Distractions are to be expected if you are Neeraj Chopra. When the Olympic javelin throw champion got to the warm up track next to Budapest’s National Athletics Center at the World Championships on Tuesday evening, he dealt with his fair share of them.
There was the obligatory selfie with Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem and a few bytes with the media along with his agent. Chopra smiled and gave time. Coach Klaus Bartonietz didn’t seem too enthused and you could sort of see why.
Just two days before he competes in the most high-profile event of the year, the weight of the country’s track and field hopes rest once again on the 25-year-old’s broad shoulders.
Other Indians, despite the best of preparations, have crumbled in the crucible of the hardest track and field event of the season. In such circumstances, you would want India’s high-profile Olympic athlete to steer clear of distractions as much as possible.
-The pre-competition ritual-
Neeraj though isn’t stressing too hard. Shortly after he arrived at the ground, he made a quick recce of the stadium complex. Then after he completed a light practice session and Chopra headed once more to the main stadium.
That’s part of his pre-competition ritual.
When he gets to the stadium he sits there in the stands, unbothered by the locals and watches Gianmarco Tamberi add bragging rights to his rivalry with Mutaz Barshim and win gold in the men’s high jump.
He gets to see Laulauga Tausaga smash her personal best by four meters and beat Olympic champion Valarie Allman and World Champion Feng Bin of China. He cheers as Soufiane El Bakkali one-ups Lamecha Girma to take steeplechase gold.
And as he watches champions do what they need to do, Chopra says he feels a switch turns in him. “That’s how I get into the zone,” he says. “I always like to go to ground when I get to a tournament. You get the vibes of the place. That’s when I get the feeling that I am here. When I go to my room in the evening. I will enter a completely different zone,” he says.
Chopra doesn’t need a pep talk, no counselling on how to deal with competition pressure. What he needs is to step into the stadium and feel the atmosphere to become part of it. “I get into the zone when I come into the ground. There’s nothing special I need to do outside that. The moment I get into the ground, any other thoughts that I might be carrying from my room be it the family or anything is over. Once I enter, 90 per cent of the talk around me is about sports. And that’s why we are here. When we are talking about that, I focus on it. When I’m in the competition, I focus on the competition. And for that I just have to go to the ground,” he says.
It’s not that there’s any lack of stray thoughts floating around. Chopra had to deal with injury worries that took a big chunk out of the middle of this season. He has returned well enough but he is aware of the fact that he suffered a groin injury at last year’s Worlds too.
-Neeraj consoles Sable-
He also can’t help but notice the fact that the Indian team has had one long struggle session in Budapest. Just in the hour after he arrived at the warm-up track both Jyothi Yarraji (100m hurdles) and Krishan Kumar (800m) ran well below their personal best. No Indian athlete has advanced from the preliminary rounds. Perhaps, the most disappointing result so far was that of steeplechaser Avinash Sable who didn’t make the final.
It’s a result that’s surprised Chopra too but he says he has advised Sable to learn from the result.
“I saw Avinash was upset. Felt bad for him because he works so hard. I told him you have done well and will do well. It’s important to believe in yourself. Sometimes you break but you have to go back out and train once again and then prove yourself in the next competition,” Chopra says.
His mantra is simple. “Don’t be disappointed after a loss. Don’t get too excited after a win. If you lose, just go out and train again. If you win just go outside and train again also. It’s important to stay consistent,” he says.
-Learning from failures-
Chopra speaks from experience. He might be one of the favourites in the men’s javelin throw right now, but at his first World Championships back in 2017, Chopra didn’t even make the final, finishing just outside the automatic qualification after trying to save energy for the finals.
“London in 2017 was my biggest learning experience. The qualification standard was 83m. I thought I would get that easily. But I didn’t push myself because I was saving myself and then I didn’t qualify. I think I learned a lot by not getting to the final. I learned to give my best in qualification. I had to try and qualify in my first throw so I could focus completely on the final. I learned to do that both in Tokyo (Olympics) and at Eugene (2022 World Championships). I keep that in mind for every competition,” he says.
What he figured out in London was just one example of what Chopra says are constant life lessons. “The biggest difference I tell people between what I was in 2016 (when he first competed at the senior level) and now is I’m older. I’ve had both good and bad experiences. In 2016 I had a good experience when I won the junior world championships but also bad because I couldn’t go to Rio. I had a bad result in qualification at the World Championships. In 2018 had the Commonwealth and Asian Games gold and then in 2019 I was injured. In 2020 we had Covid and I was thinking that the Olympic journey will be spoiled,” he says.
The learning has continued even when he seemed to have it all figured out with gold at Tokyo and multiple victories in the Diamond League. “From 2021 I learned how my mindset can compete against the best throwers and give them a fight. When you win against top throwers in a big competition, your mindset opens. That mindset is the biggest thing that’s changed since I started competing. Before that, I felt these guys are too strong. I didn’t know how I could compete. I felt I couldn’t win. After the Olympics and Diamond League wins, I feel this is just a mental game. But I learned from all of those years,” he says.
The only solution Chopra can give his teammates is to replicate that as much as possible. “Our athletes are trying their best but we should try to compete internationally as much as possible. We need to compete with these guys. We need to get used to that feeling of a big competition and understand how to deal with the pressure of performing,” he says.
Eventually, Chopra says it will click. “You have to believe in yourself. You have already done a lot to get to this point. You have to keep that focus on yourself. That you have already done. Just focus on doing well here. You have to keep the focus on yourself, not on others,” he says.
Even at what might be considered the peak of his powers though, Chopra says he’s still got more work to do. The key to performance at competitions like the World Championships has been about managing anxiety – something many Indians haven’t been able to do. Although Chopra’s done it better than most, he admits it’s not always been easy.
“Right now I feel I still have more to learn (in how to reduce anxiety before big competitions). It’s true that after the Olympics I’ve won competitions and I’ve been getting a position every time I compete. But that wasn’t always the case. I first played the Diamond League in 2017 and it was only in 2022 that I started winning. I used to go and have an OK performance but never win. The only thing you can do (in such a situation) is to accept it. You have to tell yourself Koi nai (It doesn’t matter) and think that you will do better in the future,” he says.
-Fighting anxiety and tension-
That anxiety is impossible to eliminate. Most of the cause of it for Chopra these days isn’t due to competition but his own body.
“The tension comes in because I want to focus on just the sport but there are other things I have to think about. If you have had an injury, you are tense that stuff shouldn’t go wrong on the big stage. I just want to play in competitions where I can control my body and can give 100 per cent. I don’t want to be thinking I can injure myself or I can’t give 100 per cent because I have pulled something. Last year I had a bit of trouble because I pulled a muscle in my fourth throw of the final. Hopefully, I’ll stay fully fit over here. There’s no other problem. I’m praying just to stay injury free,” he says.
Indeed Chopra is coming into the World Championships having only competed twice this year. “The plan was to play more competition. I wanted to compete in Turku, at the Paavo Nurmi Games and the Ostrava Golden Spike and maybe even the Asian Championships. But after my injury, I didn’t want to push myself too hard because we had the Asian Games and the Worlds, which are the most important. I wanted to be fully fit for this. ” he says.
He feels he’s ready. “I think I can do well here. I did well in Doha (Diamond League where he recorded a season’s best throw of 88.67m). Conditions were tough there. There was a lot of headwind. That was there. I think we have very good conditions here. The athletes in the other events are performing well and I think that’s a good sign for me. This year we haven’t had a lot of big throws (not a single thrower has crossed 90m so far this season) I think there will be a good throw here. I think someone will crack 90m and hopefully it will be me,” he says.
As the countdown begins for his event, Chopra is starting to feel at home. “I had a good training camp in Switzerland. I was feeling very good and I felt even better when I got to the ground (in Budapest). The ground atmosphere is great. All events are going on well and I’m just waiting for my event to start. I just want to focus on that and do well,” he says.
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