How Jerome Vinith managed his mental health during the pandemic

In 2014-15, when volleyball player Jerome Vinith was on a six-month player camp away from home, he began to crave familiar food from his home in Tamil Nadu. “I kept thinking: when will I have a dose or sambar or white rice? most wanted kanji (boiled rice water). The bread was so boring. I began to wonder: Wouldn’t I get a break at all? We were in this same room all the time, like machines…”

It is periods like these that test the determination of a competitive athlete, used to spending a lot of time away from home and family. Furthermore, like several athletes who found themselves with a loose end when the pandemic hit, and the subsequent lockdown, in 2020-21, Jerome too mourned the loss of two years. Age is important to an athlete because he has limited years at the peak of his athletic ability.

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“During covid, some institutions like (employers) BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd) helped me to continue practicing at their gym, ground. I never stopped training, at home or on the ground. But during this time, college and school level players were severely affected,” says the 6’5” tall player who plays the universal role on the team.

With the various restrictions from past seasons, including bio-bubbles, Jerome says he’s never faced a situation like this before, being in a room, hotel, or land with limited exposure to the outside world. To stay focused, he read motivational books in Tamil and watched matches and tournaments. “Personally, I don’t get bored in a bubble,” he says. Drawing and painting was another energizing exercise. He found doing something with a blank sheet of paper rewarding.

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The 29-year-old, who spent much of his teenage years working on his parents’ farm in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district, only learned volleyball in his second year of college in 2011. He didn’t play much in school because he wasn’t high enough In college, he learned to play the game, channel his aggression when needed, and fight the urge to hit back at other players in confrontational situations. “I never look at the other player after a block. I concentrate on my work. You don’t focus on others”, he explains how he maintains control while playing a fast and intense team sport.

The highlight of his career came soon after, winning the 2013 Tamil Nadu senior men’s state volleyball championship with SRM University, the first university team to do so, with Jerome starring in the final against Indian Overseas Bank. Shortly after, he won the senior teams as part of the Tamil Nadu team and was selected for India, among 21 players in the camp for the Asian Games.

The other peak of his career was winning the Asian Cup silver medal with the Indian team. He says, laughing, that there was no celebration at the moment. “We really can’t do anything like that. We went home, all of us. It’s not like the cricket team.”

Also read: The mental health of Indian athletes

Like most international athletes, the lowest phases of his career came from an injury, in 2012 with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and another in 2016, with two operations on the same leg. “I didn’t understand my future, I felt blinded,” he says, recalling the first time he was out of the sport for eight months. “I was learning (volleyball when the first one happened). I dropped out of college to play (sports professionally).”

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He came out of this phase convincing himself that the only way out for him was to get back on the pitch. “There was no other option. He had no money, the only thing he had in his hand was this,” he says.

Jerome, who will play for Calicut Heroes in the inaugural Volleyball First League that starts on February 5 in Hyderabad, considers Ukkarapandian Mohan of the rival team Chennai Blitz as one of his mentors, having played with him on the Indian team. “Whatever you want, I can ask you as a means of support,” says Jerome.

“I believe in myself, so I can deal with these pressure situations,” he adds, about playing the sport competitively. “I know that the (difficult) situation will come at any moment, but it will make me better than before. I have no source besides volleyball, that teaches everything.”

Although not particularly religious, Jerome says he likes going to different places of worship because they make him feel better and give him energy.

He also likes everything about sports but, “We don’t really understand everything, do we? I could want this or that or the other. You have to be happy with whatever it is. I give my 100 percent in everything I do. Volleyball has made me who I am: I never mind traveling or worrying,” he says. “When I play, I forget about the world.”

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