Its July 24th, exactly one year to the start of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. If the four year Games cycle was a basketball match, this would be the start of the final quarter. Indian pistol shooter Heena Sidhu though has just called for a timeout. While other athletes might be spending hours, putting in the rounds downrange, the 29-year-old two-time Olympian has stepped away from her sport. "I've not touched my pistol for a month now. I've gone and met my family in Patiala. I've gone to Shimla with (coach and husband) Ronak. I'm playing a lot of video games too," she says.
Superficially, Sidhu's break might seem unearned, for as Olympic buildups go, she's having a particularly bad time. The former World no. 1 pistol shooter has not earned an Olympic quota yet, even as her younger compatriot Manu Bhaker has. And while the stars of Bhaker and other youngsters like 14-year-old Esha Singh (who won a junior world silver as well as three medals at the 2018 nationals) continue to rise, Sidhu's own performance at the elite level has been slipping.
Ever since the Olympic qualification period started at the 2018 World Championships, Sidhu has been struggling with a persistent lack of form. She's not placed higher than 14th at any of the World Cups or the World Championships in the qualification period. Her last World Cup at Munich in May was particularly dismal as she finished in 45th place. Her most recent competition, a national shooting trial on June 24th, was even worse. "It was really not good. I don't even want to say what I shot," Sidhu jokes.
While the results might cause some to double down on their efforts, Sidhu reasons otherwise. "I was anyway scheduled to take a break but I needed this because my graph was clearly heading down," she says.
According to Sidhu, it wasn't that the multiple World, Commonwealth and Asian gold medalist had suddenly become a bad shooter. Indeed, just before her season this year, she had shot a world record-equalling score of 587 at the national shooting trials in December 2018. Sidhu says she had been shooting well in training but competing without a break for the last half year had become mentally fatiguing.
"There are no reserves when I'm trying to shoot in the competition. Without pressure if you are shooting well, that means that you have the technical ability, but when you are shooting under pressure in a match situation, that's when you need the mental strength. In practise, you can work on fine tuning the details and if the result doesn't come immediately, it's fine as long as the fundamentals are correct. But in competition, there is the pressure of what people and you yourself expect from you. The only thing that matters is hitting a ten. Just focusing on performance requires precise focus and that requires a whole lot of mental strength," she says.
The strain has been taking an additional toll on Sidhu especially since women's events are now 60-shot affairs (they earlier used to be 40 shots), with shooters having to dig deeper when finishing the long qualification round. What stressed her out even more was the fact that she knew what was going wrong. "Even in that moment when things are going badly at the World Cups, you know what has to be done but the problem is that you are not able to execute. If I was a coach, I would be able to tell a shooter what to do, but i am unable to do it myself," she says.
"I strongly believed shooting is a mixture of science and art. Science is the technique you try to build. That if you shoot at this angle, this will happen. But to actually do that is an art. For art to happen, you need to be mentally fresh. You need to be able to create something. You need to be a little hungry and to be hungry, you need to have shot less. If I tell you to eat eat eat and then tell you to be a food critic, you won't really manage, will you?" she says.
Sidhu believes it was important to take a break now rather than risk a worse sort of mental burnout. "If you keep shooting this way, you make a habit out of it. Eventually you get scared of shooting and you feel, arre mere se to hota hi nahi hai (I just can't do this). It's always better to take a break and realise you aren't there yet and it doesn't take anything away from you," she says.
This isn't the first time though that Sidhu, who has been competing internationally for over a decade now, says she has been fatigued this way. The difference ironically was that she wasn't as committed to shooting as she is now. "I would be able to just push through it. I was a lot fresher mentally back then. I couldn't be obsessed about shooting because I was studying. I had to take a break to go back to my studies. When you have nothing else to do, be it work or family or children, it becomes harder. When you devote 24 hours of your day to shooting, you get exhausted a lot faster," she says.
So far, she says the break has been working. "I'm sleeping a lot less now - just about seven hours a day. Over the last few months I could be in bed for nine hours and I would still feel tired at the end of it all," she says. And while she had nothing to do with her pistol for several weeks, Sidhu says she's starting to miss her weapon a bit now. "Just out of nowhere, a thought about shooting will pop into my head. And there are moments when I start to miss the sound of pistols firing on the range," she says.
The true test of whether her break has worked though will be seen When she does return to the range, sometime in August. "Hopefully by then my reserves will be topped up," she says. If she does return to her best, Sidhu isn't worried about qualifying for Tokyo. "Theek hai (It's ok). I've got time and i have done it before. I'm doing what is required for that. I'm mentally comfortable with where I am. I've done it before and I can do it again," she says.