Control the controllables: India hockey coach on how to improve mental health

World Mental Health Day is observed on October 10 to raise awareness on mental health issues. Indian women’s hockey team is learning the Dutch way.

By Naveen Peter

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult to deal with.

These unprecedented times have also seen a rising number of mental health cases globally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) attributes it to the ‘repercussions regarding what is happening during this pandemic for people.’

Elite athletes aren’t immune to this either. With no competitions for long periods and doubts over sports programming at large, it has posed a new challenge for the players.

But for Sjoerd Marijne, coach of the Indian women’s hockey team, adapting to the prevalent situation is key.

“Yes, it absolutely helps. Because if you don’t do anything, your mind is going to play with you and then it’s very difficult to control the voices in your head,” he told the Olympic Channel.

“One voice in your head will say yes, and the other one will say that you can’t do it. You have to avoid the negative things, keep away from it, because that’s when you’re going to struggle.”

WHO observes World Mental Health Day every year on October 10 to raise awareness about mental health issues and ways to deal with them.

A motivational speaker himself, 46-year-old Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne opened up to the Olympic Channel to discuss the mental side of the athletes and how he is working with the women in the Indian hockey team to address them.

Excerpts from interview with Sjoerd Marijne:

Staying away from something you love is often difficult. For athletes being away from competitions and training is no different. How have you addressed this situation?

I like to be proactive. As you know — in these times when you quarantine for 14 days and also spend most of your time locked up in a room — it’s going to be hard. But we chose to use this time in a good and productive way.

One aspect that we have been focusing on right now is mindfulness. It’s a way to deal with such circumstances. It’s more like accepting the situation the way it is. This means we can’t change it. And the moment you stop worrying about things that are not in your control, there’s no negative energy. That can keep you calm and in control. That’s what we have been asking the team to work upon.

The importance of mental health, as a concept, has not quite caught on in India. How has the team adjusted to your philosophy?

It’s taken time but the girls understand it. I tend to break it down for them. I tell them to focus on what they can control. We can’t control when the pandemic will end or how life will be post the pandemic. It’s not something that we like to hear. But when you think more about it you get negative thoughts and it’s better to avoid these negative thoughts.

Sjoerd Marijne has been actively working on ensuring that the Indian hockey women’s team is in good mental health.

In my case, I wanted to go home but it was not possible. I can be angry but the situation isn’t changing. Now I have to make the best out of this situation. It’s completely about one’s mindset. 

When I am thinking about going home, or things that I can’t control and get upset about it, my energy levels go down.

So how do you address this?

I look at it as having small targets in life. Like in any organisation, everyone has their own targets which affect the target that the organisation sets for themselves. But as an individual, I can’t be worried about the bigger target. Instead, if I end up achieving my goal, the organisation benefits. So, I push myself to reach that goal instead of worrying about and pressuring myself about the organisation’s target. Our life runs on a similar principle. We live day by day.

We cannot be thinking about what we have to do in a few months or in a few years time. But instead, try to be happy daily.

This doesn’t mean that sometimes we won’t feel the negative energy. You have to let it happen to you because that's normal. But as soon as you realise how you feel, you need to take steps to address it.

How difficult is it to keep negative thoughts away? How do you ensure that you apply it in your day to day life?

I know that it’s easier said than done. But I also realise that it’s better to think about things you can control than the things you can’t. Like, I started writing a book during the lockdown because writing gives me energy. It feels like I did something productive. Something that I can feel good about. And that energy is carried forward to the next day.

I can also watch movies by sitting in my room and not think about how I can’t go home. It’s about trying to do something useful in my time. So by doing these things you get positive energy and you stay away from negative thoughts.

The girls have their own routines, and that’s something that comes in handy in such situations.

Competing and training is the bread and butter of any elite athlete. How did the women’s hockey team manage to stay away from its natural habitat?

It was a bit odd in the beginning, but as I said, it’s about adapting to the situation. The good thing was that they got time to visit their family.

Remember, they were really hungry to play. But I think, sometimes it’s better to break the chain and have some rest and let that hunger grow.

When they started practising during the lockdown one could see that hunger in them.

In the past, you have spoken about the importance of staying on top of everything with the team. How has it been in the past few months?

It’s been difficult given the uncertainty but I am dealing well with the situation. Because it is the way it is and we can’t change that. It’s about what you can control and what you cannot control.

What is the future looking like?

We are planning towards the Tokyo Olympics, but we still don’t know if we can go on a tour in the coming months. In hockey, playing matches are extremely important, but we don’t have clarity on that yet. So, we do the next best thing; train as hard as we can.

Hockey India and the SAI (Sports Authority of India) are working hard on ensuring that we can get back to competing soon.

It’s all about doing what we can by dealing with things and accepting things the way they are. It’s about adapting to the situation at hand and making the most of the things that we can control.


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