Asian Games: 16-year-old Manu Bhaker Takes Much Needed Learning From Losses
Manu Bhaker returned to her chair after being eliminated from the 25m Pistol final earlier than she’d expected, and earlier than anyone had predicted. With hands on her forehead, the 16 year old, sank into the chair, probably trying her best to push back a tear or two. It had turned out to be the mother of all counter narratives.
File photo of Manu Bhaker (Image: SAI)
Manu Bhaker returned to her chair after being eliminated from the 25m Pistol final earlier than she’d expected, and earlier than anyone had predicted. With hands on her forehead, the 16 year old, sank into the chair, probably trying her best to push back a tear or two. It had turned out to be the mother of all counter narratives. Rahi Sarnobat, who had finished seventh in qualification, continued to get all her shots on target in the final, while Bhaker, who’d shot a record 593 finished sixth out of the eight finalists.
With plenty of hope and expectations, and an entire country’s eyes on her, Manu Bhaker had headed to Jakarta-Palembang for her first Asian Games. She’s had a few firsts this year. Junior and senior international medals, gold mostly, have come her way left, right, and centre. So participation is probably not significant enough milestone for the Haryana shooter. Winning, obviously is.
“Leave her alone,” said Bhaker’s coach and 4-time Asiad gold medallist Jaspal Rana before the squad left for Indonesia. Rana’s caution came in because of the excessive but inevitable attention on the teenager after her exceptional run this year in which she has won gold medals in senior and junior World Cups, some of them with record scores, and a Commonwealth Games gold to go with that. Add to that a thing called social media which is challenging to stay off for most modern day athletes. “They’re like any other 15-16 year olds. They are on social media and are bound to get affected by this kind of attention,” Rana said before the Asiad. He was referring to Bhaker and her fellow teenager teammate, 15 year old Anish Bhanwala.
It seemed like there was little the twelfth standard student could do wrong this year. But she faltered. First, outside the shooting range. In an interview to a news agency just a day before the Games, she spoke about the struggles of being a top athlete at such a young age. The restrictions on the squad’s junior shooters in terms of cellphone use on a daily basis for an hour only seemed unfair to Bhaker. “The seniors, they’re free,” Bhaker told AFP. “They can do anything they want, they can use their phones anytime.” She also spoke about how she’d banned her parents from travelling with her on international assignments because she found their company restrictive. “They make limits for me,” she said. “Eat this, don’t eat this, sleep now… It’s a bit too much.”
Bhaker is 16. It would be unfair to expect her to do and say the right things always. But a crucial part of being an international sportsperson is accepting the many challenges that come with it. When you’re as young as 16, it’s that much tougher. As India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra pointed out to Bhaker, this is a life she had signed up for. “These are not sacrifices. This is a privileged life. Make the best of it. You have a wonderful coach and mentor to guide. All the very best for the next few exciting weeks,” Bindra tweeted.
We don’t know if the flak she received for her comments had anything to do with it, but the following day, in the first of three events she was taking part in, the 10m Air Pistol Mixed Team event, Bhaker and Abhishek Verma failed to make it to the final. Coach Jaspal Rana called his most consistent shooter’s temperament ‘fragile’. “The kind of attitude she has needs to be improved. Anger will not help her, she just gave up,” he told journalists in Indonesia. Bhaker seemed to be in a hurry in her qualifications, and ended up shooting a bunch of 9s that cost India a spot in the final.
But 24 hours later, it seemed like the Bhaker of the old was back at the range. She qualified for the final with a Games Record qualification score of 593, eight shots ahead of the second placed Korean shooter. Only to crack under pressure severely in the final, to finish sixth. How she emerges from this loss for her last and final event, the 10m Air Pistol, will be interesting to watch now.
In some sense, Bhaker is quite the study in contrast. Off the shooting range, she’s a restless teenager. She doesn’t stand still for very long, her father Ramkishen Bhaker says, and she’s constantly asking questions. But the grueling nature of international sport is taking its toll. Bhaker feels like a loner, her friends circle back home is diminishing constantly. If any inspiration helps, like Bhaker, Mithali Raj used to carry her school books to national camps too. Mithali was all of 17 when she was picked for an India camp first in 1997 where everybody was double her age. She walked up to a phonebooth in Calcutta one day, called up home, and said she wanted to come back. She was told by her father that’s not why he’d gone and dropped her off at the camp. Mithali had to learn to make peace with the fact that it was going to be a lonely journey to the top. On her way to becoming the highest run getter in women’s cricket in the world, Mithali Raj made books her best friends.
Like Mithali, Manu Bhaker is rare talent. Of that there is no doubt. But things have changed from the time Mithali started out to now. It is perhaps more challenging to be a professional athlete in 2018 than it was in 1997, and special talent, such as Manu’s needs to be preserved and nurtured with care. Mental conditioning is an aspect of modern day sport that cannot be ignored any longer. The idea is to have the services of a professional not only at camps, but more frequently, so that the psychologist has the chance to know and learn the athlete in and out, study his/her body language and mental make up to be able to help them long term.
The National Rifle Association of India and Jaspal Rana will hopefully act accordingly.
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