Four suicides in as many months have rocked the Indian shooting fraternity, bringing to fore the crucial aspect of mental health challenges and the growing need to provide a safer environment for athletes.
Young shooters Namanveer Singh Brar, Hunardeep Singh Sohal, Khushseerat Kaur Sandhu and Konica Layak, all aged between 17 and 28, died by suicide owing to various reasons, evoking huge concerns and questions about mental wellness of young sportspersons.
Brar, who had claimed a bronze at the 2015 World University Games, killed himself in Mohali in September, while state-level shooter Sohal, allegedly upset over a wrist injury, shot himself near Amritsar two months ago. Sandhu, an International shooter and a Junior World Championships participant, was allegedly unhappy about her recent performances and ended her life in Faridkot on 8 December. The fourth unfortunate incident involved Kolkata shooter Konica Layak, who was found hanging in her hostel room last week.
The incidents have sparked concerns among the officials, coaches and former athletes.
National Rifle Association of India secretary-general Kunwar Sultan Singh acknowledged that “there was a need to educate and nurture the shooters on mental health issues”, while Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra wrote a detailed letter to the federation, offering “the services of his foundation to conduct virtual sessions for athletes, coaches and others in the shooting ecosystem on mental health”. Bindra underlined the need to “act quickly and responsibly to prevent any further loss of lives”.
Singh says the incidents are unfortunate but he does not believe that they are happening because of the sport.
"My view is that it a societal issue than a sporting one,” Singh told the Quint. He, however, recognised the need to do more for the mental health of the athletes.
“Mental health and mind training is an essential part of training and the NRAI has been supporting its players. But yes, a lot more needs to be done. Be it physical, mental or emotional exposure, all these issues are intricately-related. Athletes need to be educated that one or two bad performances are not the end of the world," the NRAI secretary-general added. "Social media is another issue according to me, as there is no mapping of what the youngsters watch and believe to be true."
Cannot Stay in Denial: Gagan Narang
The last two years have been tough on athletes world over. Uncertainty over training and competition schedules in the wake of COVID-19, the gruelling bio bubbles and long separation from loved ones, have added to the already competitive nature of sport.
Anxiety, insecurities, sleeplessness and depression are some of the common traits that affect sportspersons in high-pressure scenarios, and the recent times have only made it tougher.
“The pressure is there and we cannot stay in denial,” says rifle shooter and 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Gagan Narang on the unfortunate incidents.
“The competition is increasing every year and so is the pressure of performing well in every competition. We have come a long way in creating an infrastructure that has made shooting one of the most sought-after sport in the country," the champion shooter highlights. "However, along with the technical advancement, we also need to take care of the mental aspect of the sport."
Pistol coach Ronak Pandit, who has been training Indian shooters for many years, feels there is a “general lack of empathy and all one is looking for is success without really understanding what goes into it.”
“It is the most unfortunate thing that can happen and everyone in the shooting fraternity is taken aback. I cannot even imagine what the families must be going through,” says Ronak.
“I think the fundamental issue is how we react to the players’ performances and the apparent lack of coping skills to accept failures and setbacks. We have to be mindful with our responses to their performances so that their self worth does not depend on the outcome of an exam or competition.”
Asked if there was a pressing need to make mental health a priority in sport, especially shooting, Ronak said, “Yes, shooting is a completely internal sport and all we do is suppress our emotions. Hence, there is a higher chance of not being able to express oneself properly. There is a definite need to talk about this.”
Speaking about Heena Sidhu, a celebrated shooter and his wife, who went through depression, Ronak shares, “You know, Heena after having achieved so much in life entered depression. And I remember someone from the sport telling me that her achievements have made her weak. Can you imagine a statement like that?"
“I feel there is a general lack of empathy… We have seen this first hand and also realised that our society views mental health as more of a weakness than a serious concern. And that is why the person suffering is not even able to talk about it.
“Personally I believe family plays the most crucial role and if the person feels that no matter what the result, they will be loved equally and not judged, then there is a scope to accept whatever happens on the field and in life,” says Ronak, a former Commonwealth Games gold medallist.
‘Athletes Sitting at Gunpoint’
Renowned mind coach and sports psychologist Dr Chaitanya Sridhar says sportspersons today are “sitting at gunpoint a lot of times” and “need to be prepared for life rather than just winning a medal.”
“I do not see this as something that has happened overnight,” says Dr Chaitanya, reflecting on the suicides by young shooters.
“If you recall what happened to our shooters at Tokyo and the immense pressure that was build up, like the 2016 Rio Games, at least bring two medals. We are talking of very young shooters like Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary… and that is the point when your identity is being formed. It is not easy," she says.
“As adults, we cannot control situations and when the youngsters are being targeted, what is the message that is being sent out? That is that first thing that I want to be saying. Are we looking at the individually holistically? Are we preparing them for life?” asks Dr Chaitanya, who has worked with several Indian Olympians, national hockey teams and is a sports psychologist with Indian Premier League franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Elaborating further, she says, “What drives a person to such a step? You feel it’s bleak. We all go through low points in life — you loose a loved one, especially during Covid times, a setback or a failure. But then, are we supported? Do we have a support system which goes beyond just sport science and academies? That is something I tell athletes that look at your life 10 years down the lane, you should not turn back and say, ‘Okay fine, I got a medal but I do not have anything else.’ Then what is the point? And that is the message I want to give out.”
“I tell elite athletes and others too that you are sitting at gunpoint a lot of times. For example, let us say there is an athlete with mental health concern and my first thing becomes that the coach, the hostel in-charge and also the support system, which could be friends and most importantly, the family have to come together because I feel, the athletes are very disconnected. You need to get off the pressure cooker,” Dr Chaitanya shares.
Role of Coaches, Friends and Family
The role of the entire ecosystem that supports and nurtures a sportsperson assumes greater importance. As athletes face constant pressure, it is the support from people around them and the right guidance that can pull them out of difficult conditions.
Narang, who mentors many young shooters at his Gun For Glory academies, says that they have had “dedicated mental trainers and psychologists from Day One.”
“I have been through a lot of pressure situations and phases and I know how difficult it can get. So at our academies, presence of the psychologists with the shooters is as important as the coaches,” says Narang. “I personally also make sure to speak with the shooters regularly. Pressure comes when you struggle to find faith after unsatisfactory performances, we at Gun For Glory academies make sure to stand beside our shooters especially when they are down.”
Way Forward: Need for Mental Health Trainers and Safe Environment
Ronak too advocates the need of mental wellness trainers to ensure a safe and conducive environment for shooters.
“The NRAI is a very shooter friendly and transparent organisation but we can always respond better to our shooters. Nothing will work if we are mechanical about it. We definitely need to have a psychologist with whom the athletes can open up without feeling judged. Even we coaches must have such a rapport with them but we are not technically or scientifically equipped to solve their issues, we can just help as guides and mentors.
“Just like a physio or a coach, the team needs to have a psychologist. Coaches need to know how their athletes are feeling and accordingly mend their coaching methods. Finally, we are all working for the betterment of the shooters so we need professionals to work harmoniously. You cannot perform till you are happy, so let us focus on being happy first,” Ronak emphasises.
Dr Chaitanya stresses that the society needs to understand that athletes do not lose everything, when they lose a medal.
“Even Abhinav Bindra said that it is not just about one gold medal. Like look at how Neeraj (Chopra) approached his gold medal performance. There is a difference. You dedicate your life for a cause and purpose but you do not forget everything else,” says the Bengaluru-based mind coach.
“The day (American star gymnast) Simone Biles pulled out of the Tokyo Games (owing to mental health concerns), the number of people tagging me was insane. It is so much pressure on the youngsters and that is the question I want to leave ourselves with and a message to the athletes’ parents.
“I know of parents of very young athletes, who tell their kids, ‘I am not going to talk to you because you did not get a gold medal.’ And that athlete has still got a medal or has performed well. You are going to win a gold medal every single time. So, look at where we are heading as a society. I feel nurturing an individual’s connections, wholeness and understanding that there is life beyond sport are key,” Dr Chaitanya explains.
“Sport is a way of life but it is not everything and you don’t lose everything, when you lose a medal. I feel that is what we should be driving,” she concludes.