As we gear up for the Tokyo Olympics, we need to understand what our athletes and officials will be dealing with. The pandemic is still looming at large, and strict bio-bubble protocols, mental health of an athlete is top priority. With events being held behind closed doors, without a live audience, the physical and mental performance of all athletes will be tested like never before. (More Sports News)
The pandemic has been a great leveler. Irrespective of the athlete’s strengths and talents, or their ability to manage stressful situations, no one has ever encountered a unique situation like this before in sporting history. The uncertainty is extended to the sporting federations, coaching staff, support staff and their families.
Mind over body
While everyone has their own method of handling stress and overcoming fear, it is very important for professional athletes to have the option of physically expression. The inability to do so can hamper the confidence of the athlete, suppressing the fire within them. Many of those athletes who are normally the best in their field, in complete control of their environments and operating to strict routines and protocols, suddenly found themselves to be in completely unfamiliar places emotionally, giving rise to fear, uncertainty and in some cases anxiety.
It is fear that is often the limiting factor to the performance for athletes. Covid has in some way given us a great opportunity to practise these scenarios of decision making in a hostile, fearful, uncertain environments. Early in the Covid pandemic, particularly in India, athletes were suddenly enveloped in such environments, probably more hostile and uncertain than they have ever encountered in the sporting field of battle. To combat this, devising methods to address and conquer fear has been the number one priority for us.
Since the onset of the pandemic, we wanted to ensure they always had a way to express themselves physically. It was mandatory for many of our athletes to be isolated prior to any tournament. This period of isolation can prove to be quite difficult if the individual is not constantly engaged in some physical activity.
As a team, we had to innovate and ensure that the athletes are performance ready. Mini challenges to help the athletes maintain their physical and mental well-being were formalised. It was encouraging to see many athletes accumulating daily distances of 10-12km (within the confines of their rooms with one individual even doing 25km)!
The last few months presented athletes an opportunity to work on the invisible side of their game -- the mental side. Many of these young men and women took up reading, playing board games, and exploring other hobbies like painting. Some reconnected with their family and friends, a luxury which is not afforded to most athletes.
Living in a bubble
Bio-bubbles are mandatory in all recent sporting events, we have practiced living in them in the last 15 months. Now we have an informed understanding of the specific protocols in these environments. I have personally spent a lot of time living in a bio-bubble which themselves present multiple challenges. Travel is challenging for teams maintaining Covid safety protocols. The organisers and the contingent management team must ensure that the participants are shielded from the pandemic while travelling from one city to another, even one country to another.
The concept of a bio-bubble is not solely about protecting the inhabitants from the Covid threat itself, but also to help manage physical and mental health of those within the confines of that bio-sphere. Earlier, we could venture out of the hotel for recreation. Now, these recreational needs must be managed within the safety of a bio-bubble. Creating positive environments within such spaces is critical to outcomes.
Physical, recreational, mental and social outlets must be created for the athletes and support staff, ensuring they remain physically and mentally motivated. Since mental well-being of the athletes is priority, the management has been helpful in deputing professionals to support the athletes. The support staff must ensure that athletes are performance ready within bio-bubbles.
One major positive that has risen from this situation is that the entire sporting fraternity is co-operating and immense learning taking place from every tournament. Organisers are sharing their experiences collaboratively to constantly improve on the protocols.
Prior to the original dates of the Tokyo Olympics, I had visited Japan to survey the venues, Olympic village, and the systems. If there is one country that can pull off the Olympics with safety and security to the athletes, it is Japan. As a culture and nation, there are meticulous systems and processes set to drive efficiency at every level. While the bio-bubble is not a completely foolproof system, circumstances in Japan are different. They are stringent about adhering to protocols to control the environment that directly impact immediate safety of athletes, officials, and their citizens.
Role of Sports Science
In any sport, the physical side plays a huge role, but mental strength and resilience is the defining factor. Prior to the pandemic, working on the mental strength of professional athletes was not often a part of the agenda, but since the last 18 months it has become a priority for all coaches. We used this environment to have deeper understanding about ourselves and our athletes. This will ultimately benefit us in a post-Covid world.
Recovery is a vital component in any athlete’s training, and all coaches have stressed on its importance. In these difficult times, we assisted our athletes in managing their stress levels so that they could sleep well. Although remotely, we tracked and monitored sleep and recovery of our athletes using tracking devices.
The role of nutrition is critical learning from the pandemic. In fact, it is one of the main factors in an athlete’s training process. Good nutritional practice underpins the physical performance, mental resilience, and the recovery process for all athletes. Many athletes even took to cooking for themselves, which was helpful for meeting their nutritional goals as well as improving their knowledge and control of nutrition. This gave them the opportunity to understand nutritional strategies in a holistic manner but also allowing themselves to be creative in another sphere aside from their normal physical one.
Supporting our athletes, supporting sports
In India, we often raise questions about the lack of medals and recognition our athletes garner from sporting events like the Olympics. One needs to understand that a medal is the result of a series of planned strategic activities. India has the potential to excel in all sports with an extremely talented pool of athletes, provided there is adequate investment in sports. While the government is working to uplift the sporting ecosystem in the country, that by itself is not enough, there is a dire need for funding and support from private institutions and organisations.
At the Tokyo Olympics, we can expect to see interesting results. Our athletes are resilient, educated, and mentally tougher than ever before. The results will be testimony to the dedicated resources and investments made over the last decade. I hope this will pave the way for future generations of aspiring athletes.
(John Gloster is the Head of Sports Science at GoSports Foundation. He works as a physio with cricket teams across the world. Views are personal)