Why Virat Kohli Openly Discussing Mental Health Is A Great Precedent For Indian Sports

Athletes shouldn't be made to feel ashamed of a trying circumstance around their mental health and perhaps Kohli can start a fresh conversation.

When Virat Kohli attended a press conference before the India-Bangladesh Test series, he probably didn’t know that he was going to start a very important conversation around mental health. Asked about Australian batsman Glenn Maxwell’s decision to take some time off on mental health grounds, Kohli not only endorsed his colleague’s decision, but also went ahead to describe how he had faced something similar that felt like ‘the end of the world’.

According to an Indian Express report, Kohli said, “I have gone through a phase in my career. I had felt that it was the end of the world. I just didn’t know what to do and what to say to anyone, how to speak, how to communicate. To be honest, I couldn’t have said that I am not feeling great mentally and I need to get away from the game. Because you never know how that’s taken. You know when you get to the international stage, every player that’s in the squad needs that communication — that ability to speak out.”

Speaking about his abysmal England tour in 2014, where he scored a paltry 134 runs in 10 innings at an average of 13.5 per innings, Kohli had rarely failed so spectacularly in a series. Quickly labelled a ‘flat-track bully’ and entertaining question marks all over his technique, Kohli showed tremendous resolve to emerge India’s highest run-scorer in the Australia tour… only a few months later. This matured version of the Indian captain, who until recently was known for his foul temper and combative press conferences, surprised many including veteran broadcaster Harsha Bhogle.

Mental conditioning has always been a gravely ignored aspect of sport. Few remember the contribution of a particular South African man called Paddy Upton, who was the Indian (men’s) cricket team’s mental conditioning coach during the 2003 and 2011 World Cup campaigns. It’s not surprising that the team performed exceedingly well in both competitions, finishing as a finalist and winner in the respective years.

The taboo around mental health has meant that the world had to quietly bid goodbye to many including English cricketers Marcus Trescothick and Jonathan Trott. As the former opening batsman, Trescothick took to writing a book to explain his deteriorating mental health, that resulted in the untimely demise of his international career. While Trott confessed to being mentally scarred after a rough Ashes tour in Australia. Athletes shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of a trying circumstance around their mental health and perhaps this conversation will prove to be a kickstarter for that.

India’s ace archer Deepika Kumari had stressed on the need for mental conditioning, especially in the case of archers in her Netflix documentary – Ladies First. Unfortunately, not many paid heed to it. With a sportsperson of the size of Virat Kohli openly addressing the need for better mental health conditioning under the arc lights, means only more people learn about it. And hopefully, we’ll begin showing more empathy and sensitivity towards athletes when the results are not in their favour.

As the country’s (arguably) biggest sports star talks to us about the mental barriers of an international athlete, maybe we can finally see them for who they really are… human.