Though Hans Selye, the father of stress, said long ago, stress is the salt of life- – today the concept of stress has gone against the human race. There is simply too much stress in the world and the modern-day man is a victim of psycho-somatic diseases caused by mental distress.
This modern day malady has made the WHO to declare stress as the epidemic of the 21st century. It’s a race out there in the world and everyone is under stress and pressure. It has even caught up with children these days. The covid-19 pandemic has worsened this situation.
Stress is felt when there is an imbalance between the challenge and the ability. If you have to describe pressure scientifically, its nothing but the physical force exerted on an object. Psychologically, you can call pressure as an attempt to persuade someone to do something or as a self-inflicted force to achieve something.
In life, psychological pressure is caused by external demands, expectations and challenges. We have to agree to the fact that pressure and stress are inescapable in everyday life, they are useful up to a certain limit, but when it becomes un-manageable, it causes distress.
In life we wear different hats and perform different roles and when we at any situation perceive that the outcome of our performance is dire to us and something is at stake, then we are under pressure- this is what is experienced in sports these days.
Professional sports are highly commercialised now and the business of sports is estimated to be 750 billion dollars. Sports are a career choice now more than ever. Competitive sports throw up lots of pressure and stress. Competition can be a do or die situation for an athlete with lot at stake.
The outcome of a contest can become very important to an athlete. For an athlete bigger the competition greater is the pressure- unless, he has experienced it before and knows how to handle it.
India as a sporting nation put in its best ever Olympics performance at Tokyo in 2021 with 7 medals comprising one gold, 2 silvers and four bronze medals. This performance bettered the previous best of 6 medals at the London Olympics in 2012.
The Tokyo Olympics had a fairy tale ending for India, they were languishing with 5 medals and suddenly on the penultimate day Neeraj Chopra won the gold and Bajrang Punia the bronze for India, to take the tally to seven. This came as a huge sigh of relief and satisfaction for the medal starved nation.
There was a mixed bag of feelings among the Indians: the euphoria over winning the gold and the disappointment of not achieving 15 or at least of minimum of 10 medals that were expected. I attribute the reason for this short fall to the pressure of Olympics .
After Tokyo the Indian fans were asking-
how long we Indians are going to remain satisfied with what we get, while our neighboring country China, with the same population as ours, is a dominant country in the world sports.'' China has won a whopping tally of 88 medals at the Tokyo Olympics 2021 and stood second in the medals tally Let’s get to the positives of the Olympics for India. While we congratulate all the medal winners for their stupendous performance lets also give it to the those who missed a medal by a whisker. The names of Aditi Ashok, the women’s hockey team and a few others come to our mind. There is a lot to be happy with the performances of the 4x100m men’s relay that failed to qualify to the finals but came out with their heads held high after creating an Asian record. In steeple chase Avinash Sable bettered his very own national record. In rowing – Arvind Singh and Arjun Lal made India proud by entering the semi-finals, a first at the Olympics for India in rowing. Sharath Kamal gave the best Olympics performance of his career. Who can forget the Ma long match? Manika Batra had a good outing- she came out richer with this experience. Bhavani Devi’s qualification in the fencing event and her first-round win caught every one’s eye. Fouad mirza shone for India in equestrian. Now let's look at the smaller disappointments. In swimming, Srihari Nataraj and Sajan Prakash could not better their own timings, timings that gave them a direct qualification to the Olympics for the first time. Sai Praneeth India’s badminton star looked off-color, maybe he was missing his original coach. Murali Sreeshanker couldn’t go past his own longest jump of 8.26m. In an event that was marred by rain kamalpreet Kaur could not improve the distance of her career best throw of 66.59m in discuss- let alone enter the Olympic medal bracket. There was a lot that was expected from Tejinder Pal Toor- shot putt, Seema Punia- discuss, Vikas Krishnan- boxing-but they disappointed. Sathiyan the tricky table tennis player lost to Lam Sin Han of Hong Kong after leading 3-1. After the match his longtime coach S. Raman said- Sathiyan succumbed to pressure. This defeat can’t be explained. He would have won games from these positions on any given day but today he couldn’t do it.’’
Vinesh Phogat who hails from the famed Phogat family was the world number 1 and the top seed of the Olympics in the 57 kg category. She was in running for a gold medal but she crashed out. Though she has won gold medals for her country both at the commonwealth and Asian games she has failed to win even a bronze medal at the Olympics. This was her second Olympic outing, Rio was her first.
What was so scary about Olympics when she has the ability and the records to match? Amit Phangal who participated in the 52 kg category was world number 1, got a bye for the first match but lost to the unranked Colombian in his second match. A lot was expected from the Indian boxers when they travelled to Rio in 2006 but they returned home empty handed. The boxers dashed India’s hopes again at Tokyo 2020–expect for the Bronze from Luvlina Borghain.
What has the world number 1, number 2, status to do with the poor showing of Vinesh Phogat, Amit Phangal, Deepika Kumari and shooters of India at the tokyo Olympics?
Perhaps the best answer to this question comes from the 2012 London Olympic games bronze medalist Gagan Narang- speaking to the Times of India he said-
`the world no1 tag fetches more pressure than desired. He feels the pressure of expectation for the no1 is higher compared to an unranked player. When you are top ranked in an event nobody expects anything less than a gold from you. It plays on your mind. When I used to shoot, I always made sure to put full focus and attention on building a perfect technique under pressure. If it yielded results, it was fine, but the focus was never about rankings and result - in the lead up to the Olympics.’’ The de-merit of the world rankings is that it deceives you in to thinking that you are on top of the world you are the best and the best is reserved for you. Experts feel that the world rankings that the Indians have got are mis-leading because they were awarded two years ago and due to the pandemic, many events were cancelled and they could not test their status by competing against the best in the world. Many say the world number 1 status is a delusion, since many top countries and individual athletes don’t participate in all the world championships. Now let’s arrive at the most disappointing categories for India - Shooting and Archery. Lot of investment and encouragement has gone in to shooting because this was a sport that was expected to deliver more medals for India. Perhaps the world number 1 ranking of these shooters fueled many hopes in the medal starved country. In the shooting squad we had some big names –who are talented and capable. You may say the world cups and championships where the rankings were earned are not the most challenging competitions but to get those scores that propelled them to the world no1 status proves that they have the stuff in them. What went wrong for them now? This shooting squad was a bunch of youth and experience. Anyone could be expected to win a medal for you on their given day. So, the expectations are true and justified. But that was not to be – they suffered a meltdown caused by Olympic pressure. Even this time around the shooting contingent could not add a medal to India’s best medal tally of seven. The dismal performance of the shooters forced Mr. Raninder Singh president of NRAI to say- I am completely at loss for words. I feel we had done everything in our capacity to provide the best facilities to the shooters, but if we still don’t win, I don’t know what to say”
The expectations on shooters were more than in any other sport India participated. The simple reason for their collective failure was that they were trying hard to fulfil the weight of the expectations. The shooters garnered more attention from the media and the medal hungry public than any other sport.
The media which is always on the lookout for something to sensationalize, gave the shooters and archers lots of publicity and hype. This could have added to the pressure to deliver on the biggest stage of a sporting event. The shooters obviously knew that the Government and private sponsors had given them lot of encouragement and support- this could have put pressure on them to live up all the expectations and to give back for all that they had received.
The coach controversy that Manu Bhakar was a part of and the gun malfunction didn’t help matters for her. The only silver lining was the performance of Saurabh Chaudhury- though he too didn’t get a medal. Sourabh is known to be a cool customer when it comes to handling pressure- he proved just that during the Tokyo Olympics: if he continues doing this at the biggest stage – he will win lot medals for India in future, considering the Paris Olympics is just three years away.
It is reported that the designated coaches of shooting team are young and inexperienced and they lacked the acumen to lead the young team of shooters in a high-pressure competition like the Olympics.
Heena Sidhu a former Olympic shooter, speaking to
the Bridge- a digital sports news portal in the '' Oh! My Olympics'' episode–said- ''shooters should have been simulated as to what to expect at the Olympics. Their training should have been hard. All those things that happened to them in the match, they should have through 15-20times. They were not mentally prepared for the Olympics. They shooters think the pressure at the world cups is the same as in the Olympics- it is not. The world cups are not bringing the same pressure.’ In the same interview for the Bridge when reminded about Manu Bhakar’s remark ‘ I tried too hard may be that’s why I didn’t perform well. ’ She replied-
”if she thinks she tried too hard and that’s the reason she couldn’t deliver, may be that was the wrong kind of effort she was putting in, she was trying to put up a score. You know you can’t think about the score. You have to think about the process, how you have been doing, how to shoot a good shot, what is the essence of a good shot- that’s it. Its you your gun and the target.
After returning from Tokyo, Manu Bhakar said speaking to CNN NEWS 18 TV channel – ` I couldn’t perform to my caliber and it upset me- but things were not in my control. She added that the differences with her previous coach Jaspal rana affected her mentally.’
Vijay Kumar Sharma, shooter, a silver medalist at the 2012 London Olympics echoes with the same feeling- writing for Times of India – he said-” the Olympic games are totally different to the world cup evets in terms of pressure, with the best competitors lining up. There must be an extra effort during training in bringing that mental toughness. Perhaps, the present squad was unable to do that. It is also vital that coaches must help an athlete manage pressure.
I read about Deepika’s Kumari saying that she tried too hard for a medal. As a sports psychology coach- I wonder what this trying too hard is all about. In shooting and archery if they are trying too hard, they are mentally trying too hard and not physically, because they don’t have to raise their strength and stamina physically. When they try too hard mentally, they try to do it consciously and performance is sub conscious and not conscious. All your stored skills must come for your subconscious and any negative conscious thinking can confuse your child like subconscious and sabotage your performance.
In combat sport you don’t get in to physical combat with your opponent and in the case of response games- wherein you respond to the ball sent by your opponent. But, shooting and archery are target sports – you shoot at your target in your lane. Your opponent does not interfere in your shooting. The only interference that can happen is your own conscious interference, which can be full of negativity
The only time when you can be put under pressure is when your opponent scores a 10 consistently or hits a bully eye and you have been shooting 7s and 8s. Even here you can’t control your opponents shooting and what you can control is your shooting and your next shot. This happens to our archers – the sight of the Korean archers chokes them and they go in to a freeze. This does not have to be the case- the archers and shooters can be mentally trained to let go of what happened and focus on the next shot shutting off what is happening around them. Mind trainers can de-sensitize them with systematic de-sensitization and visualization techniques.
I am surprised, the shooters have their own sports psychologists and Deepika Kumari and her husband Atanu Das have been seeing a psychologist. I am sure the sports psychologists would have grilled in to them that it is about the process, technique, execution and being in the moment and not about the outcome. Medals will come later when your scores are tabulated and compared. May be the shooters and archers wanted to win the Olympic medal desperately that they forgot the basics their psychologists and former shooters had given them and what they themselves knew very well in their journey to the Olympics.
When you talk of archery the picture of Deepika Kumari is all I can imagine. I sympathize with the poor girl. You have the talent, the ability and the experience of the Olympics – you know what is to be done but your mental approach to the Olympics is faulty and your desperation for a medal is failing you. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics was her third Olympics. And she failed to deliver on the big stage.
I bring to you some of the excerpts of the PTI/ Hindustan Times interview with Deepika Kumari published on 09/8/21. I am thankful to the media house for bringing up this interview that has supported my analysis on the debacle of the Indian archers and shooters at the Tokyo Olympic games. The Hindustan Times reports-
In the form of her life after winning five World Cup medals this year, Indian archer Deepika Kumari carried the hopes of 1.3 billion Indians to get the sport their first Olympic archery medal in Tokyo. Ace Indian archer confessed that she needs to stop buckling under the pressure of performance at the Olympic Games and approach the biggest sporting stage from a different perspective to deliver desired results in future.
But it turned out to be anti-climactic as she fizzled out without putting up a fight in both her individual and mixed pair quarterfinals encounters to cap yet another horror Olympic campaign.
” Pressure of the five Olympic rings is becoming a bit too much,” confessed Deepika in this exclusive interview.
Deepika said she has understood that instead of running after the medals, they need to work on ‘enjoying the moment’ at the Olympics, something they lack. Everyone keeps saying we don’t have a medal; we don’t have a medal. We think of it a thousand times there, and it dominates our psyche. It’s a mental blockade and goes on affecting our techniques.”
“It’s high time that I introspect into my game and see it in a different perspective now. There are certain things we are lacking too much. Basically, we need to change the perspective of our games.”
“We’ve to see all games equally, be it World Cup, World Championships or the Olympics. But there we think too much about a medal. We have to take it easy and enjoy the moment.”
“In the World Cup or World Championships too, the medal is the ultimate goal but we never keep thinking about it. But once we reach the Olympics, we are not able to get over the thoughts of winning a medal. We need to work on it.”
She was referring to her quarterfinal loss to Korean 20-year-old An San in straight sets lasting less than six minutes.
An San, who ended up winning the gold en route to making a clean sweep of three medals, also looked under pressure against Deepika and shot 26 in the last two sets.
But Deepika was worse as she misfired three 7s and one 8 in a row to concede the match in a meek surrender.
Five and half a hours before that, Deepika was at her best and eliminated Russian veteran Ksenia Perova, hitting a 10 to win a thrilling shoot-off.
“I just rested in the break and wanted to keep myself calm for the match. But I don’t know what happened there all of a sudden,” she said of the three 7s.
“I was shooting very well and satisfied with my release but the arrows simply did not hit the centre — that’s a mystery. Both me and coach Mim Gurung were clueless.”
I say- Thank you, Hindustan times- for the article inputs.
I admire Deepika Kumari for coming out with the truth with regards to her struggles at the Olympics.
Deepika Kumari’s revelation coming out of the lessons she has learnt is not only for her but also for the other Indian athletes who are aiming for the Paris Olympics in 2024. What she has said are golden words that have to be etched on stone so that they don’t get swept away.
Olympic pressure doesn’t spare even the best
Even the greatest of athletes who we refer these days as G.O.A.T – have fallen prey to mental meltdown and choked under pressure. I can recall a dozen names right now. Speaking of the Tokyo Olympics many great athletes have been victims of Olympics pressure and mental health issues. May be the Covid pandemic, lockdowns, bio-bubbles and protocols may contributed negatively.
Novak Djokovic was chasing his first Olympic gold medal and wanted to achieve the golden grand slam. He couldn’t even win a bronze.
Simon Biles- the GOAT of gymnastics withdrew from her competitions at Tokyo -citing pressure, anxiety and mental health issues.
Naomi Osaka the tennis,world no 2, and the torch bearer of the Olympics for Japan lost in the second round. The other names I can remember are Noah Lyles- the U S sprinter, kento Momota the Japanese badminton player and the Japanese gymnast kohel Uchimura.
Even India’s very own P V Sindhu, silver medallist at Rio and Bronze medallist at Tokyo this year, admitted that at Rio she was less under pressure compared to Tokyo. – where she was trying to change the colour of her medal from silver to golden. She was carrying the expectations of 1.3 billion Indians. I am not saying that she lost her semi-finals to pressure, in fact her opponent was too good for her. The reason she came back from a semi-final loss to win the bronze medal was her mental toughness and the ability to handle pressure. She is now a veteran of many hard-fought battles and knows how to handle pressure.
To a mentally untrained athlete the word OLYMPICS becomes dragon that is trying to devour you. This is because Olympics is the biggest test of your life. The Olympics being biggest sporting spectacle on earth assumes very high EVENT importance and significance.
I remember reading about this in the book BOUNCE- authored by Mathew Syed. Matthew Syed was British Table tennis player who took part in the Sydney Olympic games in 2000. Lot was expected from Matthew Syed during the Olympics, but he choked in his very first match.
I bring to you an anecdote from the book written by Matthew Syed – published by fourth Estate London. Matthew is an award-winning sports journalist now.
The year was 2002, Salt Lake City Utah, United States. The competitors for the 500 meters speed skating race were getting ready. Some of the athletes were pacing up and down, others were warming up shaking their hands and legs others are talking to their coaches. But Sarah Lindsay a 21-year-old British Skater is not doing any of these – she is seated, breathing slowly and talking to herself She was saying
it’s only bloody speed skating. It’s only bloody speed skating’’ The race got over and she won. After the race a puzzled Matthew Syed who was observing her, asked her the reason for saying this. She repliedI was trying to convince that the finals of the Olympics were a triviality that did not matter more than a training session. By alleviating the pressure- I was giving myself the opportunity to compete without fear and without choking. She added
the problem with Olympics is not that you want it too little but you want it too much. You can become desperate to win a medal and you can choke.’’ It was the first Olympics for Sarah Lindsay; she had spent four years building up to the moment. She had endured hardship, innumerable hours of purposeful training and countless personal sacrifices. She had a record of choking in important events leading up to the Olympics. That’s the reason she saying to herself ‘’Its only bloody speed skating. My dear athletes of India you too like Sarah Lindsay have put in number of dedicated years of hard work, and sacrifice to reach Olympics. It’s understandable for you to say I have worked so hard for this moment, I must not let go of this opportunity, I must win an Olympic medal. ‘By saying this you are putting yourself under pressure: though what you are saying is logical and sensible, it is coming from your analytical conscious mind and your all-powerful sub-conscious mind that does the execution does not understand the logic behind the statement.
Normally athletes try too hard in these situations and try to perform consciously- their technique suffers. The conscious interference confuses the subconscious mind and you choke- you are unable to think and execute to your liking. The best solution should be to allow the sub conscious to do its job without thinking too much. So, dear athletes follow Deepika’s Kumari’s advice, it’s not a life and death situation – its just bloody Olympics and its just bloody archery or shooting or whatever… go there and JUST DO IT – like what NIKE says.
So, summing up- let’s not give too much importance to the Olympics- its just another competition for you. Mentally prepare for the Olympics. Visualize seeing your self compete in pressure situations of the Olympics. Treat the Olympics as a challenge, an opportunity, a privilege and honour to be representing your country. When you are executing be in the moment and not think too far ahead. Take care of the process, technique, execution and performance- the results will take care of themselves. Use positive mindset and relaxation and regulation techniques like deep breathing.
Best of luck wishing India the very best for Paris 2024.