Abhinav Bindra, who will chair the first meeting of the National Rifle Association of India's (NRAI) Olympic review committee on August 29, to analyse what went wrong with India's shooting campaign at the Rio Games, has an original view as to the direction his sport must take.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN, Olympic gold medallist Bindra questioned some of the federation's key observations that were to be found in their frames of reference sent to the panel. He said that nurturing the junior programme should lie at the heart of the committee's roadmap, that multiple layers of coaching in an individual sport like shooting were unavoidable and argued that the non-profits working with elite sport happened to be critical at this point in time.
What is your understanding of your mandate as chairman of the panel?
The terms of reference are quite elaborate. From my point of view, you cannot dissect performance. Performance in any sport can never be broken down into black and white. There's a lot of grey in the nature of sport. I think the idea is to look at what systems are in place, what's functioning in terms of preparations and how the federation is running. So just to work on those areas and evaluate as to what can be improved upon, how training can be made more effective and preparation can be made more holistic.
The last three Olympics have delivered medals for India in shooting. That was not the case this time and is that the reason why there's a need to take a good, hard look at the state of the sport in the country?
One of the most important factors to consider according to me is to look into how the juniors are doing and what the grassroots programme is looking like. The job of the committee is not to look back, obviously there are lessons to be learnt, but to look ahead. You can't change what has happened. We have to look at how the future is being prepared and nurtured. We will need more younger people to come through to ensure sustained success. You can't really rely on a couple of athletes to deliver you medals in five consecutive Olympic Games. It's absolutely unrealistic. You have to have a system in place where you continue to increase the depth of the sport which pushes performance levels to higher standards. That hopefully would ensure that Indian shooting athletes are more competitive.
Earlier too you've spoken of how there are quite a few juniors who're doing well and of the rise in participation numbers. So is that already in place or does it need to be improved upon further?
At the junior level, as I see it from the outside, there has been good support and they have performed exceptionally well. The important thing though is to see how the transition from junior to senior level comes about and it's crucial not just in shooting, but across almost all sport. The transition is something that needs to be looked into carefully.
Do you think the NRAI's concern about private coaches creating too many 'layers' of preparation is a valid argument?
One must understand that shooting is a very individual sport and see what sort of coaching possibilities exist in the country and what their standards are. One of the issues that has been faced earlier by shooting athletes is that we have one odd national coach for whom it's impossible to give that sort of attention to say, a group of 30. Look at China for instance, each shooter has a different coach looking after them. Germany is a very, very successful shooting nation and they have a national coach but they have a huge club culture. So every shooting athlete in Germany has a club coach with whom he/she works with 90% of the time. So there's always going to be multiple layers of coaching.
This is not a team sport, it's an individual sport so one has to factor these issues as well. But of course getting a new coach just a few months before the Olympics probably doesn't make any sense. That scenario has happened and has to be looked into. We have to look at it in an India-specific scenario. It's not wise to just blindly copy what others are doing. We need to understand what our psyche and our need is then try and come up with a plan and a conclusion taking into account the view of all the stakeholders. The view of the athlete is very important in this regard since they have a good idea of what they need and are the ones to deliver the results.
"It is impossible to draw conclusions as to why we did not win a medal. That's not sport. We can only study what we've done and what perhaps we've not done well and how we can improve that and that is perhaps the only thing we can attempt to do. It would be wrong to project the goal of this committee to see into what went wrong"
The influence of non-profits like OGQ, JSW and Go Sports has also been brought into question by the federation. Particularly with regard to them bringing in coaches whose credentials, the NRAI says, is not sure of. What's your observation in this regard?
I think one of the important factors with regard to performance in sport is that we have to look at in a holistic manner. There are so many aspects involved - the physical, technical, mental and recovery. So you need to see what is the expertise, know-how and resources made available to the national team and whether it's of the world-class level. If that's not made available to the athlete through the system they will try and look for it outside. That's how the structure of sport in India has been. I'm not talking about shooting now, but overall. The role of organisations such as OGQ has been to try and fill in the gaps of what's missing. Until and unless those resources and know-how are available not only to the elite but also to the grassroots, we will always struggle and the role of such organisations cannot be thrown away.
As chairman of the panel what would be your foremost suggestion?
I think the committee is going to meet on August 29 and 30 to start with and the first goal is to go through the terms of references the committee has been mandated to do, to derive a collective strategy and see in what best possible manner one would be able to look into each aspect in a holistic way. It has to be done step by step. And for me personally it is important to look at the big, long-term picture. It is impossible to draw conclusions as to why we did not win a medal. That's not sport. We can only study what we've done and what perhaps we've not done well and how we can improve that and that is perhaps the only thing we can attempt to do. It would be wrong to project the goal of this committee to see into what went wrong. Nobody can tell what went wrong. It's performance. It's sport. One can only look at things in a holistic manner and see how we can improve on issues or hopefully cut down variables and improve our chances in the future. In sport there is no guarantee. You can pump in as many resources, you can get the best in the world, the coaches can give you all the back up, but that's not a guarantee for a medal. Definitely not.
Were there any issues you particularly wanted addressed apart from the ones stated by the federation?
I added the whole issue of the junior programme, that wasn't part of the initial reference. I spoke to the president Raninder Singh, and tried to explain to him that it is something which is very important and unless and until you fix the right system with regard to the junior programme you are not going to create multiple champions. It's very, very difficult.
Are your recommendations binding?
I think there is something on those lines mentioned in the terms of references but I haven't even read that carefully because it's not my problem. I have no idea whether it's binding or not because it's not up to me to implement it. It's not my job. I'm not in power in the federation. So it's important, yes, but it is not in my control.
At the Olympics this time there were quite a few close misses, of shooters like Gagan in the 50m, Jitu Rai in his 50m pistol, Chain Singh in the 50m rifle 3 positions, Mairaj Khan in skeet and Gurpreet Singh in the 25m rapid fire pistol for instance who were very close to qualifying for the final but missed right at the end on their final few shots. Is this a coincidence or something that needs to be examined?
I think having competed in shooting for 20 years, one of the hardest aspects in shooting is when you know you are right there and to know when to close the deal, to complete the whole performance. It is incredibly hard and that is something one has to work on. One has to have proper strategies in place, something which needs to be trained, requires certain tactics to deal with. One has to consider it, one has to work on that in their preparation because that is one of the most difficult parts in the last bit of the competition. Because you know you are going to be right there and that's when you need a few good shots on command. There is nothing called flow and all of that dreamy stuff available to you at that moment. That is just the time when you have to get the job done. And that requires experience, it requires training and tactics and it is something which a coach and athlete need to work on - in a normal competition it is hard enough, but at the Olympics it would be even harder.
Can you simulate that in practice? Is it possible? Does it help or make it less problematic?
You cannot simulate it because you cannot simulate the physiological changes the body goes through. You can simulate it to a certain degree, maybe 10-15 % but it's better than nothing. But I think just being aware of it and just working on it and getting better at it. What happens in shooting is that in a training environment one is able to get into a flow and performance just happens. Perhaps that is also a possibility in a smaller competition when you get into that frame of mind. But when it comes to the Olympics, it is close impossible to get into that. You are very conscious of every shot so it's a completely different feeling. In training one also needs to be careful and mindful of not just getting into that sort of rhythm going into an Olympic Games. If the training is going well, you just go out there every morning, you do everything - because in training you do every sh** and it will work. But when you go to competition, it just breaks down from shot number one. So if one gets into that kind of rhythm going into the Games, if that's the type of training that is happening, that is probably a mistake and has to be dealt with from a coaching perspective.