Heena Sidhu is talking about being in quest of ‘the zone’, the holy grail that every athlete is in pursuit of but often struggles to describe. Sidhu calls it a space where she is at ease with herself; when everything else – the noise, the lights… – blacks out and it’s just she and the target. “Things just start happening automatically,” she says, and adds with a grimace, “today wasn’t that day.”
Sidhu, 29, has been competing for 12 years, is a former world number one and held the world record in 10m air pistol, her pet event. Yet, just seven shots into the qualifying round of the Delhi World Cup, she felt like a rookie still ‘learning’ the sport. After starting with two 10s, Sidhu hit two 8s in her next five attempts. Those shots were really off target, closer to the seven-point ring, and the 10s she managed weren’t convincing either. “I couldn’t find the centre,” she gasps.
It was an almighty struggle then on. But she wasn’t the only one suffering. A few lanes to her left, Manu Bhaker was also enduring a stressful period. Bhaker’s rise has been so rapid, so promising that it is easy to forget at times that she has just turned 17. On Sunday, she left the shooting hall in tears after missing out on a medal, and a Tokyo Olympics quota, in the 25m sports pistol event.
An experienced shooter is often able to shake off such disappointments and refocus on the next event. “But Manu is still learning how to deal with it,” India’s pistol coach Pavel Smirnov says. “If a boxer suffers a knockout defeat, he will take time to recover and return to the ring. It is the same for Manu. She couldn’t forget the earlier event. She was very emotional when she was firing today.”
The hallmark of a good shooter is the ability to stay dispassionate (Abhinav Bindra celebrated India’s biggest Olympic medal with a shy smile. He, though, is an extreme). But the best shooters are often able to keep a check on their emotions, control their heartbeat and not get distracted. Saurabh Chaudhary showed ice-cool nerves to tear apart the 10m men’s air pistol field on Sunday to win gold, set a world record and book an Olympic quota. Apurvi Chandela was expressionless as she hit a 10 with every shot in the final to win gold and set a world record in 10m air rifle.
However, what a motley crowd witnessed on Tuesday at the Dr Karni Singh range was India’s two best woman pistol shooters suffering emotional breakdowns. They weren’t just competing against the 78 shooters in a rather weak 10m air pistol field. They were also fighting their inner demons, battling self-doubts, over-thinking and over-analysing each time they pulled the trigger.
Both were eventually unable to make the cut for the final. Bhaker finished 14th, six places behind the last qualification spot, with a score of 573. Sidhu was 25th, scoring 571 out of a possible 600. “I don’t think I have done a 571 in a long time. This sort of performance is not acceptable,” Sidhu says.
It was an honest admission from an athlete whose game had unravelled in front of an expectant home crowd, who’d pinned hopes on the two to secure at least one Olympic berth. None came on Tuesday, and India ended with just one quota from this World Cup.
Sidhu had travelled to Munich and The Hague, where she competed in a couple of tournaments to prepare for the World Cup. But the prolonged exposure trip, on the back of a hectic 2018, meant that she landed in Delhi exhausted. “I feel personally I was over-trained. We should have avoided The Hague and just stayed at Munich, play two matches and come back,” she says.
Sidhu realised this three days ago, she says, after watching other Indians competing and winning medals at the home range. “I was emotionally very attached to this match because it’s Delhi, a range we always train (at). It was a golden opportunity for us. We had one-and-a-half months to train. I think we put a lot of emphasis on this match,” she says. “So you are just thinking… preparing. And my match was almost in the end. I am seeing other people (compete). It was emotional over-training.”
The two 8s early in qualification pushed Sidhu over the edge and she never recovered. She tried to switch off between shots, stepped away from the firing point and sat on her chair. “’Breathe, focus…’ I told myself.” But she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t focus. “Because of those two 8s, I kept on over-thinking. I wasn’t following my process. I couldn’t trust it.”
Sidhu and Bhaker will be back on the range again on Wednesday, pairing with Abhishek Verma and Chaudhary respectively in the mixed team event. Both will be keen to shake off Tuesday’s disappointment and end the World Cup with a medal, although there aren’t any quotas on offer in the event.
Sidhu knows how to deal with such days. “The moment I get out of this (qualification hall) door, I am not talking about this. Tomorrow is another day, new match.”
Smirnov knows it might not be so straightforward for Bhaker. “She is still very young. Everything is either black or white for her,” he says. “But there is a red line for emotions. If you cross that, your technique will suffer.”