Neeraj Chopra: Treading cautiously

Nihal Koshie
Neeraj Chopra finished with a below-par effort of 80.81m. (Source: File Photo)

After a meeting on Wednesday evening at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala - between javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, high-performance director Volker Herrmann and bio-mechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz - the 21-year-old athlete was advised to pull out of the Open Nationals, a competition he had forwarded his entry for after a prolonged injury lay-off.

For the past five weeks, Chopra has been transitioning his technique to prevent recurrence of the elbow injury which needed surgery in May. The experts who spoke to Chopra feared that he would revert to type during competition as he hadn't yet mastered the suggested modifications in his technique.

Read | In and out: Neeraj Chopra told to withdraw from Open nationals at the 11th hour

Going back to the old technique in the heat of competition could have resulted in an injury with the Tokyo Olympics less than a year away. Chopra eventually saw the logic and agreed to postpone his comeback.

One of the key decision-makers, Herrmann talks about the rationale behind the safety-first option. “Neeraj is doing very well in training right now. In training, he also did a couple of throws of 79-80 metres. The only problem is that in training, all the throws that he is doing are more or less in a relaxed way. Usually when you try and improve your technique, you are throwing at 90-95 per cent. If the changes have not been internalised and in competition you go all out at 100 per cent (effort), there is a chance that instead of using the new technique you actually use the old technique,” Herrmann told The Indian Express.

“It is not that he is not in form to compete, but there is always a risk of injury if you fall back to the old technique when competing. That is the only thing we wanted to avoid.”

In February, coach Uwe Hohn had explained how Neeraj had injured his elbow. “His throwing arm was always a bit too low, so there was more stress on the elbow during almost every throw, which build up to an almost permanent inflammation, which is painful and can lead to more serious injuries,” he had said.

Neeraj has begun recalibrating his technique to reduce the risk of injury to a joint vital for javelin throwers. Hermann elaborates the improvements Neeraj is making.

“The injury to his elbow was because during the last steps, his throwing arm dropped a bit. And if the elbow drops, there will be a massive load on the elbow joint. To make it bio-mechnically more efficient, we have to ensure that Neeraj actually keeps his arm higher than the shoulder level during the cross-steps when you prepare for the release. If he is able to do this, he will have less problems with elbow injuries in the future,” Herrmann said.

The Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold medallist is also working on blocking his left shoulder at the time of release to enable him to apply more force to the javelin. Increasing the speed of his run-up and maintaining flexibility, while simultaneously increasing strength training, is also on Chopra's to-do list before he makes a comeback early next year.

“Neeraj is an athlete who depends a lot on his flexibility so that is one of the key things we are working on maintaining. He is a very fast athlete and has a very fast arm and such athletes need a smooth movement when it comes to mobility. That is something we are trying to improve with the physios right now. So when he increases his intensity in strength training, he should retain the flexibility,” Herrmann added. The javelin thrower is yet to qualify for the Tokyo Games and will begin his quest with a one-month camp in Europe — from mid-November — before moving to South Africa early next year where he will make his comeback. “By January, he will be going to a training camp in South Africa and by then he would have done 400 to 500 more throws, which means his technique would have become stable and there would be no risk of injury,” the high-performance director said. “I fully understand his eagerness to participate because he is a young athlete and he has not been able to throw for six months, and it is never easy to just train at this level and not compete. It is not an easy situation but I think he knows he needs to be patient.”

Chopra is hoping to gain entry to the first Diamond League competition of 2020 which is likely to be in May. The qualifying standard for the men's javelin for the Olympics is fixed at 85 metres.

At the just-concluded IAAF World Championships in Doha, the gold medal went to Grenada's Anderson Peters, who registered a distance of 86.69 metres. Chopra’s personal best stands at 88.06 metres.

Chopra has been following his peers on television during his injury timeout.

“I watched the men's javelin throw final at the world championships. In the competition, there were throwers who have thrown over 90 metres. So it all depends on what happens on that particular day. You can never say what distance will get you a medal,” Chopra said.

He admits he was keen to compete at the Open Nationals but following the advice that came his way, has reconciled to having to wait for a few more months before starting his quest to qualify for the Olympics — using an improved technique to help him significantly reduce the risk of the elbow injury reoccurring.