Naomi Osaka has started a conversation about the mental load on young women athletes battling stressors on and off the field
In 2019, Utkarsha Pawar, 22, from Pune, began journalling. On its last page, she wrote down her goal: to be selected in the cricket Women’s Under-23 Challenger Trophy. Every day, as she filled her diary, it was a reminder that all her thoughts and actions were fine-tuned towards that. “I achieved it, and ticked it off,” she says, adding that writing has helped in visualisation, an exercise by sportspersons to sharpen focus and better performance. It also helped her process her grandfather’s death last year.
While the practice is beneficial for men and women athletes, Pawar finds that it’s her women athlete friends who journal more. “I also have gym training as part of the journal, so it helps me keep track of how I perform and lift (weights) during my periods,” she says.
Added layers of pressure
There are two parts to building mental health in athletes: Performance enhancement on field and well-being (tackling stress and disorders) off field, says Divya Jain, a sports psychologist from Fortis Healthcare. While journalling and visualisation are practised by both men and women, off field stressors may differ.
For instance, it is estimated that the prevalence of eating disorders among women athletes is 6% to 45%, while for men athletes it ranges from 0 to 19%, according to the IOC Mental Health in Elite Athletes Toolkit, issued this year. Also, anxiety and depression are more common in women (substance abuse is seen more in men).
Soniya Dabir, Pawar’s coach, singles out the word ‘pressure’ to describe a sportsperson’s life: the need to perform better or at least at par with a previous time; the juggling of time between sport and study; the stress of endorsements. Women have added layers of pressure: the doubts about earning a living from sport, where women play for even shorter durations than men; the decision to have a child, which changes the body to such an extent that it’s difficult to return to previous form.
The nuances of women’s sport
While we will never know the depth of Naomi Osaka’s mental health condition — she does not owe us a detailed explanation, much like she wouldn’t of her history of a physical injury — she has opened up a conversation around mental health in sport.
On Clubhouse discussions, players have talked about the responses to her decision to take a break, citing her womanhood, her youth, her blackness, opening the field for deeper, more nuanced discussions. Take just the issue of what to wear at sporting events. Karan Singh, who runs the Indian Track Foundation, set up three years ago, has four female athletes (handpicked from across interiors of Jharkhand) in his elite team of 10 trainees.
Earlier this year, the girls got Adidas gear, which gave them access to sports bras and shorts worn at the international level in track and field events. “These clothes are shorter and more snug than what Aakancha (Kerketta, 16) is comfortable wearing,” he says of his ward. So he left it up to her, but she realised the difference it was making to her performance and decided to go with them.
Singh, who is aiming for the 2028 Olympic Games and beyond, says that even at the national level, people will stare at a woman dressed differently, which can be intimidating for a girl whose body is also going through unfamiliar changes. He normalises conversations with the help of his wife, who talks menstruation and body changes with the girls, made easier since they live together in one house in Ooty.
About mental safety
Just like a physical injury, a mental one too needs more than just first aid. A sports psychologist at Jamshedpur, talks of a young woman who came to him two years after she had been raped in her early teens, by fellow senior male players. “She came with anxiety, and after three or four sessions on a phone consultation, she revealed she had been raped,” he says.
But a girl doesn’t have to be sexually abused to feel insecure. And it’s not just about putting up a CCTV camera, says Gayatri Vartak Madkekar, a sports psychologist who played badminton on the international circuit. “An athlete travelling alone must feel safe. There are overt ideas of safety, but there is also the mental angle,” says Madkekar who brought out a free mental safety handbook at her organisation, Samiksha. She adds that having a woman mentor, someone who has gone through a particular experience, will help young players.
- Increasingly, though not to the extent needed, institutes and coaches are seeing the benefit of referring players to sports psychologists. The Sports Authority of India has tie-ups with these professionals, so elite athletes can access them through individual federations.
There is also the question of ‘what if not sport?’. While women in cities may have career options and choices they are free to exercise, those in villages might not. Arundhati (name changed to protect identity), 22, who (since 2009) has trained with Yuwa, an organisation for girls’ empowerment through football, says girls in rural Jharkhand generally get married by 15 or 16. Sports therefore also offers an escape route and she says she “feels free on the football field”. “Parents tell us we should work on the fields, learn to cook, so our in-laws won’t say anything to us after we are married,” she says, adding that even the gear — shorts and the jersey — is questioned.
Fighting the odds
Tripta Behera, 19, from New Delhi, talks about patriarchy and capitalism when it comes to earnings, even in seemingly egalitarian big-city settings. “I play for the Delhi Women’s League. The men get prize money; we don’t. Also, they get put up at five-star hotels, and we’ll get a two-star hotel.” While she doesn’t link this with her personhood, girls who are treated differently from their male counterparts in society, are more likely to suffer at the hands of imperious officials that the Indian sports system is so riddled with.
Arundhati remembers her first national camp. “In the evening, the coaches would ask us to sing or dance, and I am shy, so I wouldn’t want to come to the front. They would force me to, and say, ‘You girl from a backward community — learn to sing or dance’.” On field too, she felt bullied. These challenges that go beyond just concentrating on the game chip away at their self-belief.
For others, like Rutaparna Panda, 22, who plays badminton on the international circuit, and lives in Bhubaneswar, “Coming from a middle class family, some people had questioned my parent’s decision to let both their daughters play. For them, sports was not a career option, especially for girls.” Her parents supported her though.
What appears in the press also has a bearing on the mind. Sprinter Dutee Chand says reporters will pit her against Hima Das in sensational headlines, speculate in print or in a video about why she sold a car, and will take a quote out of context. Despite all the media coverage, a BBC survey last year, 50% of those surveyed in India (10,181 across 14 states) could not name even one sportswoman. Up to 42% felt that women’s sports were not as ‘entertaining’ as men’s.
Former Indian sprinter P T Usha, who runs the Usha School of Athletics, says, “I insist on those coaching with me not meeting mediapersons before an event. During post-track media meets, I tell them to take only questions concerning basic personal information and the day’s performance and not indulge in any kind of speculation.”
Supporting women in sports will bolster mental health, but this will need institutions, individuals, and society to come together. As Behera says, “I want to be known as a footballer; not a woman football player.”
With inputs from Saraswathy Nagarajan, Uthra Ganesan, Tazeen Qureshy