Mind Over Medal

The support and empathy extended by the global sports fraternity to American gymnast Simone Biles’ inner struggle at the Tokyo Olympics shows that the world is ready to prioritise mental health over the conventional yardsticks of success.

While we celebrate the stories of individual brilliance and the spirit of sportsmanship emerging from the Olympics, the news of top athletes succumbing to mental breakdowns due to performance pressure is certainly worrying.

Sport is an arena for healthy competition, happiness, harmony and well-being. Ironically, the very activity meant to uplift the human mind has become a source of trauma. The result-focused training regimes, the weight of expectations and constant scrutiny of their progress are taking a toll on a sportsperson’s state of well-being and mental balance.

It’s not a Battle Field

As the level of competition rises, sporting events are becoming more like sporting wars. The pressure to win at any cost is even pushing players to indulge in unethical practices. Rising incidents of doping, of players resorting to performance-enhancing drugs etc, is an indication of the acute stress associated with modern sports.

Play the Whole Game

There is a need for infusing a holistic vision in the current training models. The physical side of training has grown in leaps and bounds. While sportspersons put in many hours every single day for years together in order to perfect their game, most of them do not seem to get the opportunity to attend to their inner dimensions.

I often tell people, a weak body can be carried by a strong mind, but a weak mind cannot carry a strong body. To be able to handle the demands of modern competitive sports, a calm and balanced mind is indispensable. That can come from practices that enhance self-awareness.

The Records Already Exist

Anxious, fear-ridden athletes are far more likely to get choked in competition. Unfortunately in all our school lives, we have not been trained in handling our minds and emotions that play a make-or-break role in competitive sports.

Most successful athletes in history are known to have attended to this aspect in some way or the other. Studies have found that religious and spiritual factors often play an important part in the careers of top athletes. Sports-persons can greatly benefit from practices like yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. These help them clear up their minds, bring sharp focus and instil faith and confidence, equipping them to deliver their optimal performances.

Encouragingly, quite a few countries have started realizing this and have conducted meditation and mind management workshops for their Olympics-bound teams. This has benefited the players from these countries and enabled them to enjoy their game, both on and off the field.

Keeping the Spirit Alive

In sports, fortunes rise and fall. A player cannot allow himself or herself to get so affected by the outcome. All sportspeople should first take care of their minds. Attending to their mental health and cultivating a broader outlook will give them access to the vast reservoirs of inner strength required to positively deal with personal problems and injuries and take successes and failures in a stride.

Don’t Get Lost In a Loss

While it is always desirable to win, one should also be trained to handle any loss with aplomb. In sports there are only two options: either you win or someone else wins. When others win, we should be happy for them too! The reported act of ace Indian shuttler PV Sindhu consoling a player who defeated her in the semi-finals just two days ago after the player lost in the finals sets a fine example.

While a healthy competitive spirit is necessary for sports, it should not turn into a source of conflict and confrontation or rivalry. We need to have the wisdom to treat failure and success, wins and losses with equanimity. If you fail, use that as a stepping stone towards success.

Joy is the Goal

Playing has been one of the very first acts of our life. Even before a child starts speaking or even eating, it plays. Sports is the purest and the foremost expression of life. Every village and neighbourhood around the world has some form of sport.

There are lessons to be picked from what the likes of Simone Biles or Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka have done recently. Despite the high stakes, they have taken the brave action of putting their mind over medals. It’s not easy to pull out of the biggest sporting events in the world. But there is no value in winning if there is no mental peace and joy.

The sheer determination and grit seen at the Olympics in the face of an unprecedented pandemic reaffirm the power of sports in sustaining human resilience and keeping the spirit high. Nothing brings people together like sports. Let’s keep the pure flame alive.

Originally posted on Gurudev’s official LinkedIn profile.

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