As India’s Shaili Singh leapt to the long jump silver at the U20 World Athletics Championships, one of the first thoughts to come to mind was ‘what next for her?’.
The prime reason for that thought process was the distance that Shaili Singh had leapt. It was a wind-assisted effort but still 6.59m is the kind of distance that should allow her – within a few years – to challenge the best in the world.
The youngster from Jhansi is just 17 and given that she is rising under the mentorship of coaches Robert Bobby George and Anju Bobby George, she will have the advantage of getting just the right kind of guidance. But still, one wonders, what next?
Germany’s Malaika Mihambo won the Tokyo Olympics women’s long jump gold with a leap of 7.00m. But even before that Shaili Singh’s first target would be to go past Anju Bobby George’s Indian national record of 6.83m. It requires her to step up quite a bit from where she is currently and it was in this context that one kept going back to Neeraj Chopra’s words just after he won the gold medal at Tokyo.
“In athletics, you develop slowly,” Chopra had said. “You give your 100% and the level of that 100 percent increases over time.”
The key word is slowly. Chopra had his setbacks too. The injuries, the surgery, the lack of competition but he stayed focussed and he stayed patient. He didn’t just want a high at the junior level. Rather, he wanted it all. The goal fuelled his progress and helped him through the tough times too.
But perhaps the biggest plus was how Chopra never quite seemed to be in a hurry. He didn’t want to start throwing 90m right away. He wanted to build it up slowly – the body and the technique had to be in sync and they both needed time to mature.
James Hillier, former National Coach and Athlete Development Manager for England Athletics, who is now Head Coach of Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High Performance Center, had touched upon the topic in a recent conversation with Scroll.in and he agrees with what Neeraj had to say.
“Athletics is a late-developing sport. Statistically, athletes tend to peak between the ages of 26 to 28,” said Hillier. “Of course, you get some high achievers that do very well when they are young… in their late teens or early twenties. But often, this is because of over-training and also perhaps because they have trained too hard and they get something called burnout. And burnout is the culmination of being psychologically exhausted from hard training and the body also not having any new stimuli.”
Indeed, we have seen many athletes impress at the junior level but then plateau at the senior level. For Shaili Singh, for Amit Khatri and for all the other Indian athletes at the U20 World Championships, the realisation that this is but a waypoint on the way to their greater goal is an important distinction to be made.
“So it is very important that we follow a long-term athlete development plan,” said Hillier. “In fact, there are seven stages in the athlete development plan. But as a coach, you try and work on specific things at specific ages.”
Hillier added: “For example, between the ages of 12 and 15, athletes should be working on mainly technical elements and general movement attributes related to athletics — running, jumping and throwing. When they are a bit older — between 16 and 21, then you want to start getting some success in the individual events. And then after 22-23 onwards, that is about peak performance.”
Anju Bobby George knows how important it is to give the right kind of stimuli. A one-month stint with the men’s long jump world record holder Mike Powell in 2003 just ahead of the World Championships was an eye-opener for the Indian champ and it opened up a whole world of opportunities for her.
She won a bronze medal at the 2003 World Champs, followed it up with a national record, that still stands, at Athens 2004 and then a gold medal at the 2005 IAAF World Athletics Final.
They were, of course, different times but it will be key for India to not let the U20 stars plateau. Anju Bobby George will be able to draw on her own experience and other Indian athletes can always look at Chopra’s growth chart for tips.
“The trick is always to keep providing some new stimuli to the body which allows for growth. If that doesn’t happen, then the performance will plateau,” said Hillier. “But it is not a ‘one size fits all’ scenario, there can be numerous reasons for an athlete to plateau— from personal life to injury to anything else.”
But in the end, the thing that coaches have to strive to do the most is create happy, focussed athletes.
“A happy athlete is a confident athlete,” said Hillier. “A confident athlete is a successful athlete and a confident athlete builds up something called belief and belief is the most powerful thing an athlete can have. It trumps everything else. So you try and get athletes to believe; believe in their own ability and believe they can be better than others.”
And that is why for all these youngsters, the greatest building block of all is belief. The performances at the U20 World Championships will have already put them on the right path but now it is up to the coaches and the athletes themselves to stay there. Well begun, as they say, is half done but in this particular case, half done pretty much feels like the starting line.
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