SFR Snehit (22), an emerging table tennis player from Hyderabad, India, injured his ankle during a crucial match last year – the qualifiers for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The years of work he put in all seemed lost in a moment, with a small unnatural twist of the ankle. While Snehit could blame it on hard luck, it was indeed a setback he had to deal with and overcome using various coping mechanisms which were introduced to him by his coaches and support staff. He could neither let the injury nor the frustration linger on and hamper the future course of his career.
Athletes like Snehit deal with losses and setbacks quite regularly, bouncing back from career-threatening injuries and disappointing setbacks among many other challenges. They do the resurrection act with coping mechanisms and techniques that one can employ to overcome disappointments, losses or challenges in life, say experts.
How loss affects athletes
Athletes are used to dealing with loss regularly, says Kunashni Parikh, a sports psychologist based in Mumbai. “The focus is at their ultimate level, which is why they are trained to have their mental game together,” she adds.
However, athletes, much like anyone else, do face a variety of emotions when they lose – frustration, anger, irritation, denial and loss, says Anuradha Solanky, a sports psychologist based in Delhi.
Snehit remembers the initial frustration immediately after the injury resulting in the missed opportunity. “The situation was worse because I couldn’t get back to playing,” he says.
Certain situations like injuries are beyond an athlete’s control, says Chaitanya Sridhar, a lead sport psychologist from Bengaluru. She recalls the case of an athlete who was in peak form for the 2022 Asian Games. “She slipped and had an injury just before the trials. It was heart-breaking,” says Sridhar.
“In extreme cases, such events bring about post-event depression, which is characterised by loss of identity and purpose,” adds Parikh, before touching upon one of the primary coping mechanisms of an athlete – the locus of control.
Locus of control
Athletes are trained to accept what they can’t control and train on what they can control. “This is called locus of control,” says Parikh.
If the athlete is focused on things they cannot control (like referee’s decision or temperature on match day), it affects their mood, performance and recovery.
“But when you focus on things within your control, then dealing with loss gets easier and it puts someone in control of the result that they want,” explains Parikh.
Coping mechanism of professional athletes
- The analysis
Coping mechanism of athletes revolve around how they focus on the next goal by doing a match analysis.
“It mostly involves self-reflection, cognitive training and fact checking. These are things that can help anybody who is dealing with loss,” adds Parikh.
The key points of focus include:
→What went wrong?
→What could have been done better?
- The big picture
When in despair, athletes are guided to see the bigger picture in life, says Parikh.
“We try to make them learn how to dissociate themselves from a particular game,” she adds. “It is imperative to see yourself as a whole person growing holistically and not just overemphasise on one event that went wrong,” says Parikh.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
For emotional regulation, Solanky suggests cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to athletes, which is a mental strategy for modifying negative behaviour based on self-reflection. “It involves reflecting on the outcome of the event and what can be changed to attain your next big goal,” she explains.
Therapies like meditation and individual counselling sessions help an athlete dealing with loss to understand and accept their emotions.
One integral component of mental training is visualisation through positive imagery. “It involves imagination of positive visuals like how to execute a particular strategy in the playing field,” explains Solanky, which makes an athlete understand and deal with a difficult situation.
“It also helps them strategise their tactics better and deal with negative emotions,” explains Solanky.
- Support circle
Getting a support system where you are heard is critical and the aim should be to process and normalise your emotions, according to Sridhar.
- Distracting yourself
Sridhar says that anxiety can seep in as one tries to move forward past loss.
“Find at least 10-15 minutes a day for self-care where you can distract yourself from work, performance or whatever that is troubling you through art, music or any other hobby,” advises Sridhar.
- Elite athletes are used to dealing with loss, setbacks and injuries regularly.
- Athletes are trained to overcome loss in different ways. Anyone can implement these coping mechanisms when faced with a difficult situation in life.
- Some of the coping mechanisms athletes employ to bounce back from losses or adversities include analysing the situation, visualisation and cognitive behavioural therapy.