Gurpreet Singh Sandhu wants you to talk

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, goalkeeper of the Indian National Team and Bengaluru FC, wants to change the conversation around mental health in Indian sports. Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

What Gurpreet Singh Sandhu really misses doing is buying onions.

It may sound silly, but after spending one and a half ISL seasons and one AFC Cup group stage in secure bio-bubbles across the past year, all India's best goalkeeper wants to do is live a "normal" life.

"In a normal footballing environment you train, you go your separate ways, you [go home] and you spend your time with your family, friends. You can go out, buy groceries... Just normal things. Every single person has different ways of coping with things. Mine was to live a normal life, doing normal chores... vacuuming my apartment, cleaning my kitchen, things like that made me not think about football all the time."

"[Back in Bengaluru], I used to cycle to training. I'd be cycling back and be like "yaar, pyaaz hi nahi hain ghar pe.' [I don't have any onions at home] And I'll just go buy some! That was my way to disconnect from it, that was the beauty of being outside."

In the sanitised, insular world of the bio-bubble, this is fantasy.

"It is so difficult to take that mental break." The more you try, the harder it becomes, he says, because "then you think about the reason you are here. If you are walking past someone's room, you remember this is your teammate here and that a match is going to happen soon." Even when he does manage to focus his thoughts elsewhere, once in his room, it's immediately brought back. "It is a small room and every other second I see my gloves and my boots hanging there on the balcony and that makes me think of it again and again."

This is not to say he doesn't appreciate what the league is doing for the players' safety or that he doesn't realise his good fortune in being able to do what he loves for a job. He just feels it's important to note that even when you are happy, even when things are going well, it's okay to feel down, to miss something, to want more. It's why he is comfortable saying that being in a bio-bubble is "really, really taxing mentally" for him. "I have a life outside football which is really getting hammered."


Footballers' mental health is a topic quite close to Gurpreet's heart. Scroll through his, or his club's, social media and there will always be small snippets with him talking about how important it is.

It's an uncommon practice in the world of alpha-athletes which he inhabits, where opening up about one's problems can often be considered a sign of weakness - but that makes it an even more important task. "People don't welcome talk like that in dressing rooms, so it's important for us to take that responsibility and talk more about it."

"A lot of players make mistakes, man," says Gurpreet. "I don't think there will ever be a run of perfect matches you'll watch on a weekend anywhere. It's important to be there for [the players who make those mistakes], to let them know it's fine. If they feel like talking about it or if they feel like reaching out to a professional who knows so much about this, they can."

This comes into sharp focus, especially because of the position he plays. Goalkeeping is an unforgiving gig, a uniquely isolated position in a team sport, and yet extremely high profile. Make a mistake and you can lose a match. Make any number of excellent saves, you merely save it. Winning - and the plaudits that go with it - is left to the ones who score the goals, not stop them. If you have a busy day, it's invariably because your team played poorly. If not, you have to find a way to stay constantly alert even when the ball is nowhere near you.

That this ISL season has been defined by goalkeeping mistakes, including a couple from Gurpreet himself, just serves to underline just how much pressure they go through.

Gurpreet agrees that it can be lonely out there. "It does come to mind that there is a lot of responsibility on a goalkeeper's shoulders. During the game, I try to keep myself involved in the game, even if the ball is not coming to me, but I try to speak a lot." Those who've watched him in action know what he's talking about. Even when the West Block Blues and co are at their loudest, you can always hear Gurpreet yelling instructions, admonishments and praise to his colleagues. "If you come to Goa, you'll hear it a lot more," he says with a laugh.

Add to all this, the pressure of keeping your place in the team. While an outfielder can always get rotated in, goalkeepers are rarely changed. If you're no.1, you play. If not, you sit. Gurpreet has been #1 for club and country for a long, long time now and he doesn't plan on vacating that spot anytime soon.

"It's a difficult situation, obviously. That's where I love the challenge. If everything were to be happy and jolly, it wouldn't be fun. I'm glad that there's competition for the job that I have. I was doing the same when someone else had the spot. When Subrata [Pal] bhai had it. I had that desire and hunger to get that spot and once I had it, only I know and people who have had it know how difficult it is to keep it."

So Gurpreet looks at the positives. "I try to guide from behind because I can see what other players can't. That's the best thing about being a goalkeeper, the view is amazing. I just try to make use of it, mentally be in the game even when you are not being involved with the ball. That's something I've learnt with experience. It's very easy, being a goalkeeper, to get distracted or lose your concentration or focus in the game, especially when you are dominating the game."

It's that experience, he says, that has also helped him handle mistakes.

"You're a human and you are prone to making mistakes. Over the years, I've made plenty of them. Earlier in my career I used to not deal with them in the best of ways. Especially if you make one early in a game - if you're not focused enough, if you've not worked on it or have a plan - you'll slip down that slippery slope and make more mistakes. There have been games where I did do that, which didn't help me, or the team."

For him, this realisation comes from hard experience, and a lot of self-work - which is where he feels the discussion of mental health comes in. "There should be room for [discussion], where [every player has] that comfort zone where they are not judged on these things and they can talk about it, or be encouraged."

He is so vocal about this because it was not the case early on in his career. "No one told us about it. There was no education about how to deal with things like that. Trial and error, test and fail, and do it again... that's how it was."

The lack of judgement-free zones is not limited to football. Over the last couple of years, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara have both spoken out about Indian cricket's culture of silence. Aakash Chopra has spoken about the fear professionals have when it comes to opening up.

"When I joined BFC and when I was in Norway," says Gurpreet, "these were the places that helped me so much in terms of relying on your [support] ecosystems that you build around yourself. Be it your partner, family, teammates you can talk to. That's why you see so many big players with entourages. They have people who they can speak to." At Bengaluru FC, he feels the club is the entourage. "We have players and staff who work on that. They have provided that zone where you can talk about it and move on, move forward. That's the main point."

That support system is something that needs to be consciously developed, whether in team sport or individual. Abhinav Bindra and Suma Shirur, for instance, have been vocal about the urgent need for a structured support system to protect the mental health of India's young shooters. BFC's sister concern, Haryana Steelers, of the Pro Kabaddi League, have hired a sports psychologist to handle the mental stress of athletes returning to a high-pressure environment after a two-year break.

For Gurpreet, it helped that last year BFC started a dedicated 'Care Around the Corner' programme with a trained psychologist helping their players. "[Last season] there were times where I reached out just to sit and have a gauge of what a player can do to survive this. Even if you feel like you know everything, you don't. That's where a professional comes in and helps you so much. I was so glad I spent those hours with [the Care programme]. It gave me so many productive assessments and things that I could do to stay mentally sharp, things that I can do after the game to de-escalate or to prepare for a game."


De-escalation, says Gurpreet, is key.

"There are times when after games players usually don't sleep. They keep thinking about the game, especially after a loss. [Even if it's after] almost winning or drawing the game, you mentally can't let it go. That's where help is paramount, knowing how to de-escalate from that situation is so important. As professionals, we go out there every three-four-five days to a new situation so it's important to be ready for it mentally."

Shots will continue to be taken at you, mistakes will keep happening, you will have to continue to pass it out, charge outside your box, take risks. Without de-escalation, none of this is possible.

"Over the years, I have worked on it and I have found ways to deal with it - be it writing about it or completely setting myself away from all the negativity and the talk for some time; giving myself some time after the game, especially after a loss, to sit on it and to let the process come and let it flow.. When you are ready for positive or constructive feedback, that's when you talk to your coaches and see what you can do to improve it."

Different techniques work for different individuals, says Gurpreet. For instance, if he's not journaling, he sketches (rather well) or reads. Outside the bubble, when the world was normal, he would go for long drives after matches, but whether in a bubble or not, Gurpreet feels the most important thing is that you do something. Anything. "You can't just sit in a room and shut yourself and not do anything. That's when [your mental strength] deteriorates."

It's this fine balance of pressure and health that Gurpreet wants his fellow footballers, teammates and across the league, to focus on.

He just wants everyone to talk.

In that ideal world, Vinesh Phogat wouldn't have to ask how India would react to an Olympic athlete saying that they are not mentally ready for an event.

"This is something that has been neglected for so many years and there has been so much stigma to it," says Gurpreet. "And people have been shamed for expressing their emotions or not dealing with it properly. That's where I think we all need to take responsibility and talk about it. Not everyone can deal with the situation in the right way, or can do it properly. Whoever needs help, whoever needs to talk, they should talk. The most important thing is to know that it's okay to do it. Anything which helps you become better is something that should be done and should be celebrated."

He advocates avoiding the cesspool of toxicity that certain sections of social media can become. He just wants everyone to realise that what you say "actually affects a person. It's not a bot that you've just posted a comment on." Abuse shouldn't be normalised; "no one signed a contract saying that I have to deal with the abuse that I get on social media."

Bio-bubbles, social media abuse, the mental strain, the essential loneliness of his position on the field... if he could go back and talk to a young Gurpreet, would he still have grown up to be a footballer, a goalkeeper?

"Absolutely! It's been very enjoyable. Not a lot of people in our world get the opportunity to do something which they love and actually earn bread and provide shelter for themselves."

"I would just tell my younger self to start recognising himself more because I started to do that at a very late age in my career. I would really love to have been more self-aware, start to self-educate myself earlier because that's the only way. You are on this earth and you need to grasp as much as you can about the world around you. That's the only way to live."