Can you tell us about your background?
The city of Lucknow erupted into a frenzy at the sound of a hooter on 18th December 2016. Indian hockey had finally done it – winning the Junior World Cup after a period of 15 years.
Whilst, many might think the rise was sudden, the truth, however, was totally different. The foundations for this success had been laid well ahead. Harendra Singh, the coach of the hockey team oversaw the team for over a year and within this time he made sure that the team was prepared not only physically but also mentally to take on the world’s best.
Enter Mreenal Chakraborty. The Mental Toughness Trainer of the Indian Junior national hockey team had the unenviable job of touching the intangibles. To embed within the team a belief that they were certainly the best.
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“We dream the same dream. We think the same thing. We are a dream team. We are the Indian team. We are a champion team. We are bound to win.”
The above motto was engraved into the hearts of the Indian junior team. It was in their mind and soul, and surely enough by the end of the Junior World Cup, they had shown that they truly were a champion team.
A sportsperson in heart and soul, Mreenal Chakraborty also had a dream of wearing the Blue of the Indian national hockey team once. Having started his hockey career quite early, Chakraborty showed potential and caught the attention of scouts.
A batchmate of Dilip Tirkey at SAI, he was quickly roped in by the Railways.
“My dream was to play for my country. But that never came true. I think I gave it a lot but somehow I guess I was not as focussed as I needed to get to the big stage,” said the now master of the mind.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
His playing days were soon brought to an end when Chakraborty injured his right knee and ruptured both the ligament as well as cartilage. However, that proved to be a turning point in his life.
“I was lost at that moment. Hockey was all I know and it was slipping away. But thankfully at that point of time, my life was changed by my spiritual guru, who got to know about my passion for sports.
“It was under his guidance that I decided to take a leap into the field of ‘sports motivation’ and ‘youth motivation’. And that was the direction I decided to take my life towards. I wanted to serve sports as well as the country and this provided me with the perfect platform,” quips the 42-year-old.
What did you study?
Chakraborty then enrolled himself at Cambridge University in Human Resources management where he researched on performance management and how motivation works in the field of sports with the help of mental and spiritual quotient. Under the renowned Richard Bandler (whose influence in the world of sports has been evident on the likes of Lionel Messi, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps), Chakraborty learnt the science of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
“This is something India and Indian sports, in general, haven’t taken much seriously till recently and our performances at the big events are a testament to this,” says a disappointed Chakraborty.
Following his fine work in the UK for which he became the first Indian to win the 10 Trimo International Award from Slovenia (for his research paper – “How motivation enhances Performance through Emotional Quotient and Spiritual Quotient”), Chakraborty was offered a chance to continue his work at the University of Mainz in Germany. But his want to work towards working for the country led him back to the nation.
How does a psychologist help?
Hockey India appointed Chakraborty for its junior national squad two years ago. Looking forward to the junior World Cup championship, being held in Lucknow, Hockey India wanted the juniors to come to a shape to become champions. India has not won a Junior World Cup in last 11 years.
Harender Singh who has been training juniors for a long time observed that these junior boys are extremely talented, but they have mental obstructions as most of them had come up fighting against poverty and different kinds of social obstacles.
That is why they could not deliver their best. When Chakraborty joined the junior national camp in Shilaru two years ago, he found several players had been struggling with building up their mental strength.
Chakarborty, speaking over phone from Bengaluru, on Friday said, “For example I can say about Harjit Singh, the captain of the Indian team. His father is a truck driver. He had to make huge struggle in his early days while learning the game at a local hockey coaching center.
After having joined the camp I noticed Harjit, despite having sheer talent, remained gloomy. The only thought he has was how he could improve the financial condition of his family.”
Chakraborty spoke of another promising player in the team Arman Kureshi.
The psychologist said, “His father is a butcher by profession. And his family initially created a lot of obstructions for Arman to play hockey. Arman was always shaky as he thought he would have to go back home to join his father’s profession.
So, I started talking to them separately and inspired them by saying, they must have to think positive even in extreme crisis. That is the only way to strengthen mind.”
Can you tell us about your other stints?
After coming back to the country, he started working with the women’s national football team. After working with a number of different associations and players, two and half years ago, Harendra Singh roped him in to build the mental aptitude of the youngsters through NLP.
“We have seen the cricket team hire sports psychologists in the past and the result these days are in front of you. And this is the kind of transformation I wanted to see in the hockey world,” says Chakraborty. “Whatever we had done in the past was without the application of sports science.”
”I teach NLP and it’s a method of training your brain that is undertaken by all the big stars of the world including champions like Michael Phelps.”
And it certainly did work. Time and again we have seen our stars, especially in the hockey field, falter at the most crucial of moments. However, in the Junior World Cup, at every time of asking, the Blueshirts’ mental fortitude stood the test.
Whether it was the come-from-behind win in the quarterfinals against Spain or the win on penalties over Australia in the semis – the young boys in blue kept their cool and brought positive results. Their limbs didn’t give up as the mind was clear, all thanks to their brilliant conditioning.
But Chakraborty doesn’t want to stop here. He is working with athletes and sports bodies around the nation and wants to really bring out the true potential in them. He has now been summoned by the Table Tennis Federation of India to work with their players for the upcoming Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.
He will also be working with TATA sponsored archers, Dipika Kumari and Jayanta Talukdar, regarding their mental conditioning.
His method has been appreciated by many including the likes of Indian sporting stalwarts like PR Sreejesh and Sardar Singh.
However, it’s not the same everywhere.
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
“I have been met with rejections as well. Some well-known athletes, whose name I can’t disclose have rejected the idea of opening up to me. I have also been asked to do short term projects.
“But it just doesn’t happen like that. It’s only after an emotional connect can I truly put in a change within a player. They may be fearing getting judged by a stranger. So I have to get that trust factor going if I and the player together can make a real change.
“I don’t have a magic wand. And that is something people around sports in India need to understand.”
The need for sports science and sports psychology in today’s modern day is still pretty underrated. However, it is something that is getting recognition with each passing day as we start to realise that we have to build players’ ability to handle the tough situations.
And as we go forward, Mreenal Chakraborty hopes to get a helping hand in his fight.
“I hope ex-players get involved in sports psychology as well. People used to use the services of mere psychologists before – people with no knowledge of sports. The branch of sports psychology is a niche field. And people are slowly realising that. I hope that the ex-players get involved in the psychological coaching of the sports stars of tomorrow.
“They have tons of experience and have faced these challenges better. So I hope this facet of the sports is taken seriously by the former Indian players. We need them as well.”