Jaspal Rana - The mastermind behind India's young 'guns'

Jaspal Rana Rahul Irani/The India Today Group/Getty Images

Back in the early nineties when India was still a backwater in the world of sport shooting, an 18-year-old boy from Uttarakhand made a stunning splash in the international scene. Jaspal Rana's gold medal in the 25m center fire pistol event at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima was a shot in the arm for Indian sport then. Rana's career as a shooter, although exemplary in its own right, never quite lived up to the potential of that first big breakthrough.

However, two and a half decades later, Rana, ESPN India's coach of the year awardee, is playing a massive role in the explosion of success that Indian shooting is currently experiencing.

2018 has been the year of Indian junior shooters. Pistol shooters Saurabh Chaudhary, Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala are all household names -- not just for their performances at the junior World Championships and Youth Olympic level - but also for their successes at the senior level.

As coach of the junior Indian team, Rana has had a major role in moulding that success. While the breakthrough appears to have been sudden, Rana insists that it's been anything but. "There's no magic technique that's suddenly worked for them," says Rana. "I've been working with the junior team since 2012. The success we are seeing now hasn't come about suddenly. We have been working for the last seven years," he says.

Rana won't take a whole lot of credit for that achievement too. "I'm only working with the players once they get to the national camp. I have to work with what's already here. I'm not the person making them; I'm only fine tuning them. The person who finds the diamond in the rough is the personal coach of these athletes," he says.

The fine-tuning is undoubtedly working.

Senior coach Pavel Smirnov certainly thinks so. "It's a huge advantage for me to work with shooters who have been trained by shooters like Jaspal Rana. He has already achieved so much that it gives these young shooters a base to begin with. They are starting at an advantage compared to their rivals. If you are trained by someone like Jaspal, I don't have to do nearly any work with you," he says.

But Rana insists that he works very little on the shooter's technique. "Whatever they have been doing has been working. Even the wrong technique might be working for them. And they come with so many different ways of shooting and I actually have so little time with them that what I actually do is ensure they develop the correct habits about training and preparation," he says.

It has been easier to say than do says Rana. "Teenagers are the worst to teach," he says, only half-joking. "If they are under 10, you can scold them and they usually listen. If they are older, you can actually yell at them. But if you try that with a teenager, they can shut down and lose that killer instinct. You don't want them to become like a goat," he says.

What Rana says he does is channelize that immense energy. Rana introduced early morning yoga and physical training sessions for the young shooters. When someone slacked off, he wouldn't punish them with tongue-lashings but rather with extra-long training sessions later in the day.

That focus on discipline he says was essential. "There are several kinds of shooters who come into the national camp. Someone could be calm, others could be naughty or playful. You have to find a way to dam that energy and make it useful without stopping the intensity," he says.

It's a simple philosophy and it's undoubtedly worked. But even as he acknowledges his wards' success, Rana says he isn't satisfied just yet.

Manu Bhaker - one of the brightest junior stars with gold medals in the Commonwealth games suffered an extended dry spell, which ended only last week with a gold medal at the Asian Championships.

While Bhaker seems to have found her rhythm, Rana is worried that the Indian juniors are at the risk of burning out too soon. "We need to ensure that these young shooters continue to stay competitive for the next few years. We don't want a situation where they disappear after one or two years," he says.

And then there's the matter of other countries looking to catch up with India's recent success.

"2018 has undoubtedly been one of the best years for Indian shooting because we have had so many shooters who have done well. But we can't relax just yet. If we are improving, the other countries won't just be sitting around. Countries like China and South Korea are really pissed off that we have done well. I'm sure they are working. We don't have time to relax saying we are on top. There's only one place to go and that is down. We have to avoid that," he says.