In recent years, India has achieved great feats in the realm of sports. India’s performance in the 2023 Asian Games held in China was a testament to that. With the nation's athletes making such great leaps on the international stage, it is evident that India is becoming a sporting powerhouse. However, while the physical and technical know-how of the game is crucial for the athlete to emerge victorious, the crucial part that often goes unnoticed, which is fundamental to the athlete’s success, is psychological safety.
What exactly is Psychological Safety (PS)?
PS refers to the emotional and mental well-being of individuals in their environment, such as being a part of a team or a sports organization/federation. In the context of sports, in particular, cultivating a psychologically safe environment is crucial for peak performance. Fostering an environment where athletes can express their thoughts, emotions and vulnerabilities without the fear of criticism or repercussions has the ability to nurture the athlete’s mental health and resilience and promotes a positive mindset among athletes.
The current scenario in Indian sports
The Indian sporting culture takes pride in the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Sports in India has focused mainly on the mental skills that an individual must have in order to enhance performance. Media in India has documented the organizational stressors that elite athletes encounter, such as low financial security, lack of funds for training, inadequate competitive exposure and sexual harassment.
Although the missing link is the lack of formal exploration of these stressors and how they impact the athlete's mental well-being , Rajaraman  emphasized the need to build PS to enhance the performance of elite athletes in India. He quotes the experience of India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist, Abhinav Bindra- ‘Bindra explains how an individual’s well-being is a critical aspect of high-performing sport. He mentioned how he felt psychologically compromised and insecure throughout his elite sporting career. He struggled with anxiety and self-belief and what helped him was being surrounded by positive people who had a great sense of belief in him. Whether it was his coaches, parents or support staff, they provided him with a sense of security and a safety net which allowed him to focus on his sporting career.’
While India has witnessed remarkable success in various sports, such as cricket, shooting, and badminton, the emphasis on psychological safety remains underdeveloped. The prevalent focus is primarily on physical training and technical skill development, often overshadowing the athletes' mental well-being. The result is a potential mental health crisis in Indian sports.
The need for PS in the Indian sports ecosystem
1. Mental Health and Well-being: Athletes face intense pressure to perform, which can lead to stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Psychological safety helps athletes cope with these pressures by providing a supportive environment where they can seek help and express their concerns without stigma.
2. Enhanced Performance: A mentally resilient athlete is more likely to excel in their sport. Psychological safety encourages athletes to focus on their mental health, which can translate into improved concentration, better decision-making, and, ultimately, enhanced performance.
3. Talent Development: Creating a psychologically safe environment from the grassroots level is essential for nurturing talent. Young athletes need to develop not only their physical skills but also their mental fortitude to succeed in the long run.
4. Attracting and Retaining Talent: Athletes are more likely to stay committed to their sport when they feel valued and supported. Ensuring psychological safety can attract and retain talent in Indian sports, ultimately contributing to the nation's sporting success.
5. International Competitiveness: As India aims to compete at the highest level in international sports, psychological safety becomes a critical factor. Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have incorporated mental health support into their sports systems, making them more competitive on the world stage.
Steps Towards Achieving Psychological Safety
To instil psychological safety in Indian sports, various measures can be implemented:
1. Education and Awareness: Athletes, coaches, support staff and parents should be educated about the importance of psychological safety and mental health support.
2. Mental Health Programs: Sports organizations should offer mental health programs, including counselling services, stress management workshops, and emotional resilience training to coaches and athletes.
3. Open Communication: Athletes should be encouraged to openly discuss their mental health challenges and concerns without fear of judgment. Parents and coaches should create a safe environment for the athletes to be able to share their thoughts, opinions and feelings without fear of facing negative consequences such as punishment, being a substitute on the team, etc.
4. Supportive Policies: Sports governing bodies should establish policies that prioritize mental health and psychological safety. Before coaches and support staff members are hired, they should be compulsorily made to go through formal training to learn how to support an athlete’s mental needs.
In the rapidly evolving landscape of Indian sports, psychological safety is not just an option; it's a necessity. Creating an environment that values and supports the mental well-being of athletes is a crucial step towards achieving sustainable success in the world of sports. With the right measures in place, India can continue its journey towards becoming a global sporting powerhouse, with psychologically resilient athletes leading the charge.
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Urja Mehta is a national-level footballer who has completed her MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Loughborough University, UK. Being an athlete herself, she is keen on developing and making a difference in the sports industry in India.