He is neither as enigmatic as India’s first individual gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, nor as engaging as the country’s first-ever — RVS Rathore. It’s tough to describe pistol shooter Vijay Kumar. So India, conveniently, doesn’t describe him at all.
Overlooked slightly when names of India’s greatest shooters are reeled off – and ignored for no apparent reason, really – the country seems to have suddenly woken up to noticing London’s silver medallist in rapid-fire, who will be the flagbearer of the contingent at Glasgow. Under-rated leader for the under-stated Games.
But it’s a good time to stick your neck out and say that Kumar perhaps won India its most-important Olympic medal among the four that the country’s collected in the last three editions. The armyman from Himachal aced the ruthless elimination and weeding out process to determine the champion in an international shooting match, while becoming the king of the ‘knockout finals format’ in London.
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Two years on, every shooting event is decided by this knockout duel, and this Commonwealth Games will be the first mega-event beyond the niche shooting World Cups that will see qualifying scores not being carried over to the final stage, with all finalists starting afresh in what is akin to football’s penalty shootout, a format introduced last year after the high applause it got in Vijay’s event at London.
It is nobody’s contention that penalty shootouts are completely fair; countless nights stretching into dawn, with sleepy heads still shaken in disbelief and clucking of tongues the next morning during the FIFA World Cup, are testimony to that.
But nobody can deny the potential for drama in these knockouts, and the intense pressure and mental games that occur behind poker faces of a shooting final. What makes Kumar the undisputed leader of India’s new generation of shooters is his nerveless proficiency in this saga of strained sinews, that shooting is reduced to when in a duel. At Woolwich’s Royal Artillery Barracks, Vijay pulled it off almost with nonchalance, coming into contention out of an almost obscure position from the qualifiers to win silver.
The sub-plot to the Commonwealth Games drama though, is that Indians are expected to out-score everyone else in qualification, and then be marked men (and women) with rank outsiders and dark horses itching to shoot them out. Like Kumar did to London’s world-record holder Alexi Klimov.
Vaibhav Agashe, a mental trainer who’s been working with a host of young shooters currently with Olympic Gold Quest, explains the downside of being favourites. “At the World Cups or Asian level, competition is high, so Indians don’t qualify in top positions, and go into finals with no pressure. At the Commonwealth Games though, we will line up in the first and second positions in most events in preliminaries. From there on, pressure can play tricks,” he says. Nasty mind tricks that can lead to implosions, he mentions.
“When you get used to being in the lead like in qualifying, and suddenly in finals that lead means nothing and everyone else too is starting from scratch, the mind has to adjust,” he says. A fair few experienced shooters have felt this to be grossly unfair, sulked, and shot defensively in the bargain.
Emptying the mind
As their counselor, some one-on-one chats have followed, while stressing emptying of the mind and controlling eyes and vision. “For some, we used audio background scores, where everything about a final setting was simulated,” Agashe explains. That included the judge announcing ‘welcome shooters for the xyz final’ as well as the crowd noise.
“The first six shots in finals are crucial and shooters tend to become aggressive. Even excessive relaxing can be harmful, since every shot is make-or-break here,” he stresses. Back in February-March, shooters at the camps started on bio-feedback, and heartbeat monitoring to test handling of pressure. “I can tell them how to breathe, but how do I know if they’re following it? This bio-feedback helped in seeing changes in heart rate shot by shot and in turn in preparing for the final,” Agashe says.
The nuanced difference between sharpness/alertness and edginess is now measured for Indian shooters.
“Shooters like Jitu Rai and Ayonika Paul have shot pretty high levels at World Cups, so can be said to have mastered the finals,” the mental trainer says. Another of these second-generation shooting success is Heena Sidhu, who has a dedicated team working on sorting out her finals issues.
Kumar was almost a natural in absorbing the pressures of duels. Those steady hands will now carry the Tricolour on opening night of the Glasgow Games, and rightly so.