Dangers of drowning in sport : Maan Ki Jeet
Traditionally, sports have always been associated with being physically able and attributes such as power, speed, strength, and flexibility. Over years of self-selection, one vital piece is often ignored: mental fitness.
London Olympic 2012, Sushil Kumar is down 0–3 in the 3rd round bout to his Kazakh opponent Akhzurek Tanatrov complains that his ear was bitten. A bleeding Tanatrov could not communicate with the referee and Sushil qualified for the finals to eventually bring home the elusive silver medal.
Sushil Kumar, a double Olympic medallist from India is a student of Chhatrasal Akhara in West Delhi. Akharas are local sports school designed to build strong martial arts, wrestling, and Kabaddi skills. They often include a gym, boarding, lodging, diet — basically everything required to evolve as a sportsperson. Akharas are found largely in the North Indian wheat belt, often nestled between farms.
Most Kabaddi players in Haryana and Delhi grow up much like Sushil Kumar. They often come from low-income families struggling to make ends meet. Through hard work and sheer determination, they work their way up into an Academy, often ones that take no fees. Once in an Academy, they are guaranteed 3 healthy meals, although they have to learn to live in a little space with limited infrastructure. To continue to stay in the Academy they need to work hard and overcome their peers and friends to make it to selections. To stay in the rat race for the meager jobs available, it becomes necessary to hone their aggression and be calculating about their chances. After all, there are so few places at the top.
The training at the Academy starts around 4:30–5:00 am. A warm-up followed by a hour-long high-intensity training. Then players train on mud or mat and a session can go from anywhere between five to six hours. Players have lunch at the Academy and then after a couple of hours break are back for their evening practice often a match or a bout. After this strenuous workout, players go back to their dormitory to rest. Every day is a combination of diet, fitness, and recovery.
Players at the schools go through the military regiment, to fight for a place in the Olympics and to be a part of the Juniors and finally Senior Nationals team. The lucky two hundred out of tens of thousands of players get a chance to play in Pro Kabaddi League and a lucky few get placed with a secure job in a PSU (often the same few). But till that job offer is in hand, life in an academy is that of intense physical and mental pressure.
Sushil Kumar was one of the Akhara graduates who has made it and made it big. He seemed too composed to land up in the wrong company, get involved in a brawl with his own apprentice, and finally evade arrest. Tough questions will now ring aloud in the very corridors of the Akhara where stories of his Olympic glory were legendary. Today, his Kazakh opponent Akhzurek Tanatrov might reminisce about the moment his ear got bitten off as a cool and calculated one by Sushil Kumar.
Things that enable athletes to thrive and succeed include lack of empathy for opponents, hostility, and professional manipulators, often termed as ‘strategy’. Unfortunately, these are traits are a proxy for mental imbalance. However, as a society, we continue to support and select youngsters with higher tendencies towards these traits.
The goal of this article is not to color Akharas or academies in a bad light. In fact, I believe these institutions are solving a major problem for Indian youth. They live by the philosophy — ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ The goal of many schools is to take youngsters from poverty and empower them with strong ideals and values. Many academies today aim to create balanced individuals and have integrated Yoga and meditation into the daily regime of players. NIS Patiala and SAI have sports psychologists to facilitate conversations for players and coaches.
Rugby is another sport where aggression and the force of human nature define the outcomes of games. Over the past few years, many top league players have all discussed their personal experiences with mental health issues, ranging from depression to OCD. Most recently, four time Grand Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka shared her mental battles and the pressures of playing tennis at the highest level. She skipped French Open and will skip Wimbledon this year hopefully to come back stronger for the Olympics in Japan. These conversations are impactful and important to creating a right and healthy competition, called sport.
In Kabaddi Adda’s latest endeavor we introduce a series called ‘Maan Ki Jeet’ — a unique initiative that offers a conversation between India’s top Kabaddi coaches with India’s most sound psychologists.