Over the last four months, as many as four Indian shooters have died by suicide, of which two were reportedly because of stress related to performance in the sport while the other two had mixed reasons. The exact reasons are not yet clear.
In September, Mohali resident Namanveer Singh Brar decided to end his life. He was a bronze-medallist from the World University Games. A month later, in October, state-level shooter Hunardeep Singh Sohal took the extreme step allegedly because of an injury affecting his career prospects in the sport.
Earlier this month, pistol shooter Khushseerat Kaur Sandhu, who also went to the Junior World Championships in Peru earlier this year, died by suicide. The alleged reason was unsatisfactory scores at the National Championships. A few days after that, rifle-shooter Konica Layak took her own life. She couldn’t qualify for the Nationals after being disqualified at the GV Mavalankar tournament for target manipulation.
None of the four were even 30, with Brar being the eldest at 28.
WRONG WAY TO JUDGE YOUNG ATHLETES AFTER LOCKDOWN
“The last two years were really tough for the entire world (because of the pandemic), especially for these young kids who had never experienced anything like that. You couldn’t go out of the house, no school or colleges, no social life. There are a lot of things that could have played a role,” said Jaspal Rana talking to TimesofIndia.com.
Rana was the long-time chief national coach of India’s junior pistol shooters before the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) ended contracts of all its coaches earlier this month in the wake of the sport’s debacle at Tokyo Olympics, where India didn’t win any shooting medal.
File image of (from left) pistol coach Jaspal Rana, Manu Bhaker and NRAI president Raninder Singh. (Twitter Photo)
Rana has worked with shooters as young as the 14-year-old Naamya Kapoor, who won the 25m Pistol gold at the Junior World Championships, where Khushkeerat was also part of the Indian team.
The Dronacharya awardee fees resumption of competitions after a two-year gap could be taking a toll, where the expectation levels remained the same despite limited-to-no training for two years, which he thinks is an imbalanced way to judge the youngsters.
“Somebody could be very good in 2018, but for the next two years, there was no training, no or limited access to shooting facilities or practice, lack of coaching. All that was zero. And all of a sudden in 2021, they had to perform.
“One has to be a little more patient, and people around these young kids should have even more patience,” the 45-year-old Rana further told TimesofIndia.com.
Could there be any flaws in the system that, if corrected, can prevent such incidents?
It’s a vital aspect of finding ways to address the mental state of athletes in a sport where the players are handling actual weapons in some events, like the 25m and 50m events involving 0.22 caliber pistols and rifles.
“My first reaction to kids handling such weapons was that I was not personally comfortable with it. Air rifle and pistol is a different thing, but these 25m and 50m events are different,” an insider previously involved with the sport told TimesofIndia.com on the condition of anonymity.
“A tennis player can perhaps break racquets, same with badminton players, in cricket smashing balls and bats. For shooters, frustration cannot be taken out on the weapon. You need to internalize it, absorb it and somehow deal with it.”
The concern was brought to the NRAI’s attention a few years earlier, but it seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
“People are not really interested in listening…There is some kind of conflict of interest between some NRAI officials and people who are actually benefiting from the boom in shooting. Sale of weapons and ammunition is one thing,” the insider said, pointing at vested interests.
“I have not put any official recommendations because this (children as young as 12-13 shooting 0.22) has happened over the last four or five years. For the last few years, I have not been working in an official capacity. So I have not been traveling with any of the (national) teams. Before that I was mainly working with the senior team. Now I am mostly observing this change from outside.”
Talking about the import of weapons and ammunition, a prominent shooter (who shoots the qualification scores at Nationals) is eligible to import guns and pistols, with restrictions related to events, as well as the type and number of weapons.
The more the number of participating shooters at the Nationals, the more the number of prominent shooters, which leads to more weapons being imported under the name of those shooters.
“That particular thing keeps everyone happy. Weapon sales are booming, and people are also overall happy. Lot of players also get motivated, so to say,” said the source who requested to remain anonymous.
WHAT CAN THE PARENTS DO?
When a Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary or, lately, Naamya Kapoor win international medals as teenagers, the aspirations of the parents of budding shooters escalate. And it becomes a problem when those expectations reach a level where it adds to the stress on young minds.
“We have seen a lot of pressure these kids face from the family side to perform. And not only perform, to win. People go for short-term goals, jaldi (quick). That thing doesn’t really work,” said pistol coach Rana, who won 8 Asian Games medals in his playing career, including 4 golds.
“It takes nine months for a full-term childbirth. What happens if it is before that time period? The baby is premature. There will be complications that can be life-threatening to both mother and the child. It’s the same. Time is everything, don’t rush.”
(Naamya at the podium in Peru – Photo: TOI arrangement)
Shooting is an expensive affair, too. An air pistol can cost up to Rs 1.5 lakh, an air rifle goes beyond 2 lakh, a shotgun usually starts at Rs 5 lakh. A 0.22 bullet is around Rs 20 each, while shotgun cartridges are around Rs 50 each. Then there are range fees, coaching fees, travel expenses and so on.
So even for training, the expenditure amounts to lakhs and the pressure of bearing those costs for their young teens falls on the parents’ pockets. So when these parents see young shooters excelling at the international level and winning cash prizes from the government, the expectations mount and unknowingly the parents start putting performance pressure on the kids.
“As you said, parental aspirations,” said the anonymous source. “What happens is that once you perform, for example at the Commonwealth Games level, and end up winning a medal, there are huge monetary prizes given. That, of course, acts as motivation; and kids coming from smaller districts become celebrities there.
“Everyone (all shooters) is really spending a lot of money, paying coaches, buying weapons trying to perform at that level. But if you are not able to do that, how do you really handle that particular failure? Whether you really leave the sport as someone who has failed at doing something or you just enjoy it as a sport, take the positive memories, get on with your studies and pursue something else?
“This transition part is also extremely important, to not feel like a failure but genuinely enjoy the sport; and if at some stage you feel you are stagnating and you want to quit or you want to move onto something else, you are able to transition and you take very positive memories with you. For that, counseling is very important.”
THE ROLE OF SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY
In a country where sports is not a part of popular culture and getting permanent jobs is always in the top half of the priority list, the balancing act is a difficult thing to do. If you pursue sport seriously, then somewhere academics are compromised and resultantly the academics-driven job prospects. If the athlete is exceptional at the sport then of course many other doors open up.
In those trying situations, a mental breakdown becomes a possibility, especially when you are in your 20s and trying to shape your career.
Both Brar and Konica were in their late 20s. Sport may not be the complete reason behind their decision to end their lives, but it could have played a part.
Konica, who had a rifle gifted to her by Bollywood actor and philanthropist Sonu Sood, was training at Olympian Joydeep Karmakar’s academy in Kolkata. The former Olympian was very generous in offering his training facility to Konica after learning about her plight.
@sonusood सर मेरी बंदूक़ आ गई।मेरे परिवार में ख़ुशी की लहर फैल गई है और पूरा गाँव आपको आशीर्वाद दे रहा है। जुग जुग… https://t.co/fT8rNdw07o
— Konica Layak (@konica_layak) 1624693192000
For the last few days before she took her life, Konica was irregular to practice. But it’s still unknown what, if anything, was affecting her mental well-being.
Counseling for not just performance related issues, but also personal matters therefore becomes very very important. What are things like at home, are there any other pressures the athletes are dealing with, what is the financial situation of the parents and is that adding to stress? All this should ideally fall within the purview of sports counseling and therapy.
“Having a psychologist at each level and maybe some kind of psychological evaluation also is important; not just the training perspective, but also like whether someone is really equipped to handle a gun or not, someone has attitude (issues) or say has suicidal tendencies or suicidal thoughts or someone going through depression at some stage,” the source further told TimesofIndia.com.
“That evaluation is important. But this whole thing has to be handled very maturely…It’s not an easy thing to do but some evaluation is definitely required.”
DON’T IGNORE PHYSICAL WELL-BEING
While talking to TimesofIndia.com, the shooting fraternity source quoted a former foreign coach of the Indian team without naming the individual.
“One of the foreign coaches with the team earlier used to jokingly say that India, after maybe 10 years, will have a very good (shooting) team at the Paralympics. All the shooters who are training so hard at a young age, they are going to hurt their back and neck and physically damage it so much that some of them may end up having very serious injuries,” the source said.
The point being made was that the game could take a toll on the body of the shooters, especially when they start training hard under pressure at a young age.
Besides hand-eye coordination stress, the neck and torso bear most of the brunt, where the athlete has to constantly turn to shoot. Doing that from an early age repeatedly and for hours on end can lead to serious physical complications later on in life.
“When the body is so young, let’s say anybody less than 15 years old, if they train so hard, the way they are doing, in the next few years they are going to damage the body significantly,” said the source. “So these issues most parents are also not aware of, and many of the shooting fraternity people haven’t also understood these underlying physical issues.”
LEVEL OF GRASSROOT COACHES
From 2008 onwards, after Abhinva Bindra won the historic individual 10m air rifle gold at the Beijing Olympics, the sport became more accessible, especially the air events. Ten-meter ranges started coming up in neighborhoods and the air weapons resultantly became more accessible, while the knowledge about shooting as a sport and industry also grew.
But this development faltered in one aspect – the corresponding growth in coaching structure and quality of grassroot coaches didn’t happen. To address that dearth and demand, experienced national-level shooters started coaching at these small ranges, and some of them produced international shooters as well.
But what, perhaps, went missing was deep-rooted knowledge about the mental and physical requirements of the sport beyond the age-old brick-tied dry holding practice.
Where the NRAI can come in and play a vital role now is by introducing a proper qualification and registration process for former shooters, who can enroll in these programmes and become well versed with all aspects of coaching, including recognising the mental and physical requirements of the sport.
Perhaps the federation can use the expertise of people like Bindra, Gagan Narang and Karmakar, who are successfully running training facilities.
In fact, after hearing the incidents of suicides by shooters, Bindra came forward to offer his support to the NRAI.
“I think training of coaches is extremely important. It needs to be a regular process. I think there are some ISSF-certified coaches and ISSF runs those programmes. But those are expensive, so not everyone can afford them. So it’s very necessary to invest in coaches and create this whole system of supporting the sport,” the source added.
Rana rounded-off his comments to this important discussion on valuing life as a whole by articulating what he learnt through his experience as a shooter.
“Life is more important than anything else. You never know when life has something for you. When you feel that you have achieved everything, at that point you might realize that you have nothing. And sometimes when you feel you have nothing, then suddenly something comes up out of nowhere. So one has to keep working hard.
“God can change your fortunes at any time.”