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  • Oct
  • 07

World Mental Health Day: 11 Indian Athletes Open Up About Their Mental Health Battles

Author Image Fisto Staff

Proof that anxiety and depression can affect anyone.


We have all heard about the diets and fitness regimens that keep athletes in fighting shape; from Virat Kohli’s ascetic eating habits to PV Sindhu’s lengthy daily workout routine. But how do those same figures keep their mental health in check? A topic of the utmost importance that often had a stigma attached. It has been overlooked in professional sport.

Fame and fortune don’t make you immune to depression.

No one is immune from mental illness, yet there has been a persistent social taboo around mental health. But as awareness regarding the issue is increasing, things are changing. More and more athletes are also coming forward to share their struggles.


Here’s a look at 11 Indian athletes who have come forward and spoken about mental health. No matter where you are in your mental health journey, we hope these reflections will help to show that you are not alone and your experience is not uncommon.



Vinesh Phogat


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An imposing figure with the heart of a lion, Wrestler Vinesh Phogat ferocious is a competitor who is regularly praised for his mental toughness and tenacity. Despite the accolades, the grappler opened up about going through a bout of depression after changing her weight category in 2019.


In the lead-up to and during the 2020 Olympics, Vinesh opened up about her struggles with injury, fitness and mental health.


“I had a concussion in 2017, since then I have suffered from it. Things become blurry. It has gone down a lot but when my head strikes on anything, it comes back,” Vinesh wrote in Indian Express.


The 27-year-old wrestler also revealed that she was diagnosed with depression in 2019, when she changed her weight category, and has had trouble with sleep ever since. She said that the abuse she and her team received after Tokyo has made things worse.


"Now, I find it difficult to cry. I have zero mental strength right now. Like they did not even let me regret my loss. Everyone was ready with their knives," she said.


Good on Vinesh for being honest and vulnerable enough to admit all of this. It’s so powerful to hear coming from someone of her stature.


“I have given everything to wrestling and now is the right time to leave. But on the other hand, by chance I leave and don't fight, it'll be a bigger loss for me”


She also added that for Indian athletes, speaking up about mental health issues remains a big challenge. "We celebrate Simone Biles as she said that I am not mentally prepared to perform at the Olympics and did not do her event. Try just saying that in India. Forget pulling out of wrestling, just try saying that you are not ready."



Manu Bhaker


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Manu Bhaker, the first Indian shooter to win gold at Youth Olympics believes that in a precision-based sport like shooting, where a podium spot could be decided within fractions of the scoreline and shooters shoot in between their heart beats, mental stability is of utmost importance.


“It is heart-breaking to not have things go your way when you put in so much hard work and sacrifice into it. But with time and age, I have also come to realise that these are also the same things that stop us from performing. We need someone, a coach or maybe a psychologist, who can give us a clear perspective otherwise it can get very difficult. As athletes, we get so involved in our sport that we forget so many other joys of life. Sometimes all we remember are our failures and not successes. A third-person perspective and guidance help us focus and think about the better things so that we don’t end up sabotaging our own efforts. It is important to remember that win or lose, the sun will rise the next day.”


The teenager who has chosen her mind over body said that meditation has been a part of her daily routine.


“Mental stability is very important in our sport. So, I am doing a lot of meditation so that I can keep myself calm under pressure and keep my thoughts in check. I’m trying hard to avoid any sort of distractions and in a bid to keep my mind free of them, I keep listening to music, dancing, writing in my diary or even reading a novel.”



Sreeshankar Murali


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The warmness of the sun does soothe an aching soul. Players living in Kerala do not have the luxury of its warmth either. Just ask India's current national record holder in the long jump – Sreeshankar Murali.


“The most challenging aspect of being an international sportsperson is managing pressure. There is a lot of expectation on athletes like us—we should know how to deal with it. I am an optimist—I don’t sit back and think about what I did wrong and stay low. I quickly recover after one day and get back to work.”


In an interview with LiveMint, Sreshankar mentioned that he has consulted with a sports psychologist and acted on the suggestion of doing some yoga, visualisation and breathing exercises—besides 10 minutes of meditation every morning—to help control his nerves during competitions as he used to have anxiety problems which forced some mistakes.


“People said I would not be able to breach the 8:20 mark. The expectation from high-performance athletes is always high. They expect us to get records every time. But that doesn’t happen every day. Every aspect and condition needs to be perfect for that personal best to happen.”


“If a cricketer doesn’t score a century, people start to criticise. If he does not perform for 2-3 matches, they criticise. But in the next match, if he scores a ton, they stop. That happens to all athletes—for every down, there is an upward phase also.”


He said he watches movies for distraction, switches to PUBG—before it got banned—or Candy Crush—after the ban—and other simple mobile games to relax his mind.



Ankita Raina


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The Indian No.1 women’s singles tennis player has embraced an opportunity to use her profile to address important issues outside of tennis, with a refreshing sense of honesty.


In an interview with TOI, Ankita Raina stressed the importance of focusing on what’s in your control and try to find a solution:


“Anxiety and panic are natural when one doesn’t know what lies ahead and the situation is not in their control. We fear the unknown and I feel pretty anxious at times. Athletes who are primarily into individual sports have to face more challenges. There are financial constraints and so, on most occasions, we are on our own and don’t have a team/coach accompanying us. Add to it the pressure of tournaments and it’s not easy to handle.”


“I try to think about what’s in my control and what I can do in a particular situation. I also think about the worst that can happen and it makes me feel a bit relaxed and helps to try and find a solution.


In a webinar hosted by the All India Tennis Association (AITA), Ankita advocated for the introduction of meditation to youngsters as it helped them with various aspects of their mental well-being.


“We all are realising the importance of working on your Tennis skills and fitness but I feel that one should start building on his mental aspect of the game from the junior level itself. When we are transitioning from junior to senior Tennis, it is observed that many players either drop out of the sport or they choose something else in life.”


"If we work on mental training from a very young age, it will definitely help the players. As you keep improving yourself in your game and reach higher and higher rankings, there would be a stage where your mind will be tested, and at that stage, those who had worked on the mental training from a young age will be able to manage it well.”



Gurpreet Singh Sandhu


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Gurpreet Sigh Sandhu has been the frontline goalkeeper of the nation for a little less than a decade now and was pivotal in India’s historic draw against Asian champions Qatar in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in September 2019. In the Indian Super League (ISL), he has recently won two consecutive Golden Glove awards amongst many other accolades, which clearly exemplifies the extent of his success.


Despite all the gold and the glitter of his career, the Chandigarh-born has had past instances of not being able to see himself in the mirror for days and crying alone after receiving verbal volleys from the crowd. Because of such instances, Sandhu often speaks up to raise awareness on the issue of mental health, especially in the sport of football where a certain stigma regarding mental strength rules large.


“The sport itself is a very result-oriented profession, so when you lose… it definitely puts you under immense pressure. It especially affects a team like us, since we are so used to winning and doing well every season… if things don’t go our way, we don’t necessarily know how to react properly. To be able to bounce back from back-to-back defeats is something that requires a lot of positivity and productive feedback,” he told Indian Express.


“As for the hate messages on social media, personally, I have stopped paying attention to it because it’s no good for my mental health. I am not interested in what people’s opinions are about what I have to do on the pitch. The only opinion that matters is that of the coaching staff and the professionals at the club.”



Maana Patel


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Indian swimming star Maana Patel recently opened up her tryst with depression. Elaborating on the subject Maana Patel said about how she was struggled with a shoulder injury and battling depression. She even thought of quitting the sport. During her rehab, she was plagued with self-doubt, she lost about six kilograms.


The 21-year-old has spoken about her struggle during this time eloquently in a TEDxYouth talk.


“I had to start from zero, so it was very, very frustrating and very consuming – mentally and emotionally. I threw tantrums. There was a point that I really wanted to quit swimming.”


"I was young and I didn't know how to handle the injury. I was super depressed.”


Maana Patel said that it was her mother’s guidance that helped her overcome the darkest period of her life.


“Mom and I come as a package. She's played a major role in my success. Her lifestyle has also changed because of me. She travels with me, almost everywhere. She's seen me, she knew what I was going through,” she said to PTI as reported by Indian Express.


“She told me ‘if you give up now you will probably form this habit of giving up and that's what you will do for the rest of your life. This problem is not a big problem, everybody's working to get you back everybody's trying to make you stronger and fitter, all you need to do is believe in yourself.”


She also opened up on the benefits of seeing a psychologist.


“It’s important to be surrounded with positive people and I also spoke to a therapist when I felt too anxious. When you are going through a stressful phase, nobody should make you do things which you aren’t ready for at that point.”



Zeel Desai


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One of India’s best tennis talents and a former top 20 Junior, Zeel Desai as part of TOI’s Mental Health Awareness during the pandemic, has described how taking a break from tennis and learning to open up to those closest to her has helped her deal with anxiety:


“More than anxiety, I felt homesick every time I would travel for my matches. It is not easy to be away from the family when there is so much uncertainty all around.”


“It’s important to make sure that you have some space for yourself and not worry too much. The occasional break also helps. In between, I completely switched off from tennis for a week and it was refreshing.”



PV Sindhu


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Indian badminton player P.V. Sindhu is a force to reckon with. The 26-year-old shuttler became a household name after becoming the first Indian woman to win two individual medals at the Olympics.


Sindhu has been very vocal about the importance of mental well-being of athletes.


“Mental health is very important for athletes. I am in a very good space physically and mentally. Meditation helps me to be there. It's important to remain calm during crunch situations. You win some, you lose some. The important thing is not to get depressed about it. I meditate at times to keep the negative thoughts away. My grandmother does meditation and she seeks the help of guruji Kamlesh from the Heartfulness centre. The meditation has helped strengthen mental aspects.”


“When I had a stress fracture in 2015, I had pain but didn’t tell anyone. I was bearing that pain and then told my dad that there was pain and we went and took an X-ray and a stress fracture was revealed. It was really bad,” said PV Sindhu during an online session ‘Let the Bird Fly! Moving on with Badminton,’ which was hosted by India international Ameeta Singh.


“It took almost eight months and I didn’t play for six. The 2016 Olympics qualification was there and I was almost depressed. I played almost 22 tournaments after the injury and got selected for Rio. It was not a small injury. Even though I was injured I was doing my upper body exercise. I believed that I can do it and I have done it.”


“What people do not understand is reaching the final is also an achievement. You don’t go and directly play the final. You have to play many matches. I lost almost seven finals and people started asking if I have final phobia.”


“But, they need to understand I can’t win all the tournaments. I always wanted to win, but there is always a next time. I used to think it’s a new match I need to give my best every time; it’s a different type of game. Every time it was a different strategy since there are 7-8 players in the circuit and we know each other’s game


“Once I step onto the court, my only focus is to win the match. But, with time I have realized sometimes even giving 100% on the court will not win you matches. You just have to move on because as an athlete you know that you have given your best.”



Virat Kohli


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Even one of the most decorated cricketers of all time struggles with his mental health and often has discussed anxiety and depression in his life.


Using his own mental troubles on the 2014 England tour as an example, he has spoken of a "strong need" for professional help in Indian cricket.


"The kind of structure we're competing inside, for a long period of time it's difficult for players to stay motivated and find the right kind of mental space in one area and just do this stuff day in and day out, and then dealing with high-pressure situations," Kohli said.


“So, this will definitely become a norm of the future, where apart from the workloads, the mental health side of things will also come into the picture big time.”


"You don't have an outlet at all in today's day and age. You're literally going to the ground and coming back to the room, and you don't have a space where you can just disconnect from the game and go out for a walk or a meal and a coffee and say, 'Let me refresh myself. Let me just get away from the game a little bit.' I think this is a huge factor, which should not be neglected. Because as much hard work as we've done to create this team, you don't want players falling out because of mental pressures and not having the capacity or space to express themselves."


Kohli remembered feeling alone despite the fact that there were supportive people in his life. He said professional help was what he needed.


"Personally, for me, that was a revelation that you could feel that lonely even though you a part of a big group. I won't say I didn't have people who I could speak to but not having a professional to speak to who could understand what I am going through completely, I think is a huge factor.


The India captain, considered one of the best batsmen in modern cricket, believes mental health issues cannot be overlooked as they can destroy a person's career.


"I think I would like to see it change. Someone whom you can go to at any stage, have a conversation around and say 'Listen this is what I am feeling, I am finding it hard to even go to sleep, I feel like I don't want to wake up in the morning. I have no confidence in myself, what do I do?' "Lot of people suffer with that feeling for longer periods of time, it carries on for months, it carries on for a whole cricket season, people are not able to get out of it.”


"I strongly feel the need for professional help there to be very honest.”



Manika Batra


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Taking one twist after twist, there is a lot going on between Manika Batra and the Table Tennis Federation. The ace paddler has accused Soumyadeep Roy of pressurising her into conceding the Olympic qualification match to his personal ward (Sutirtha Mukherjee) in Doha in March.


These are challenging times for the country’s top woman paddler but nothing could deter her spirit moving forward as she will rise up from every setback. She believes that mental health is an important component of success on the court and has spoken candidly about it.


“To deliver, it is imperative to stay physically fit and mentally active. I like to engage myself in a variety of healthy activities like meditation and concentration exercises, especially when preparing for important tournaments. I read motivational books, listen to music to be calm and cheerful, and I like to dance when alone to relax and be positive. ASICS’ messaging is apt for challenging times like the pandemic. I would like to highlight the importance of keeping your mind and body in check through an active lifestyle. A healthy body is only built by a healthy mind.”



Abhinav Bindra


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Shooter Abhinav Bindra said that he had encountered mental health issues right after winning the 10m air rifle gold medal at the Beijing Games in 2008.


“I had a long career in sport, with many ups and downs. It’s ironic my biggest mental crisis in life came when I actually succeeded. A lot of people talked about dealing with failure, but for me, dealing with success was probably the hardest time in my life.


“Up until Beijing where I had my greatest victory, I had trained for 16 years of life with a singular goal and singular obsession that I wanted to win gold medal at the Olympics.


Speaking on an episode of Mind Matters, the 39-year-old shared a hopeful message to inspire others who may be dealing with depression:


“One fine day, this dream, the goal was achieved but it created a very large void in my life. I think to me that was very challenging. I was depressed and was lost. I did not know what to do with my life and what to do next. That was probably the toughest moment of my life.”


“My energies were depleted. It took a lot out of me to win. But more than anything, when you are goalless, you are listless in your life. The beauty of having goals in life is that it drives you and when that is lost you lose a lot of meaning in life... sometimes we get lured by an equation that gold medal equals happiness. That is false and we need to reverse that equation and make it as happiness equals gold medal,” he said.



Bad days happen and life goes on. A lot of people are struggling right now given the state of the world. The most important thing is to prioritize your own well-being.

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