In need of a safe space: How Bengaluru FC aims to care about mental health

“The sport itself is a very result-oriented profession, so when you lose… it definitely puts you under immense pressure,” said a pensive Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

The 28-year-old has been the frontline goalkeeper of the nation for a little less than a decade now and was pivotal in India’s historic draw against Asian champions Qatar in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in September 2019. In the Indian Super League (ISL), he has recently won two consecutive Golden Glove awards amongst many other accolades, which clearly exemplifies the extent of his success.

Despite all the gold and the glitter of his career, the Chandigarh-born has had past instances of not being able to see himself in the mirror for days and crying alone after receiving verbal volleys from the crowd. Because of such instances, Sandhu often speaks up to raise awareness on the issue of mental health, especially in the sport of football where a certain stigma regarding mental strength rules large.

Supporting him, his club Bengaluru FC has made forward strides by recently hiring a mental health practitioner. In line with the “Care Around the Corner” initiative, which was launched on World Mental Health Day in October last year, the therapist aims to free up the weighed-down minds of players in any way possible.

Shedding some light on their campaign, Bengaluru FC media manager Kunaal Majgaonkar told, “If I were to get into specifics of how the thought of the programme came about, it was after I put down the book ‘A Life Too Short’ — the biography of German goalkeeper Robert Enke who took his life after battling depression and mental health issues for six years.”

After consulting with club CEO Mandar Tamhane, Majgaonkar set the wheels in motion for a well-researched programme that would grow season after season. As the first step of the process, Bengaluru FC hired Anjana Kothamachu, originally an expressive arts therapist, as the club’s mental health expert last year.

The 2018/19 ISL winning club aims to hold multiple group sessions in a bid to keep “making the players comfortable with the subject of mental health”. The players and staff can reach out directly to the expert for personal consultation sessions.

On the global stage, mental health has afflicted a number of professional footballers, ranging from former England icon Paul Gascoigne to legendary Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. More recently, players like Aaron Lennon, Bojan Krkic, and Jordon Ibe have opened up about battling sport-related stress.

Considering the taboo surrounding the issue, the Blues’ efforts to spearhead a campaign to change the culture in football is indeed praise-worthy.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is the first Indian to play in the UEFA Europa League. (Twitter/@bengalurufc)

The 2019/20 AIFF Player of the Year believes that the constant pressure of churning out results for the team often adversely affects the players on a mental level.

“It especially affects a team like us,” said Gurpreet. “Since we are so used to winning and doing well every season… if things don’t go our way, we don’t necessarily know how to react properly. To be able to bounce back from back-to-back defeats is something that requires a lot of positivity and productive feedback.”

“As for the hate messages on social media, personally, I have stopped paying attention to it because it’s no good for my mental health. I am not interested in what people’s opinions are about what I have to do on the pitch. The only opinion that matters is that of the coaching staff and the professionals at the club.”

Ever since its start in November last year, the Indian Super League 2020/21 season has been taking place inside a bio-secure bubble across three venues in Goa. So, is the period away from familiar smiles and known faces a thing to worry about?

“Being in a bio-bubble is an experience that is very much removed from anything in pre-COVID life… and the impact will surely vary. But some challenges are stress, anxiety, boredom; being stuck inside sometimes leads to feelings of isolation, and this along with being cut off from social contact can trigger emotional issues or bring back unresolved emotional challenges from past experiences,” said Bengaluru FC’s Mental Health Practitioner Anjana Kothamachu.

READ | ‘Losing Rs 25 crore a season difficult to sustain’: BFC to ISL founder

Adding solidity to the programme is the knowledge share provided by club partners Rangers FC on the subject, who have their own initiative called “Care Team”.

“Rangers have been lending us expertise and our mental health expert has been in touch with their staff to see how best we can grow this programme. They will soon be conducting a session with the squad over a video call,” said Majgaonkar.

“Bengaluru FC is completely committed to growing this programme over the next few months and CATC will most definitely be a permanent fixture. We soon intend to introduce this to our age-group teams too. We’re in for the long haul,” he added.

Even if it is a small step, Bengaluru FC’s initiative is already a giant leap in the right direction to raise awareness about mental health issues in sport in India. Hopefully, other teams and franchises across all sports will also provide help to those who desperately need it during a time that puts the word “testing” to the test.