We have seen it happen before. Archer Deepika Kumari went to the 2012 London Olympics as world No 1 but then watched her dreams get shattered as she struggled to cope with the pressure. Leading into the 2016 Olympics, Jitu Rai was one of India’s best hopes for a medal. The Nepal-born shooter was ranked second in the world in the 50m pistol event and third in the 10m air pistol event but he went to pieces in Rio and never recovered.

These are just two of many examples of athletes succumbing to pressure. The expectations of the nation and of the athletes themselves create a toxic cocktail that can derail the best of preparations. If you don’t have a method to deal with it, things don’t end well.

But over the years, we have seen some athletes figure things out. Shooter Abhinav Bindra famously went into a bubble for almost a year before the 2008 Olympics where he won gold. Tennis ace Leander Paes, who won a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics, uses the pressure to raise the level of his game. Under pressure, they found a way to get better and that is what the best athletes in the world do time and again.

You get too nervous, you fail. You get too hyped, you fail, You try too hard, you fail. You have to somehow maintain the equilibrium that allows you to perform at your best.

Scroll.in spoke to Maithili Bhuptani, the Lead Sport & Exercise Psychologist at the Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, to understand how athletes can best deal with the numbing pressure they experience at huge tournaments like the Olympics.

Excerpts from the free-wheeling interview:

The Olympics are coming our way. It happens once in four years. The athletes have spent a major portion of their lives trying to get there. They know winning could change their lives completely. So how do you get your mind ready for something like this? How do you prepare for this?

When you say they have been training their whole lives or for a lot of years… that is what causes the pressure on them. For some athletes it is now or never or something along those lines. That expectation creates a lot of pressure on the athlete. So basically when you talk about a big event like the Olympics, the first thing that needs to be inculcated into the athlete is that they need to focus on themselves and what they can control. Ultimately, pressure is something that is internalised. It is something that is created within the athlete or by the athlete as compared to something that is put on the athlete or something that is an external event. So it is more of an internalised process that goes within the athlete’s mind that causes them to feel pressurised. So one of the first things we tell the athlete is to try and control the controllables, which is a common phrase we use in mental health on psychology. It essentially means control what is in your hands as opposed to what isn’t. You need to learn how to say ‘I am in control’. You can’t control how or what your opponent will do at the Olympics. But you can control how you will perform and the performance shouldn’t be hampered by pressure or anxiety. So when the athletes start focussing inwards on things they can control, that is what brings the focus on more important things like performance and not on aspects such as pressure.

Athletes spend a lot of time training their skills. But do they need to spend a lot of time training their minds as well. Are there certain techniques that they need follow for a long period of time in order to control the controllables?

When we talk about mental training or performance mindset training… the mind is definitely a tougher aspect to train as compared to a physical aspect. It takes much longer to tune your mind to think in a certain way or behave in a certain way. Mental training does require time and that is why it needs to be inculcated into their training routine and not as something as a one-off. It is a long-term process and a continual process. It is about creating that habit so that it can help you in the long term.

For four years, many of our Olympic athletes are virtually ignored. While the country focuses on cricket, the other sports are merely side dishes for many. So when the big event does roll in, many of our athletes aren’t even used to having so many eyes on them… the scale… the focus can be unnerving…

It is not easy to suddenly go up and have so many eyes on you when you have not been exposed to that kind of environment earlier. So that is where trying to create that kind of environment earlier or manufacturing similar situations can help. But for those who haven’t been to such events before, the first thing to realise is that it is okay to feel the pressure. It is okay to feel nervous. It is natural. The pre-jitters are normal. It is important to accept the adrenaline rush rather than fight it. It is okay to feel overwhelmed. It is okay to not be comfortable. The first thing is to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Get into the moment and trust your training.

Maithili Bhuptani speaks to a young archer. Image credit: Maithili Bhuptani

What are the kind of training methods that an athlete can try?

You can prepare for pressure in two ways. One can be visualising certain situations in the mind over and over again. The second way is to actually create those situations. So coaches and teams can make their situations part of their training. So one aspect is being mentally prepared and the other is actually going through those experiences. So in the first case, it is definitely possible to visualise pressure. The crowd is cheering for you. You are standing at the starting line. You are fighting it out. You are feeling nervous. You are feeling the butterflies. So you can visualise many different aspects of pressure. It is obviously different for different individuals and that is why visualisation needs to be very personalised and very customised according to the athlete. The more personalised the visualisation is, the better it is. The same visualisation script will not work in the same way for everyone.

Does pressure feel different depending on whether you are in an individual event or a team event?

It would matter a little bit. In team sports there is a lot of support and encouragement within the group. But in individual sports it is very different. You don’t see the emotional support to rely on especially in the middle of a match. But both are essentially the same otherwise. It still comes down to the individual.

In events like the Olympics, where you have the world’s best athletes taking part, how important is the mental aspect?

It is an edge. It is the edge. All the athletes might have 90% of the physical fitness or the skills down but that final 10% depends on how well they control their mind; on how well they handle success and failure; on how well they handle pressure; on how well they handle injuries because when you are so close to big events, many things can go wrong. So your reaction to those incidents is very important too. For example, Carolina Marin has just got injured. It is really important for her to pull herself up because not being able to compete in the Olympics is probably a devastating blow for her. She could have broken down but now is when her mental resilience will come into play. When it comes to elite athletes, all of them do their best to be at the top of their game all the time but the edge is defined by the mental strength or resilience that comes into the picture.

One has to constantly work on mental skills. Image credit: Maithili Bhuptani

How does an athlete go out there and perform without worrying about the results? Is that easy to do? Because you have trained all your life to get a result but then you are telling yourself to not worry about the result…

This is important. We try to not focus on the outcome even though the outcome really matters. We always tell athletes to focus on the process. At the back of their mind, the athletes know that they need to win or do really well. But we try and shift their focus on process goals because it becomes much easier to then understand what all needs to be done to achieve the desired outcome.

So how important does a routine become for an athlete? Is a routine more than just a random set of motions?

Performance routines are something we practice with athletes. There are certain things athletes do before an event, during an event and after an event. This is to ensure that they are in the same flow during the competitions. Basic point is that then they feel like they are doing something that they do on an everyday basis. You want to avoid feeling like, ‘Oh my god, this is a big competition, I need to do my best today’ because it takes the athlete away from their normal routine and they start thinking about the future or what will happen if I don’t do well. So when they stick to their routine, they stay in the moment. Mindfulness is very important in such situations.

Is there enough mental training happening in Indian sport?

The coach is definitely someone who understands the mindset of athletes and he does play the role of a mentor many times but the specialists will do it better. The situation in India is definitely getting better. We have a lot more sports psychologists working with teams but if you see the ratio of athletes to sports psychologists / mental health practitioners working with them, I would say it is definitely very less. So you would see more physiotherapists, doctors but not enough psychologists. And what happens is that the few we have end up focussing on the elite athletes because they are the ones who are actually competing at the higher levels. So the athletes at the grassroots level don’t get access to the expertise and when it comes to mental skills, I would say the earlier you start, the better it is. The habits that you form in your childhood are so much easier to keep doing. It become second nature without you even realising it.

From a mental perspective, is this the toughest period one could have imagined for an athlete? They are stuck in a camp, they haven’t being able to compete, they worry about falling sick and their performance levels going down…

For most athletes, it has been one of the most challenging times they have had to face. Among the things they have had to experience, number one is the anxiety. As humans, we always like to know what is coming up next. We like to have some idea of what the future looks like and with the pandemic, none of the athletes had a clear idea of what was coming up next or what they were training for. Even if they are training, the event could get cancelled at the last minute and that creates a demotivation feeling for them especially when it comes to the training schedule. So anxiety leads to demotivation which in turn leads to frustration, depression, changes in their sleep schedule, changes in their eating habits. And last but not the least, the bio-bubble leads to social isolation. So they have experienced a lot of mental challenges together, it is not one thing… it is all of it together. Then, there is the case of regular coaches not being allowed to travel, the family not being there to provide social support. It all adds on. And all that means that this time the Olympics is not just about performance. It is about a lot more than that.

Do you ever get used to pressure?

I think I must emphasise the fact that pressure is an internal experience created by the athlete in response to how they perceive a particular event. So it is not that you are always under pressure but how you perceive a particular event because that decides how much pressure you are feeling. So I think the word is misused pretty often when we say that pressure is put on us or it is something that we always go through. It is something that is internalised and we need to ask ourselves whether we see it as a challenge or a threat. When we see it as a challenge, we see it more positively than when we see it as pressure, which has many negative connotations associated with it.