A few days ago when many athletes and officials were already pushing for a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, one of India’s top medal prospects Mirabai Chanu had expressed hope that the Games would not be cancelled.
Chanu’s sentiment was understandable as the 2017 weightlifting world champion had been working towards this goal ever since she failed to make a mark at the 2016 Rio Games. The lifter was in regular training at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala and hence best prepared to peak in three months from now. This is also why the Indian hockey teams also continued to train in Bengaluru in isolation and the top shooters took part in the selection trials despite all other events being cancelled because they knew they had to stay in form if the Games happened as scheduled.
Most of India’s other medal prospects had either been quarantined after returning from international competitions (badminton players and boxers) or forced to stay at home due to the lockdown announced (wrestlers, some shooters) by respective state governments since the coronavirus pandemic reached India.
And that has been the case with most athletes across the world and all of them would have heaved a sigh of relief when the International Olympic Committee and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed on Tuesday night that the Games were finally postponed by a year.
The immediate problem may have been sorted out but there are many more challenges for elite athletes before they could start thinking of once again performing at their best. And just like any economic crisis, it would not be an exaggeration to say the ones with better resources and financial muscle would come out better prepared than the others whenever the competitions restart.
The world’s top athletes tend to have their own gymnasium and other training facilities and hence the lockdown should not really hamper their regular fitness regimen and basic training but for others, it is going to be a big challenge to even maintain the levels they are currently in.
In India, the 10m Air Rifle and Air Pistol shooters who have a range made at their respective homes could continue to train during the lockdown and so could a few table tennis or tennis players who have playing facilities in their backyard. But a vast majority would have to depend on sustaining their levels with just physical training with whatever equipment they have at home or bodyweight training.
Sports Science expert Nikhil Latey, who has been working with many elite athletes and was the Head of Sports Science and Rehabilitation for Olympic Gold Quest for seven years, insists that not even 10% of Indian athletes have advanced training facilities in their homes.
“Most athletes who are in lockdown at their respective homes will have been given a training program by their trainers and coaches,” Latey said. “But most of them won’t have the advance facilities required to train at a very high intensity. This means they can only hope to train at 40-45% intensity until they return to regular training.”
What this effectively means is that the players would need anywhere from eight to 12 weeks to just get back to match fitness before participating in competition depending on the facilities and sports science support they have at their respective centres.
And that is going to be a bigger headache for coaches and high-performance managers, who will have to tweak their programs that were aimed at the players peaking around July-August this year depending on the levels the elite athletes report for training once this crisis is over.
Latey insisted that things would be more difficult for athletes who are looking to make a comeback from injury as they need better facilities for rehabilitation and training.
“For example, a swimmer who is carrying an ankle injury needs to train in the pool for the brain to start kicking in a particular way again or a tennis player with a shoulder injury can do any amount of rehab at home but can’t train the muscle to take the stress of hitting the ball with power.
“Such players can only hope to be at 20-25% of their fitness levels when the lockdown is lifted and will need considerably more time to start performing again,” he added.
But the bigger challenge for many of the players is likely to be the mental toll of this lockdown. An athlete is normally used to constantly thinking of the next day’s training session, the areas they need to work on to improve their performance and plotting their development graph.
With uncertainty prevailing over how long this lockdown will continue and when the next tournament will be held, most of these athletes have no real goal to work towards and that can lead to problems.
A few have already spoken about learning skills or doing activities that they were long hoping to undertake but these are at best short term distractions and the void created by lack of high intensity training and competition is likely to hit them at some stage.
Sports psychologist Mugdha Bavare, who works with many elite athletes in India, explained, “The one area that I am working with the players is acceptance. Normally the process of acceptance goes through anger, denial, bargaining. But in this case, there is nothing in anyone’s control and it is going to be better for athletes to just accept the situation and look forward.”
In that sense, the postponement of Tokyo Olympics would have brought some relief to those who have already qualified or who were focusing on qualifying for the Games as they now have the required clarity to reassess their goals and not be in a dilemma of balancing the need to self isolate and still keep training.
But in such times of uncertainty when one doesn’t even know how long it will take for competitions to start again, 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?
Bavare insisted that the simplest solution was to continue setting short-term and long-term goals, just as the players do when they are in training and competition mode. “The other area they have to keep working on is visualisation, something we keep talking to players about. They may not get to go out and practice the strokes or challenges they visualise but the mind would at least be trained to handle those when the time comes.”
All this, however, is easier said than done. A few football clubs in Europe, for instance, wanted to start training this month in the hope that things would improve sooner but they have had to shelve their plans.
So whenever sport resumes, even the best of the best could go through a brief period of performance anxiety, just like many players do after returning from long injury lay-offs. That would be another challenge to deal with for coaches, sports psychologists with almost everyone starting from scratch once again.
Of course, there are more important things at stake here and the athletes would be thinking about cross these bridges when they get there. For now, apart from staying safe and indoors, the primary goal must just be to keep the ball rolling to avoid inertia.