'Emotional' Manu Bhaker struggling to handle setbacks

Manu Bhaker after the final round of the 25m pistol women's shooting AP Photo/Vincent Thian

India's pistol coach Pavel Smirnov often has a notebook by his side, writing down observations of his shooters. His notes are usually about scores and grouping of shots.

On Tuesday, though, he was scribbling down an issue that was clearly troubling 17-year-old Manu Bhaker. It wasn't a critique of her technique or ability.

"She's very emotional," is what Smirnov says he wrote. "You cannot let the emotions rise beyond a certain amount. You must have a red line. And if your emotions go beyond a certain point, it will make your technique useless," he says.

He kept writing even as Bhaker slumped on her seat following her final shot of the day.

Bhaker had scored a total of 572, the third lowest of her international career. But even on an overall low scoring day, that was just 2 points away from qualification for the final.

Bhaker isn't lacking in technique. If she is, she wouldn't have won a World Cup gold in her very first attempt (in Guadalajara last year). She wouldn't have clinched a Commonwealth Games gold, or secured gold medals at the Junior World Cup and Youth Olympics.

But defeats are something Bhaker, who turned 17 just a week back, is still getting used to. While losses are something every shooter must learn to deal with, the blow for Bhaker, who burst into the Indian shooting scene with a bang, has been particularly hard. She has been dealing with her share of setbacks recently. At the Asian Games, she suffered her first, when she returned without a medal in both her events.

Bhaker's then coach Jaspal Rana had said that experience had been important for her.

"You have to accept defeat with respect," he had said. "Especially if your goals are the Olympics. If we say that Manu has to compete at the Olympics then she will face much bigger defeats. And if she can accept those defeats with respect then that is the biggest victory for me. If you only win and don't know how to accept defeats, you become too rigid and too stiff and you will break."

Bhaker's fifth-place finish in the finals of the 25m pistol event a couple of days ago seemed to have affected her particularly hard. She had burst into tears at that loss and had had to be consoled by Rana, who had coached her in the Indian junior team. "That loss was two days ago, but she's still not able to get over it. She wants to but it isn't easy for her," says Smirnov.

He compares the psychological trauma of what Bhaker saw as failure to an actual body blow. "If a boxer suffers a knockout, it takes time for them to get back to the ring," Smirnov explains.

Bhaker wasn't the only Indian shooter to do badly. Her older compatriot Heena Sidhu had an even worse day shooting a 571. "It's the lowest score I've shot in a very long time," Sidhu said. But she was adamant that she wouldn't be affected too much by it. "Once I walk out of the range, it's completely out of my mind. I'm focused on the next day."

Bhaker still doesn't have that ability to turn the switch off. But Smirnov urges sympathy and patience. "She's only 16. This is an age where she is still learning to deal with her emotions. It isn't about forgetting a bad day and moving on. At her age there's no black or white. There is just so much confusion in her mind."

Bhaker isn't the only young gun in the Indian team. Saurabh Chaudhary seems to have mastered the ability to control his emotions - at least visibly. Another teen, Anish Bhanwala, finished in fifth place in the men's 25m pistol but was relaxed about simply having made the finals. "Every teenager has emotions but some are able to control it better," admits Rana.

But while Bhaker seems to be struggling, Smirnov says there's nothing to do but wait for her to mature.

"If you are dealing with an older shooter, someone who is a grown up, you can ask why they are behaving like a child. You can ask them to be an adult. Bhaker is is only 17. So there isn't much that you can say. There isn't much you should say."

Smirnov says he will be as supportive as he can but he admits that it's for Bhaker to figure out her own path. "A coach can teach technique. But the ability to deal with setback and courage has to come from the athlete herself. It cannot be taught."

And while the emotional fragility has its roots in her youth, so is the solution.

"She is very young. And she has enough time to become stronger. If we didn't win a medal or quota here it isn't a problem. There will be many more chances for her," says Smirnov.