talking about the pain of having to forgo the Delhi staple of spicy chickpea curry and flatbread. “Diet ka fight hai (it’s a struggle to stick to the diet). A whole lot of things are being sacrificed, but it’s okay because it’s worth it,” says the quarter-miler, who admires football star Cristiano Ronaldo.
Talk of diet and nutrition also gets Lather laughing. “We Haryanvis are known for consuming large amounts of ghee. Our nutritionist has put curbs, but when I am home even for a day, Maa nahin maanti (mother doesn’t agree),” he chuckles. There is, however, no risk of Lather deviating from his nutrition plan, swayed by his mother’s love, because he rarely goes home. That’s the sacrifice he, like many elite athletes, makes in their pursuit of excellence.
Mihira A. R. Khopkar, Lead — Sports Nutritionist, is the one cracking the whip on food, but it’s not all stick and no carrot cake. She does allow cheat meals, just that she doesn’t label them so. “I mean there’s one life. You need to enjoy everything you eat, but it’s all about doing it smartly. For instance, I can put the food you are craving in pre-training so that it can be a fuel for the training session.”
Khopkar, who was a competitive swimmer before transitioning to sports science, says, “We communicate with each other before taking a plan to an athlete. So, the athlete is getting a single, comprehensive advice. He’s not getting confused that my nutritionist asked me to do X, Y, Z, but my trainer has asked me to do something else.”
Nutrition plans should help athletes perform, but must include items that are readily available, according to Khopkar. “I will not tell somebody who can’t afford it to eat quinoa. It’s all about what’s available and what’s practical so that you make the most of what’s in hand.”
It’s the same realistic approach that Leandi van Zyl, Head — Sport Science/Strength and Conditioning, takes. “It’s important to analyse the athlete and the sport. A lot of the time I can make an effort to do crazy things, but if it doesn’t help performance on the track or the weightlifting platform or the badminton court, then it means I did not do my job. It’s really important you test certain qualities that a sport needs, and then design a programme.”
In the pursuit of faster, higher, stronger, athletes often push their bodies to the edge and beyond, and this is an area elite sportspersons willingly inhabit, aware that they are flirting with injury. How to prevent this from happening to an athlete is in Dr. Jimit Kapadia’s wheelhouse as the Sports Physical Therapist, Lead — Assessment, Diagnosis and Injury Management.
“The priority is to prevent injuries and we have a system in terms of tracking the athletes. At the elite level, the focus is usually on wellness sessions, rather than treatment. Each and every day, each and every session missed because of an injury is a loss to the athlete. If injuries happen, the job is to assess, diagnose, rehab, and return to sport,” he says.
The assessments that Dr. Kapadia and his colleagues conduct include spotting red flags. For instance, if an athlete is going at full tilt without any worries, unaware of any underlying weaknesses that could trigger an injury, these periodic screenings spot those vulnerabilities. “Athletes are somehow, somewhere going to overuse something. So, we need to watch out and make sure they do not break down.”
The experts are upbeat about what the future holds, as are young talents such as Lather and Jacob, who have embraced sports science.