A gold medal is the most difficult to win, and it is the one every athlete aims to win. There is no other gold medal in the world more difficult to win than at the Olympics. It is the biggest and the most important stage to showcase one's sporting prowess. The world is watching, and for our athletes India is watching too.
India- which is the second most populated country in the world.
India- that for a population of a billion has only two individual Olympic gold medals to boast of.
India- that tends to celebrate entering the semifinals, even before the semi-finals is played and the medal decided.
India- that is not a nation that boasts of a sports culture, and is always more surprised than assured of a gold medal in the Olympics.
Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra’s Olympic gold medal was a surprise for most Indians, if not really for the athletes themselves. There are a lot of similarities and lessons to be drawn from their journeys which could help every aspiring athlete and parent. Through this article my aim is to point them out and I hope that we can all draw some insights from them.
Let's focus on their individual journeys and see what we can learn.
Importance of starting young-
Both Abhinav and Neeraj took up their respective sports at the age of 9 and 11 respectively. They both dealt with obesity issues as children and their parents wanted them to pursue sports as a way to get fitter. Abhinav chose shooting as it did not require him to move around too much and also he had access to his father’s rifle at his home. Neeraj on the other hand was pushed by his parents into athletics hoping the coach would make him run and that would help him to get active. He slowly took to throwing a javelin across the ground and enjoyed it.
A journey in sport doesn't have to start with an ambition of being an Olympic Gold medalist. It could start with parents wanting their kid to be active. Also, giving kids access to sports at home or outside at a young age could be crucial in determining their success.
Role of the First coach -
Abhinav and Neeraj both have attributed their love for the sport and their strong foundation to their first coaches. Abhinav states that he himself wasn’t really great at the sport when he started off, though even then his coach saw a spark in him and pushed him to pursue shooting. Neeraj also has mentioned the contribution of his first coach as an important stepping stone for him.
A child’s first coach is very important. Great early experiences in the sport determine the longevity in and a child’s degree of love for the sport. If a coach is able to help the child see through his early failure and help him fall in love with the sport, it could prepare the child to grow into a more secure athlete.
Full support of parents-
The story of Abhinav’s father building a shooting range at home is quite well known. His father, a self made businessman invested crores of his own money in his child’s sporting career. From helping him find the right coaches and support team to building him his own shooting range, Abhinav’s obsession was his father’s obsession too. In Neeraj’s case he comes from a farmer’s joint family of four brothers, who were supportive of his dreams and left no stone unturned to do whatever they can in their means.
It is highly unlikely that sporting success especially in a country like India could be achieved without strong willed parents. Parents' support to the child not just financially, but emotionally and mentally as well will go a long way in achieving sporting success.
Early success counts-
Abhinav and Neeraj are both world junior record holders in their respective events. They were the best juniors not only in their countries but also in the world. In addition to this, before they won the Olympic Gold they had already won the CWG and Asian Games gold medals.
Being a successful junior athlete at the international level could go a long way in athletes setting their goals at the highest level as seniors. Having the experience of both playing the official games like the CWG and the Asian Games, and winning medals in them could act as a precursor for the athlete to give them confidence to do well in the Olympics.
As an athlete it is important to set your goal at the highest international level right from the junior circuit. Preparing and most importantly to peak at the right time and doing well in the other official games could help you to prepare better for the Olympics. The goal has to be winning a gold medal, and ending at the top.
Abhinav and Neeraj would not have reached here without the financial support they received. In Abhinav’s case he was lucky to be born in a rich family, where his father could afford and support a lot of his financial needs. It is important to note here that his father’s funds were not enough, he received funds from the government and the corporate sectors as well. Neeraj’s career has also been funded by the Indian Army, the government and JSW foundation through the last few years. Neeraj comes from a modest family of farmers in Haryana, though he received the right support at the right time. It is important to note here that during Abhinav’s time funds were not easily available. It is easier to access funds at the elite level today.
As athletes and parents it is important to recognise early on that sport is an expensive affair and excelling in it is even more costlier. As parents there may be limitations to what one can spend, though recognising that and having a plan on how you could raise appropriate funds for the athlete is important. It is good to keep oneself informed with various national and state government schemes, army programs, SAI programs, programs run by foundations and corporations. Of course, none of this funding is possible without good and consistent performances by the athlete which is a given.
Foreign Coaches and exposure-
Abhinav and Neeraj for the crucial years preceding the Olympics had a foriegn support staff and coaching team with great repute internationally. They left no stone unturned to ensure that they had the best and the most experienced team with them. Abhinav lived in Germany for a number of years to train, while Neeraj trained in Sweden before the Olympics. Also both of them ensured that they had played enough tournaments to feel match ready, but at the same time they didn't over participate in tournaments and did everything to peak at the right time for the Olympics.
Foreign exposure in terms of training and tournaments is important. Also having the best team around you comes at a cost, a cost not everyone could afford. Monetary support is important in getting this kind of expertise. While saying this it is also important to get the best support and people around at whichever level you are playing at and within your means (or sometimes outside of it). People that surround you will always have an influence on your performances.
Humility as strength-
Abhinav, when he won the Khel Ratna, he had famously said that Gagan Narang or Anjali Bhagwat should have got this award before him. After winning the Olympic gold he was open to being vulnerable and recognising the fact that he went through a period of depression because he had suddenly realised there was nothing more left to achieve. To come out clean of your weakness requires strength and also humility. Similarly Neeraj all at 23 is famous among his fraternity, media and his supporters as the ‘most humble superstar’ they have ever met. He has a reputation of being respectful and approachable.
To be accessible to people and to be vulnerable is strength. Humility opens a lot of closed doors and access to people. In sports you always need that access, more the support, more the people championing you, better it is for you. Stay grounded. If they can, so should we!
Focus on preparation not the colour of the medal-
For both Abhinav and Neeraj their preparation was where they had already won a gold medal. For Neeraj, it was ensuring to practice in the rain and a slippery floor, to ensure that if it happens on the final day he knew what to do and staying away from social media, amongst many other things. For Abhinav it was drinking Yak milk, using Chinese pellets, shooting in the dark, practicing scenarios like shooting standing on uneven surfaces etc. Their success was guaranteed by their attention to detail. Their preparation was 100 % and Neeraj has said that he ‘slept like a baby’ the day before their finals at the Olympics. Being relaxed before the most important moment in your life could only be achieved through the confidence one has in the preparation they have put in before reaching that stage.
As an athlete, nobody is responsible for your success but you. Take lead and take charge of your destiny. Be invested in the details and the preparation like your life depends on it. Only you can win that gold medal. The real victory is in the preparation, the medal is just the icing on the cake.
Use a setback as a stepping stone for success
Both Abhinav and Neeraj went through a career threatening injury before actually winning the gold medal. For Abhinav it was his back, while for Neeraj it was his elbow. They both went through surgery and rehab processes and were out of competitive sport for almost a year. But that didn't stop them from achieving what they did. Like Neeraj said in an interview, “The injury made me silent for a while. I was like the tiger on the hunt. A tiger goes silent before getting ready to roar and then attacks at the right time.”
Setbacks are a part and parcel of the sport and it happens to the best athletes in the world. How you overcome them, the people you have around during these times, and ultimately never losing sight of your goal will make you not just a stronger athlete but also a stronger human. Avoid setbacks, but if you don't, know that they might be a blessing in disguise.
India has had it’s best Olympics ever in terms of medals we have won in Tokyo. I firmly believe we have not yet achieved even half of what we are truly capable of at the Olympics. Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra have shown us that we can be the best in sport. Let's learn from them, and turn this nation from the one that is surprised by a gold medal to the one that assumes one.
About the author
Aditi Mutatkar is the winner of five national badminton championships – under-13, under-16, under-19 and senior nationals – and has represented the Indian badminton team in international tournaments. She is a silver medalist in mixed team event in CWG. She achieved career best world ranking of 27 in 2008. Post her player career, Aditi has completed her masters in Public Administration from University of Texas. She also holds a graduate certificate in Public policy from Takshashila Institutio
About Simply Sport
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