Podcast: NRAI chief Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo on Jaspal Rana’s return, Paris Olympics and managing conflict

Sportstar catches up with acting president of the NRAI, Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo on managing medal expectations, conflict and nearing the business end of the Paris Olympics cycle.

Published : Aug 03, 2023 20:45 IST - 21 MINS READ

While there are a number of national sports federations struggling to have a proper, merit-based selection policy in place, the National Rifle Association of India has been getting its game right for years now. The shooting body has regular trials with a view to reward consistency. The team is eventually picked on the basis of the average of the best four scores in the last five competitions.

Joining me, Santadeep Dey, today in this episode is acting president of the NRAI, Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo, who only recently has taken over from Mr. Raninder Singh. We will be apprised of how things have been thus far for him at the office, the constant evolving nature of shooting, the preparations in place for the World Championships, Asian Games, Paris 2024 and more.

Santadeep Dey: Hello, Kalikesh. Welcome to the Sportstar Podcast. How are you doing today? 

Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo: Hey, good, Santadeep. How are you doing?

Santadeep: I’m great. So straightaway, I’ll go to the first question. On August 6, it is going to be four months since you took over presidential duties at the National Rifle Association of India. What were Raninder Singh’s parting words and how has it been thus far?

Kalikesh: Look, it’s been about, yeah, three or four months since I’ve assumed the role of the president of NRAI. I continue to function as the acting president. Raninder has done a lot for the sports, I mean, we know… I used to be a shooter myself back in the early-90s, mid-90s and I know the amount the sport has progressed since that time. A lot of shooters in those days had to give up on this sport because of the expenses aspect of it, and the lack of support. Now, between the NRAI and the government, SAI and the Sports Ministry, a lot of funding is coming towards the shooting program. Shooting, as the sport also, has really grown far and beyond the limited access it had in the old days. Today, when you have a national-level competition, thousands of people participate and in fact there are thousands of people in state championships now in some of the states. So, it’s really grown both organically and inorganically, and also the science of the sport has grown to be become much more competitive. You’re well aware, Santadeep, that in the last Olympics, one of the biggest contingent, was from shooting. And I think, we expect it to be the same this time around for the Olympics. So Raninder‘s words were to continue the work that he had done so far, to ensure that this sport grows organically and inorganically at the grassroot level and to focus on the centres of excellence and the core sports who would go and represent India in various international competitions including the Olympics and Asian Games, and to ensure that the new data science program that we’ve put on board, which is unique in many ways, yields the best results. In showing that the shooters are most prepared at the correct time in the correct mental time frame. 

Santadeep: Okay, so these aside, are there further changes that you plan to bring about at the association during your tenure? 

Kalikesh: Look, we are very close to the Olympic cycle now. We’ve got the Asian Games in a couple of months. Our team is ready to go to the World Shooting Championship, you know in the next month or so. So, I don’t think there will be too many drastic changes that we will need to bring. There will be some fine tuning, I would say, on the processes as it evolves. Between me and the secretary general and the other sort of executive functionaries of the NRAI, we continue to monitor the high performance programme, the core team, their training and their output every month. We have, as you are well aware, we have gone recently and taken a large score to Châteauroux to ensure that our team gets a feel for themselves as to what it would be like to shoot in those ranges during the Olympics and we are continuing to put resources into ensuring that our sports science and data science program becomes more effective and more evolved and becomes more fine-tuned to ensure real time data feedback towards coaches and shooters. 

Santadeep: Since you have touched on the topic of the shooters flying to Paris, I would like to ask you how it was like to have a look and feel of the range ahead of the Olympics? Can you tell us a bit more about the trip, from the moment it was conceived to its completion?

Kalikesh: So, I have to tell you, you know, we obviously were keen to sort of take the team there and we got the full support from Sports Authority Of India in this case and the ACTC (Annual Calendar for Training and Competition) programme. In fact, the DG andthe others at the othersat the top level are very keen that we book our places and go and see the place and make sure that there are no hiccups when the final challenges of the Olympics come our way. We saw the ranges for ourselves. We understood what difficulties becausethe ranges are not in Paris, it’s set aside about 300 kilometers away from Paris… 3 1/2 hours’ drive. So, we saw for ourselves the difficulties that the shooters would face. We, in fact, overlapped our programme to ensure that we met the competition manager and the range manager. And then we spent a day with the shooters and coaches and gave them a few options on all aspects, including accommodation, food, training, what would work best. We talked to the shooters for ourselves and hopefully we’ve made the right decision to ensure that the shooters are most comfortable and in the correct mental frame.

Santadeep: Any important learnings that you got from this tour? And I would also like to ask you how you finalised the group which would travel to Paris? How were the shooters selected? 

Kalikesh: So, you know the team as you are well aware, Santadeep, is a very competitive team. It evolves very quickly. We still have some time to go to finalise the Olympic team for it to be exact. However, we’ve taken a larger than usual contingent. Keeping in mind where you would have had two or three shooters going in every discipline, we‘ve sometimes taken four, five or six shooters in each discipline, keeping in mind the array of shooters who could possibly be in be running or vying for the position in the Olympics. We tried our best to include as many people as possible... those who would be or could be possibly going to the Olympics next year. But of course, the Olympic trials will be held next year post the quota competitions and that’s when the final team selection will happen. One of the biggest learnings was to try and understand how the ranges were and what the differences were. You know, and especially for the longer length shooting events to try and figure out what the temperature and air velocity impact would be. So, these were big learnings and we talked to the shooters themselves. The air pistol, air rifle 10 meter ranges, they have a ledge and the target itself will be backlit. So, we want to ensure that the practice ranges that you would practice for will be replicated exactly in the same manner. In fact, we are hoping to replicate even the 25 and 50 meter rangess to ensure that we have a similar look and feel, if not exactly the same for the Olympics after the Asian Games and World Championships are over.

Santadeep: So,I’ll just come back to the administrative aspect once again and you know we are all humans and obviously there will be a few junctures during your time here when you’ll have to deal with internal conflicts. So how do you plan on tackling situations you know when all parties involved in a particular matter do not agree on something?

Kalikesh: Sure, you know the way the Constitution of the NRAI is structured, there are very clear demarcations of how things function. Right? And we plan to stick to the Constitution in letter and spirit. There will be conflict of opinions. There will be conflict of egos. There will be conflict of different thought processes. I think it is the job of the administration and the NRAI and not just the president, to be exact, to ensure that there is a meeting point for all these different thought processes to ensure that we provide the most optimum and most stable platform for the shooters to perform their best. I mean, that’s really the goal that we come from and we intend to manage the process in such a way that it will hopefully result in that. 

Santadeep: Absolutely, yeah. And, have you figured out any major challenges which maybe you’re working on already with the big events like the World Championships, Asian Games and Olympics on the horizon? 

Kalikesh: I mean, some of us were in the recent World Cup were pretty good in the air rifle and pistol and stuff like that. In fact, one or two of our kids, even athletes, broke the world record in the qualifying rounds. However, we’ve seen that the Chinese are performing very well. So, I think one of our biggest challenges would be to ensure that we keep our mental stability and emotional stability intact to ensure that we perform the best during not only the qualification but also in the finals. Remember the Asian Games are going to be in their home ground, so we expect that the reversal of pressure would be on them at that point of time. But, yes. We’ve seen some changes of coaches, we’ve addressed those issues directly with the shooters, and I think the team is in a much better position right now to go ahead and work for the future.

Santadeep: Okay, kind of continuing from what you just said about the change of coaches. We know, yeah, that there has been a change in the setup. In this aspect, I just wanted to understand you know how the federation evaluates and appraises its officials and coaches. Is there a feedback system in place? 

Kalikesh: So after the World Cup, Bhopal, I myself along with, at times the secretary general, at times secretaries, at times our high performance managers, whoever was available, met every single member of the high performance team, the HPD and his team, the sports science team. We met every coach, both foreign and Indian, including chief coaches and assistant coaches. I met every shooter who was there in Bhopal and we took individual feedback from them and assessed their feedback and made some changes in the coaching lineup. Now I don’t want to get into the details of that. I think, Santadeep, we’ve discussed this before over the telephone, but those changes are made. I think they’ve been made for the better and without getting into a negative narrative about what’s happened in the past, because that’s not really where I’m coming from, I think anybody who’s contributed towards the building up of Team India, I wouldn’twant to be derogatory about them. So,let’s move on to what could be a positive future and the performance of the team in the coming competitions.

Santadeep: Alright, also, adding to what you said for the previous question, that China always poses a huge threat to India considering the shooters and the kind of bench strength that they have. So, there were also reports of China sending a small group of, let’s say, officials to track the progress of Indian athletes ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. Have you considered doing something similar? 

Kalikesh(Laughs) Look, you know, we can maybe track. So, China is very difficult to sort of get access to. Let me start with that. Knowing the kind of country, they are...Maybe we can put resources to try and track the individual shooters. I think our resources are much better spent. Because in ensuring that our shooters perform the best, irrespective of how the Chinese or any other competitor performs, if our shooters are able to perform better than them and their best is better than them, then we will win the medals. And even if they perform the best and for some reason, another competitor, you know, is able to beat the Indian shooter at that juncture even though that shooter might have broken the world record or something, then, I mean it’s a competitive game and we need to focus on working to ensure that our team performs rather than worry about any other individual or any other country. Yes, the Chinese are shooting very well. We’ve seen their performance, but we’re not too far behind, let me put it that way.

Santadeep: In the recent past, the federation decided to issue a show-cause notice to an athlete who had expressed her displeasure over the shotgun coaches leaving. While I understand that it’s up to the federation to appoint and let go of coaches, that is it is a thing under its ambit, of course, there were cries about the move being a bit archaic. Do you think like there was some other way to go about it or somebody like you or somebody else from the NRAI, did you have a chat with the athlete later? 

Kalikesh: I went to Bhopal when the trials were on with the shotgun to talk to the athletes about the departure of the shotgun coaches, and the consequent way forward. And my message was very clear to the athletes that they should not get involved in the lobbying and the politics of the coaches or between the coaches and the NRAI or for that matter be used as tools for campaigns against other coaches or the federation or even other athletes, which we were finding to be happening. And my advice and sincere suggestion to the athletes was that they should focus on the shooting and they should focus on performing the best and the federation intends to stand behind them completely. You’re well aware, Santadeep, that our selection process for the team is very, very transparent. There is very little…there is very little room for maneuverability there and in certain exceptional cases there is some subjectivity applied. However, we tend to stick to the policy wherever it is written as per the law spelt out. So I think, I spoke to the athletes about that. Especially the shotgun athletes, because they had some major upheavals in their coaching structure. I think, the athletes took it very well and they came back to me with positive feedback after that and I’ve received positive feedback after the recent concluded training camps. 

Santadeep: And yes, talking about selection trials, while other sports federations are dealing with the struggles over selection procedures and trials, the NRAI kind of sets an example with a transparent selection procedure that always tends to reward consistency. I just wanted to add that bit. Moving on to the next question... Although I understand that after Tokyo, a lot of people weren’t happy. There was a lot of media scrutiny over the athletes and then we decided to go with the high performance director. Now a lot of criticism again has come the HPD’s (High Performance Director) way over the recent past. Since I don’t know what is going on inside the federation, I’d like to directly ask you, because coaches and athletes have expressed their displeasure over certain things. There was also an occasion when another coach was manhandled. Although it would be unfair of me to judge the whole scenario without knowing the full story but I am of the belief that physical altercation isn’t an answer for difference in opinions, especially in a professional setup. There was also one occasion which I heard he landed at the range in Delhi only to find out that the team was travelling for a World Cup. He had apparently no clue regarding the same. What do you have to say about this?

Kalikesh: Without delving into specific details… I don’t think that specific details of incidents are going to be of any help to the fraternity and the aim of building up our shooting team. Let me just say that and as I said in the beginning, thereare differences of opinion. I see differences of opinion. I also see some meeting areas and meeting points where we, as a federation, need to ensure a common meeting thought processes and deliverables. I think, we’ve over the last two or three months, with regular conversations between the high performance teams and the coaches have managed to arrive at a working understanding of what the meeting rounds are. Again, this is anever-evolving process. As we go along, we all tend to learn from the processes, we all tend to ensure to evolve along with the process and see where is the sweet spot for us to ensure their best performance comes out. At this point of time, as we speak today, I can tell you majority of these differences of opinion are now resolved. Our intention is to ensure real time life biofeedback to coaches and shooters. To give you an example, amongst the 60 or 70 different parameters that we can think of, which may or may not impact an individual shooter, we will be able to guide them on things like the quality of their sleep, the nutrition they had, the rest, their mental state of mind, their emotional state of mind when they’re shooting - this is in every practice session I’m talking about - their heartbeat, their breathing rate, their, for air rifle air pistol, the timing of the trigger, whether they were inhaling or exhaling when they were pressing the trigger and what the impact of that is. On the individual shot and collectively over the last so many whatever shooting days, what the impact of a shot has been taking into account all these parameters. So, we’ve really introduced a large number of parameters for data sciences. These parameters have come now from the coaches themselves. And the high performance director and his team have been asked to ensure that individual feedback on each shooter of those in the core team is giving back to the coaches and the shooters. We’re coming up with a methodology where we can do live feedback. So you know, have like a log after she finishes. To see how and where these bio parameters have impacted her shooting and contribute towards it also. And we also intend to give each shooter, this is one of the tasks I’ve asked the high performance director and the coaches to come together and work for, is to give each shooter an individualised training plan. Not every shooter is the same. A lot of shooters shoot well under pressure. A lot of shooters need the emotional support, a lot of shooters have stamina, they have stronger shoulders, you know stronger arms. Some of them… their shoulders are not strong. Some of them have individual injuries. So, all of these get captured and sent out to the entire team and the entire team cohesively works together to provide each shooter an individual training plan where it’s differentiated based on their needs and requirement. Now that’s a huge change that’s come about ever since, I think, Tokyo. I don’t think this existed during Tokyo. So, the NRAI and I are trying to ensure that we bring the latest technology, the latest methodology into shooting and for those shooters who are willing to accept it. And again, you can’t force this down everybody’s throat. I think that could be counterproductive, but the job of the high performance director and his team is to try and persuade, convince and get buy-ins from the entire ecosystem, be it of coaches and the sport science people and the shooters themselves, of course, and to ensure that these people are on board and they start taking advantage of the system we’ve created. And I can tell you, every day as we speak, more and more shooters are coming on board on this. 

Santadeep: Perfect. We all hope that these translate into medals in Paris.

Kalikesh: No, I was going to say thatthe proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have to see how it works out. But, I think, what is important, Santadeep, is that we are looking at, of course, 2024, the Paris Olympics. But, the systems we are creating and the processes we are creating, it may be a little difficult to begin with. I think it will yield a much longer standing result for the sport of shooting if it is allowed to carry on and it’s fine-tuned as we go along. It doesn’t matter who. I’m a systems guy. I don’t think shooting and certainly for any federation or institution, we have to ensure that we build institutions and systems, which bring out the best result and don’t leave it to individual judgments ofpeople and that leads to biases and that leads to all kinds of missteps.

Santadeep: So, completely being respectful towards a fellow journalist, I was reading… I’d call it uncalled for... news reports of Indian shooters violating hotel norms in the junior championship in Korea a few hours ago. Now, if you ask me, equipments might get damaged, you make noodles or not make noodles... That’s not the question. And I also think it is not wrong to find a female shooter inside the room of a male shooter. So, sometimes do you think we are losing track of reality while trying to, you know, sensationalise everything, kind of? 

Kalikesh: Well, I wouldn’t like to comment on the journalistic fraternity, Santadeep, I’ll leave it to you. I think you’ll be a better critique of your own. On this particular incident, since it’s just come out, I can understand that you have concerns, thoughts and maybe some opinions on it or for that matter, the readers would. Let’s just say that for the moment we’ve received some complaints on the conduct of some of these shooters and you know I think it’s a federation’s job to ensure that we differentiate between the more serious complaints and those which could be frivolousin nature and we take considerate action on that on the basis of the seriousness of the complaints. Some of the newspaper journalists have picked it up and aside from that, I think the federation will take up the matter in its own way. Keeping fairness, keeping subjectivity and objectivity in mind. 

Santadeep: Alright, so this should be my last question. You know, with Jaspal Rana returning, although obviously, in a personal capacity, most coaches who were let go after Tokyo by Raninder are back in the fold. So, what are your views on this thing?

Kalikesh: So, I think one of the problems that we have which will impact the long-term viability of shooting is the fact that our bench strength of coaches is limited. And one of the programs that we are pushing out in a major way is to ensure...

Santadeep: Uh, any reason why that is the case? Why are people not willing to take up coaching? Do you have any idea?

Kalikesh: Well, I can’t say what’s happened before I got involved. What I can tell you is once I joined, I’ve spoken to all the very senior athletes who are maybe on the verge of retiring from the competitive aspect of the sport to try and persuade them to become coaches because they have the relevant experiences. They understand how competitive shooting happens. Apart from that, we’ve taken on the ISSF and the NRAI shooting programmes, coaches’ course, the coaches’ program, and I think we’ve done about six of them in batches of 40-50 including judges and juries. So, we’re not only trying to create an ecosystem where the shooters prosper but also what is equally essential is that we create an ecosystem of judges, juries, officials and trained coaches, who can work in the hundreds and thousands of ranges, which have come up across the country. I mean, I was driving from Delhi to Dehradun and on the way from the national highway, I counted eight ranges, advertisements of which I could see from the highway. So that’s the growth of shooting. And we need to ensure that the correct people get correct training and they are able to contribute constructively to the sport. We intend to keep a roster on our website of coaches, who have been trained. We also intend to keep a roster of all the accredited shooting ranges on our website so that shooters who are who create shooting IDs and want to go and shoot across the country, they will have access to information about both coaches, their CVS and the ranges which have been accredited by NRAI.

Santadeep: Alright, thank you so much. It was great having you here Kalikesh. Hope we have many such great conversations in the near future as well and definitely after we bag a few medals in Paris. Thank you so much. 

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