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The Olympic Games is an arena where experience accumulated the hard way can be useful in bringing out the best in talent. There is no assurance of victory in sport. The possibility of a career-best performance is high with a guiding hand, acutely aware of keeping the performer’s mind calm amidst the excitement and focussed on factors in control. Pistol shooter Manu Bhaker is the young sportsperson in the frame, slated to participate in three events at Tokyo 2021. The teenage talent worked with coach Ronak Pandit in the Croatian city, Zagreb, ahead of the flight to Tokyo in time for the Olympics.
The latter got a first-hand look at the pistol shooting competition during London Olympics 2012 and Rio Olympics 2016, in his capacity as personal coach to Heena Sidhu, his wife and India’s entry in the pistol events. Armed with experience ranging from preparation to competition, he is now part of the coaches’ core group. The current world number two in the 10m pistol, Manu is being guided by him. The 19-year-old is also taking part in 25m pistol and mixed event (partnering men’s 10m pistol participant and another teen sensation, Saurabh Chaudhary, in the mixed event).
Working with one-time world number one, Heena, took the shooter-coach duo to different places in search of persons with different inputs to get the former primed for competition. Ronak, a Commonwealth Games
2006 standard pistol gold medallist (paired with CWG hero Samaresh Jung), is of the view that working with a talent as gifted as Manu, as daring as a 19-year-old can be, is an unique assignment. There are expectations on the teenager who was a Youth Olympics champion in 2018, but those have to be taken in stride.
Ronak started working with her in March 2021. “Manu and I started working together very recently. It has been a very short while. I think we have made some good progress.” Asked if anything new was tried out in Zagreb, based on his past experience, he said in an interaction from there: “There wasn’t any need to try out anything.
She is already a very accomplished shooter. The main focus was on ensuring that we are able to perform under stressful situations. There was more training for the finals, discussions on how the mind affects the body and how we could manage the mind better so it would let the body execute the technique.”
He and CWG partner and India ace Samaresh, will guide the pistol shooters (Manu, Saurabh, Abhishek Verma, Yashaswini Deswal, Rahi Sarnobat). “One of the things the shooters are told is that we don’t need personal best at the Olympic Games. We just need our usual performance. Just stay focused on the process and do not try to overdo anything. The pressure is more at the Olympics and you may get one or two shots in 9, even when you think the attempt was perfect. That is fine. Just keep your mind on the process and keep it at, things will work out. In trying to be perfect, we overdo and get upset and nervous over one or two 9s and that is what throws you off track.”
He spoke about the mindset a competitor needs to adopt. “A shooter should know herself/himself very well. Are you the kind who enjoys the extra pressure or are you better off without it? Expectation, if any, should be from your own self, to be able to execute the process reasonably well. Perfection is not required in the Olympics, good is good enough.”
London 2012 saw him at debutant Heena Sidhu’s side, a lesson for both which continued four years later at Rio. Ronak is aware of the situation debutant Manu Bhaker will face. She delivered for India in the majors – Asian Championships 2019, World Cup 2021.
Tokyo 2021 is a bigger stage, compared to them all. Based on the experience of watching and planning at London and Rio, the coach
states: “Technically I have been sound and by now know about what is in store (for Manu Bhaker and other first-timers slated to compete at
Tokyo) and can prepare them accordingly. If you see based on the looks of it, the range is similar, the same event, same gun, same target.
The word ‘OLYMPICS’ and those five rings is what changes everything in your mind. The Olympic Games aura is such that the moment you land in that country, you are overwhelmed by everything around you.”
Talking about the focus area for Indian shooters when the competition begins, he explains: “We want to be responsible, but not distracted.
We coaches have had informal chats with shooters, letting them know of our experiences at the previous Games we attended, about the shooting range, the Olympic Village, etc. so that there are no surprises for them when we are in Tokyo. We keep our communication and analysis restricted to the quality of execution and not its value (score/result). It will help the shooters to remain process-oriented, which will help in their result.”
Pandit does not see any difficulty in Manu taking part in three events. “She started her international career in 2018 and right since then has been shooting three events. I think it is the most normal thing for her. Manu doesn’t know any other way of competing. She has done that in every World Cup thereafter, the same will happen at Tokyo. No need to do anything special. The key is to recover quickly and be physically and mentally fully sharp for the next event. We have a one day rest in between at Tokyo, so it should all work out fine. We will take it one day at a time.”
The pistol and rifle shooters flew from Zagreb directly to Tokyo. The skeet shooters and coach flew in from Rome, Italy. “When we left India in May, the situation was very bad and it did not seem like we would be able to return without a two-week institutional quarantine.
Mentally we were prepared to go directly to Tokyo,” explained Ronak.
“The situation is better but coming back and flying out would just tire us out more. Anyone coming from India is supposed to isolate for three days in Japan, test daily seven days prior to arriving. Entry procedures are tougher, it made perfect sense to travel directly.”