Indian shooter Heena Sidhu does not hold much back, whether shooting the target at the range or talking about her sport.
Not many top athletes would be as straightforward while discussing their under-performance at the Olympics, a scathing assessment of their weaknesses, especially when they are on a sort of high after winning back-to-back titles.
The 27-year-old has just returned to the city after grabbing the mixed team gold in the ISSF World Cup in Gabala, Azerbaijan with Jitu Rai, there second successive title in the event. And while she is obviously elated with the performance, the former world number one is well aware that it is no more than a step in reaching the ultimate goal of an Olympic medal.
The 2020 Tokyo Games are still three years away and the qualification period hasn’t even started. But it is the assessment of the 2012 performance that still remains the talking point as the Abhinav Bindra-led committee had quite a few remarks to make about Sidhu’s mental preparation and the way ahead.
“I agree with the report, he [Abhinav Bindra] and his committee had opinions about individual athletes, the federation and the government. It was a very well researched report, they did their homework, talking with everyone, they didn’t just sit in their office and come up with it,” Sidhu told The Field at her home in Goregaon.
In Sidhu’s case, the report by the review committee identified three major concerns – lack of clarity of thought, absence of a mentor and the fact that she chose to focus on both 10m air pistol and 25m sport pistol.
It was a comprehensive, blunt, “ruthless” review, and Sidhu was equally forthright in her response. “When we talk about my particular assessment, it’s something me and Abhinav and Manisha [Malhotra] had a talk about. It’s not that this is what is going wrong, these were their opinions. But I always believe that someone more experienced than me is looking at me from a perspective I can’t see. I did think about it and I have worked on lot of things,” she said.
Why would I give up 25m?
Keeping this is mind, she was prepared to give up the 25m sport pistol but changed her decision a few months.
“I did consider dropping an event and for two months I did not shoot sport pistol. I just worked on air pistol and I thought that maybe because there is a difference between the feeling of both the events, some problems are coming up in air pistol,” she admitted.
At the Rio Olympics, she finished 20 in the qualification of 25m pistol, two days after she finished 14 in the 10m air pistol qualification – an event she is stronger in.
However, the experiment did not work and that forced Sidhu to change her mind. “For those two months, nothing happened, the air pistol was just stagnant. So it was not that it was this event that was hampering my performance, it’s just that we were not training in the right way, we hadn’t really identified the problem areas. We started working on that and even though I am doing three events now, the air pistol scores have come up and even my sport pistol score was good. I was the best among the Indian women even though I had trained for just five days before the World Cup match,’ she elaborated.
“I think I am talented in both, why would I give up? I did do the experiment but it’s working fine,” she asserted.
But now, with the mixed team event – where she has won two gold medals with Jitu Rai this year –being added to her list, the dynamics of the NRAI report changes. “This new gender event is not really part of that. Now I have three events, so the whole system changes,” she added.
“Olympics really scares our athletes”
But dropping an event is not the only suggestion the report made. It also alluded to her openly rocky relationship with national chief pistol coach Pavel Smirnov and the fact that she needs to identify a mentor other than her coach and husband Ronak Pandit.
“We have spoken to experts, in few months you will see a new team I am trying to put together, this is something I have been working on ever since the Olympics ended. It just takes time to research and get the new team in place,” she replied.
Sidhu insisted that India needs to be self sufficient when it comes to coaching and stop replying on foreign coaches.
“We have so many seniors athletes, people who have been on the podium who have done it. We should have them training the juniors, our next generation, and share their experiences,” Sidhu suggested as a way to bridge the gap between India’s performances at the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
“Somewhere the Olympics really scares our athletes. I think this is exactly where we lack, because we don’t believe we can do it. We may have done it before but when it comes to the Olympics, it’s a completely different mental game. So if we have players sharing their experiences, how they trained for four years to perform on that particular day, how to work on your strengths and weaknesses, make a plan, I think it will improve,” Sidhu said.
Coming from an athlete whose “psychological issues” were highlighted after the last Games, this is important insight.
Sidhu has gone the extra mile to ensure the chinks in her armour from 2016 are ironed out. She took the criticism on the chin and went to great lengths to work on her performance – even contemplating dropping an event – but what is she didn’t do is give in. And with the Asian Air Gun competition in Japan later in 2017 and the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships coming up in 2018, Heena Sidhu will have plenty of chance to rectify the issues of 2016.