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Optimal state of mind or Olympic state of mind?

Mental Preparation of Indian Athletes For Tokyo 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unparalleled impact on the world of elite sport, but it has been particularly challenging for athletes who compete in Olympic and Paralympics sports. Whilst events such as Wimbledon, the Tour de France and Champions League give competitors the window of opportunity to battle for triumph every year, the Olympic and Paralympics Games sit in a quadrennial cycle. There are, of course, other opportunities to participate at an international level—World, European and Commonwealth, but the Olympics is seen as the vertex for most qualifying sports.

To represent your country at the Olympics is a dream for all athletes. It showcases the best of the best athletes from across the globe to partake in a sporting spectacle incomparable to any other sporting event in the world. This the first time since the opening of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 that the world’s most prominent sport event would be delayed, a fact that highlights the magnitude of the unprecedented health crisis caused by the Coronavirus outbreak for the world of sport.

Experiencing adversity is not a strange concept to an elite athlete. However, the preparations that athletes make are usually within a predictable context; injuries, game day changes, poor weather, a delay to the start of a race, or even forgetting their goggles. But I sincerely doubt that most athletes had a pandemic on their list of challenges to overcome this season.

Picture Courtesy: Getty Images

Training through a pandemic

For many athletes, the year preceding the Games is pivotal as it determines if they will be selected or not to participate at the Games. The importance of making a team and winning a medal during the year of the Games impacts everything, including athletes’ sleep, eating habits, relationships, finances, security, and also, of course, their mental health.

Most elite athletes develop their training plans and their lives according to the quadrennial cycle of Olympics. When the pandemic caused the Tokyo Games to be delayed last summer, those plans had to change—now it’s safe to say that athletes have gotten used to staying agile, all the while preparing for the Games to go on as planned despite constant calls for the Games to be cancelled or postponed. While athletes try to judge whether the Olympics will go on as planned, others have doubts about what, exactly, a pandemic-era Games would mean. According to the current playbook rules, no quarantine period will be required upon arrival, and Olympic athletes will be prohibited from going to restaurants, bars, stores, and gyms during their time in Tokyo.

The Games have certainly gone from a dream in 2020 to risk in 2021, the pressure is not only felt by the host nation but athletes who have been preparing for this event for 5 years now. It's no doubt that with the lack of access to sports facilities and to a normal training as well as a competition schedule, and also the added isolation from the wider athletic community has led athletes to a struggle to stay mentally fit. Athletes have felt the pressure to stay on top of their game and health whilst still dreaming for that Olympic glory.

This uncertainty is both an emotional and logistical challenge for Olympic athletes. With the fear of infection and ‘The Olympic Glory’ elite athletes are now facing a dilemma like never before.

Picture Courtesy: Olympics / Tokyo 2020

But the question that we now need to ask is whether athletes need to train for the optimal state of mind or the Olympic state of mind?

Is it possible to get overwhelmed with the magnitude of OLYMPICS?

Whether you are in the summer or winter Olympics or Paralympics, success on the biggest stages requires mental preparation. You need to be ready for the nuances of the Olympic Village, staying in a different country and increased media attention, huge crowds expectations and the expectations back home subconsciously creeping into the system whilst being able to remain task-focused and follow your process. This is where Mental Skills Training becomes as much a prerequisite as your physical and technical preparation.

Elite Athletes need to understand that although they have been to and also won at big International events, the Olympics is bigger than what they can even imagine and thus, their level of Mental Preparation and Training should proportionally be different, detailed, customized, tangible and which caters specifically for the Olympic challenge.

But with the added pressure of the pandemic and its consequential safety concerns, is just being in the ‘zone’, enough now?

In-house expert advice:

In such times of uncertainty when one doesn’t even know what the fate of Olympics is going to be, how does a player maintain the motivation levels to keep working hard with bare minimum facilities and ensure that depression does not hit them in any form?

Our in-house expert Mugdha Bavare talks about acceptance. With there being nothing in one’s control, just focusing on aspects that are in our control and accepting the situation that we live in is the only way. Whilst practicing visualization and setting and achieving short term goals is what will keep the athletes going.

Varadayini Gorhe also echoes Mugdha's thoughts on acceptance, controlling the controllable as well as goals and visualization. Along with this, Varadayini feels it is important to do self analysis as coach feedback during this time is virtual and not as frequent as it needs to be. This will also help them while in the tournament to remain independent and self-confident. Having said this, it is important to be in touch with important people in the ecosystem to keep important communication and feedback.

Picture Courtesy: Japan Times / BLOOMBERG

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