It was midnight in India on 14th July 2019 when Federer was serving for his 9th Wimbledon Title, with 3 Championship points (40-0) in a match that had already clocked almost 5 hours. If you had fallen asleep at that moment you would have been forgiven to assume that Federer had won the title. 

Ask Adwait, our next pathbreaker and he would have disagreed, for the right reasons. One, the man on the other side was Novak Djokovic and two, Adwait is a Sports Psychologist! 

Read on to know how he works with Players to mentally condition them to be face such situations.

Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal speaks to Adwait about his journey in the field of Sports Psychology

Adwait, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a small village in Konkan and then moved to Mumbai for higher studies after completing 10th. Right since my childhood, sports always fascinated me. Whether it was playing a sport or simply watching it. I was always actively involved in sports. Played a variety of sports during school days as well as college. Since my father is also a sports enthusiast he always encouraged me to participate and more importantly without putting any pressure of achieving results. Mother was equally supportive. I played sports such as kabaddi, hockey, badminton and boxing at competitive levels. Primary focus was on Boxing which I also played at national level. I completed my graduation and post graduation in Psychology while continued to participate in competitions.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

I was never a very confident person and this would reflect in my game as well. I used to get nervous for very small reasons and this would often affect my performance badly. My coach Mr. Krishna Dass thought of me as a sincere, hardworking and physically skillful player. But despite of having (above average) physical skills, I could never perform optimally during competitions owning to poor mental attitude. This was the main reason why I started taking interest in Sport Psychology, so that I could understand what made me perform poorly in competitions and help other athletes overcome difficulties of similar nature. At the time when I started working in this field, there were hardly any Sport or Performance Psychologists. This boosted my interest even further.

Tell us about your career path

I was quite clueless about how to get into this field and find work. A large section of sports fraternity was (or even today, is) unaware of psychologists working in sports. Even books on this subject were not available. During my final year of Masters (MA part 2) I started contacting Sport and Exercise Psychologists from other countries to understand the nature of their work. During this period, I also had started conducting workshops and other group discussions for Boxers and Taekwondo players. Because of my sports background it was easier to approach them.

I also started contacting some people in India who were working on mental aspects of athletes (but were not psychologists by profession). Later on, got opportunities to observe their work on few occasions but I wasn’t satisfied with their approach as it didn’t seem very scientific to me. Everything was just general, vague and objectiveless. Hence, I started working with other psychologists (especially clinical psychologists) and interacting with other known/reputed sport psychologists, with an intent to develop my own module. Simultaneously I was approaching many sports academies hoping to get some opportunity to work with their athletes. 

After trying to persuade many coaches for several months I finally got my first break at PDP tennis academy in 2010 where the head coach Mr. Kedar Tembe allowed me to conduct workshops with players and parents. Subsequently few players enrolled for the mental conditioning program and that’s how I started.  After that in the year 2012, one of the leading Tennis Academies in Maharashatra and now in India, “Tennis Excellence” appointed me as a Sport Psychologist. I was also doing voluntary work for Maharashtra Police Sports Control Board, Maharashtra Taekwondo Association, KD’s Boxing Academy etc.

What were the challenges? How did u address them?

Lack of awareness among coaches, players and parents. People knew the importance of mental aspect of the game but had very low awareness regarding sport psychology. After a while I realized this is less of a challenge and more of an opportunity because if people have realized the importance of being mentally strong in sports then awareness regarding the profession and the professionals can be created. Hence, I started conducting more workshops cum awareness programs for players, coaches and most importantly parents at various sports institutions. Tried to communicate how a more scientific approach would help the players enhance performance.

 Players’ attitude or approach towards sports. Many a times I find that players are willing to spend extra time on field or in the gym but they spend less time on the actual issues bothering them. To develop mental skills, one has to put in extra mental efforts and the changes are not directly visible. Also, these changes are often slow and one requires persistence. Players are mostly willing to do extra physical work but not willing to invest extra efforts into developing the right mental attitude. To ensure that the players are more committed to develop the necessary mental skills, now we focus more on ‘on field/on court’ learning of these skills and simulations than the oral discussions.

What do you do currently?

Presently as a Sport Psychologist am working at the Otters club Bandra, National Sports Club of India Worli, Cricket Club of India Churchgate and PracTennis Andheri. 

What problems do you solve?

I work on behavioral and emotional concerns of the players which include learning to control or manage various emotions, changing/modifying behaviors which are counterproductive and learning positive self talks. My work also includes introducing mental skills that will facilitate technical learning of the players.

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

Patience, good observation skills, empathy and most importantly good communication skills. Observation skills I developed even as a player by observing other players either directly or in videos. I also read a lot about other players; their habits, their success and failure, and overall their stories. This has helped me sharpen my skills to a great extent. My patience and communication skills were really poor and hence during my early days of practice I spent more time and efforts in developing these skills.

What is a typical day like?

I am also a professor of psychology at a college. My work as a sport psychologist starts in the afternoon. In a day I visit at least one sports academy depending upon my consultation days. There are days when I have to visit multiple academies. Work starts around 3 pm and ends around 7:30 pm. This includes interacting with players and coaches. Discussing assignments and progress with players, reviewing the work and planning daily goals, then monitoring their performance and ensuring they have worked on the assignment given to them. Then taking feedbacks from players so that the next plan can be prepared and lastly preparing reports. 

What is it you love about this job? 

EVERYTHING. Literally everything. Interacting with players, getting to know them closely, watching them grow or improve (and also the pay)

How does your work benefit the society? 

The work that I do is not only limited to a player’s performance in sports but also can be generalized to other areas of their life. When a player becomes positive and confident, they also become positive and confident as a person. These positive changes enhance their growth and well-being even when they take up other careers. When they realize the importance of hard-work, persistence, optimism it helps them fight stress and keep negative influences such as drug addiction or substance abuse away.

Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

That way every player I worked with is special for me but just to give an example I will talk about this 13 year old boy. This was in 2012 when I was working with tennis players and I was introduced to this exceptionally talented boy by his coaches. This boy had many achievements on his name at a very young age and had won many tournaments (Tennis players start playing at a very young age, as early as 5 or 6). But due to lack of growth of height he had started developing an inferiority complex (had average height but many other players in the academy and tennis circuit were way taller than him). He was low on confidence, had temperament issues and consequently had started performing poorly during competitions. He was ranked somewhere close to 100 in the country when we started the work. Coaches had estimated that if things go as planned, he should up his rank by at least 25-30 by the end of the season. During the initial sessions we started identifying the major areas to be addressed in his psychological performance and designed an action plan. Some of these areas were his lack of ability to control attention on the game, negative self-talk, other irrational beliefs and high arousal. The action plan included strengthening concentration by using cue words and concentration exercises, self-affirmations through hypnotherapy, modifying irrational beliefs through questioning and learning various relaxation techniques such as abdominal and deep progressive muscle relaxation. Periodic performance and outcome goals were set.

Since the child was highly motivated, regular practice of these skills wasn’t an issue. Along with regular practice of the skills there were simulations created and his performance was also monitored during actual tournaments. When the season ended, this player had achieved rank in 40s which meant an improvement by almost 60 rank positions. Today this boy is ranked in top 20 in the country in men’s category.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Don’t expect anything to come easy. Be prepared to work hard and be persistent in chasing your dreams.

Future Plans?

PhD in sport psychology and work with national teams. If possible also teach at National Institute of Sports.