It will be an understatement to say that India missed two of its best sports performers, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and gymnast Dipa Karmakar, at the world championships of their respective sport this month. They are on a rehabilitation timeline, recovering from injuries that needed them to undergo surgeries " Neeraj on his right elbow and Dipa on her right knee.
From the distance, their current mindsets are as vastly different as their sports. Neeraj Chopra was reportedly keen to compete in the IAAF World Atheltics Championships in Doha while Dipa Karmakar did not take part in the trials to select the team, aware that her recovery process has remained incomplete. Make no mistake, both want to be on the rebound and in competition.
It is hard to say how much help either has received in terms of training their mind to bounce back stronger from injuries. But it is not surprising that Delhi-based sports psychologist Divya Jain of Fortis Healthcare says only a small percentage of her clients are those seeking psychological support during rehabilitation after an injury and a surgery.
So, what could be going through the minds of top Indian athletes who are in different stages of rehabilitation after surgery? Ideally, it is athletes who provide answer to the questions. Nanaki J Chadha, a former top 10 player on the Indian Golf Union charts and now a sports psychology researcher, says a lot of irrational thoughts can dominate the mind.
"Injuries are a traumatic, unpleasant experience for any athlete. For, an injury impacts an athlete mentally quite a bit. A lot of thoughts can crowd the mind: 'Will I be able to make a comeback?', And if I do come back, will my body be the same?' Such things lead to irritation and frustration, too. Worse, an athlete's self-esteem and self-confidence can take a dip," she says.
It ties in with cricketer Sachin Tendulkar's confession about the time he was out after surgery to mend his tennis elbow. "I wondered if I would be able to play cricket ever again. After the surgery, the doctors had told me that it would take time and I needed to be patient. But like any other sportsperson, I was impatient and wanted to return to action as early as possible," he had said.
"I went through tough times. I could not sleep at night. I thought my career was over and that I did not have the strength to hit a cricket ball again. All those thoughts started creeping in my mind. I prayed to God: 'Give me one more chance to play the game. I want to play cricket and I can't stop'," Tendulkar had said.
Divya Jain, who is Head - Psychological Services, Fortis Healthcare, says the fear of losing one's own identity is a significant factor in the mental make-up of an athlete going through lengthy rehabilitation. "Most athletes are known only for their sporting achievements and do not involve themselves in too many other things. They do not have a fall back areas of interest," she says.
So, what is it that elite athletes need to do during times of rehabilitation?
Nanaki Chadha says it is important for the athlete to focus on keeping these high rather than on the negative emotions. "This can be done in two ways during the rehab " reflecting on the past performances and visualising a performance post-recovery. Besides, it is important to have the right social support in this time to can push the athlete to stay positive."
"We never know what awaits us and less in high performance sport. In less than a year you can win a World Cup and suffer an injury, and what should not change in any case is the attitude to overcome every training and commitment to your goals," says Maria Martinez, badminton ace Carolina Marin's sports psychologist.
Divya Jain believes that the athlete must focus on the controllable, setting small process-based goals and celebrating each small milestone. "Above all, it is important to talk to people. The public perception of them being strong bottles them up from securing psychological support," she says, admiring how badminton ace Carolina Marin used such help during her return from knee surgery.
She says that athletes can be over-anxious to stage a comeback and confirm to themselves that they could perform at the same levels as before. "The hurry to return to competition can be counter-productive as it can lead to over-training," she says. Indeed, the recovery phase can be as challenging as sport itself.
Highly motivated and radiate positive energy when competing, the minds of athletes can become a hotbed for negative emotions. Unaware of their thought process, they can allow irritation and frustration to show up in their demeanour often. A tell-tale sign is their snapping at people, perhaps for no apparent reason.
It is crucial, therefore, for those managing an elite athlete's recovery from injury to ensure that the right kind of psychological assistance is provided. "It is extremely important to reach out to a professional psychologist and work in collaboration with the coach. They can identify the short-term goals. The whole ecosystem must come together and help the athlete," Nanaki Chadha says.
While organisations like JSW, which has played a key role in Neeraj Chopra's rehab process, Go Sports Foundation, which assists Dipa Karmakar, and Olympic Gold Quest do have sports psychologists consulting with them, Indian athletes are not known to be very open to the idea of seeking help from mind trainers. They often bank on their coaches to double up as psychologists.
Or else, they will run the risk of getting other injuries caused by having to compensate the one from which they are recovering. And of letting wriggling doubts " Will I regain my aggression? Can there be a recurrence of the injury if go to the same place where I was injured first? " stay in the mind. Such negative cues can affect performance.
Even as World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October, it can only be hoped that with the likes of Indian women's Twenty20 cricket team captain Harmanpreet Kaur articulating the need a sports psychologist, there will be greater awareness of the important role of such professionals in the Indian sporting system.