What makes Neeraj Chopra a complete athlete?

Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, the bio-mechanical expert in charge of Chopra for the last two years, highlights the strengths of the star javelin thrower from India.

Neeraj Chopra at the Asian Athletics Championship in Bhubaneswar in 2017.   -  FILE PHOTO/ BISWARANJAN ROUT

Neeraj Chopra is one of the easiest sporting stars to talk to. The 23-year old may be India’s brightest Olympic hope but the stardom and subsequent spotlight sits easy on the javelin thrower. His coach insists it is just one of the factors that make him an ideal role model for the rest.

“Neeraj can be the perfect role model. He is not jealous of others, he is extremely open with everyone and he is not insecure of his own form or position. He never says no to anyone for help. He is also one of the best all-round athletes here and one of the hardest working people. What more can you ask for,” says Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, the bio-mechanical expert in charge of Chopra for the last two years.

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Bartonietz took charge in 2019, at a time when the youngster was going through a testing time with his injury and subsequent surgery which forced him to forego competitions for the entire year. With 2020 marred with COVID-19, there was little opportunity to test him against the best in the world.

Talking to Sportstar, Bartonietz explains how it also gave them enough time to iron out the chinks and push him towards the elusive 90m mark:

What are the changes in Neeraj’s technique you have suggested since you took charge?

Not too many, actually, it is not right to say changes. I would say we have worked at improving his shortcomings to push him further. Things like improving the use of javelin, no unnecessary attack, the angles which you let the javelin fly and the important and impact of air resistance – small things but they matter. The best in the world do not have such shortcomings.

How did his surgery impact your training plans?

Yes, the main problem after the injury and surgery was you had to get the arm healthy to ensure it could be loaded again with enough pressure and strength. For that the physios did great work – first at the hospital then the JSW guy Ishan – with exercises and plans.

Is there anything specific you worked on? The way he throws, runs, anything?

We have worked on getting his arm up while throwing. Sometimes he goes low, it is a problem with some athletes with their right arm. Then it stretches the elbow too much risking injury and also affects the angle of throw. The arm must be in line with the shoulder while throwing. Your body is like an elastic bow, the javelin is the arrow and you propel it far, adding some effort with the whole body starting from the leg. You also need a high run-up speed but also strength in your front leg.

That is a problem you see with too many throwers – lot of upper body power but not enough use of the leg. That’s like starting a house from the roof, not the basement. Also, the body block, what we call the closed left side. You need to keep your left side closed, block so that the body doesn’t rotate, then open at the moment of throw so that the javelin goes straight. That also starts from the leg upwards. That has improved, earlier his throws would go towards the edge of the field because of the body rotation, risking a foul.

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What makes Neeraj different from others in the group?

He is clearly the best overall athlete – on the track in sprints, jumps, lifting, gymnastic work for flexibility and athleticism, core work, everything. His athleticism is at world level, at par with the best. He is also the most creative towards his own training, he is always thinking about what to do, what he can do better. He is always reflecting on his position and takes initiative to bring his own ideas. There is a clarity of thought in what he wants to do.

How would you compare him to the others, like Johannes Vetter (of Germany) for example. Can he do 90m?

Of course he can! They are also not perfect. It is more about the use of the front (left) leg, that cannot be compromised. It should not bend, stay firm and straight to block at the throw and ensure the speed gained in the run-up is used to add power to the throw. That’s what Neeraj did very well in the first competition here (the IGP 2, where he set a new NR of 88.07m).

Any areas he still needs to work on?

He is fast but his impulse stride is still not explosive enough. It is not bad, good for 85-90m, but you asked what can be better, that can obviously get better. Sometimes in training, he does that perfectly – the body, the throw, the angle, everything. But he understands all this, that’s why he creates exercises to target these areas and is different from others.

Are you a strict coach?

Nah! You want to know strict, Nikolai (Sneserev, long-distance coach who passed away recently) was a strict coach, on the track and off it. But I feel the athlete should understand that when he or she performs, we are happy. I can do whatever I want, push hard but if he or she doesn’t want, it will not happen. The training must also be flexible to keep the athlete interested.

So, what next?

Next, maybe he throws 90m at the next competition, that is possible. But then if it has to become 95m or more then he has to stay healthy. The elbow is an issue but it is all a matter of volume and intensity. He can do it, but you need to do it at the right time. But I am not concerned. He already does more than planned. Honestly, it isn’t anything spectacular you need to do. It is all about daily hard and smart work, removing shortcomings, working on strong sides, stay healthy.

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