Atanu Das’s way of dealing with pressure is by staying in the present. He tries not to think about the future or the past—even in training, every single day. “This is the shot I have to work on, not worry about the next,” says the archer. “I have no time for anything else.”
The 29-year-old, who competed in the archery World Cup stage 1 in April this year in Guatemala City—his first international competition since November 2019—was excited to go into a tournament after 18 months. But once he got there, he felt a little nervous, which he realised was how everyone else felt as well. The long break between competitions, in the end, did not matter, for Das won his first ever World Cup individual gold medal in the men’s recurve.
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It was a strong turnaround for Das, currently ranked 11 in the world, who has battled his way past previous failures to work on his weaknesses and strengthening his resolve.
Last year, Das’s morale was down in the beginning of the pandemic, after the Tokyo Olympics, for which he had prepared well, got postponed. He had been looking forward to it, particularly after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in which he had finished ninth. It took him a month of self-analysis after Rio to understand what he was lacking—he realised the problem was in his mindset and thought process. His search for a psychologist started then, so he could solve the problem logically.
He had earlier failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics selection trials in London by two points and narrowly got knocked out before the quarterfinals in Rio. Such failures used to take him time to recover from, but now, having worked on it, he is able to bounce back almost immediately.
Das has taken help since the 2018 Asian Games from a sports psychologist, who has talked to him about mindset, short-term goals and how to achieve them. She has spoken to him about the “thousands of thoughts” which we get in the human brain and how to handle them with purpose.
“Suppose my opponent has scored 10,” he says, “and I have 20 seconds before my turn, in which 5-6 seconds go in preparation. I have to hit 10, to win. Those five seconds when we hold before release—that’s crucial.
“Lots of thoughts can come in to the head at this point: Will I win? Can I score 10? All of this has to be brought into line and we train specifically for that. Even in training—each arrow is shot for a (score of) 10.”
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After the Tokyo Olympics got postponed to 2021, Das rested for a few days at home and when he realised the lockdown will continue in India for some time, he started working on his fitness with yoga, meditation, core strengthening—whatever was possible at home. He did some archery on a portable target at home—in a 10m range—for two months. He listened to a lot of songs and discovered the streaming service Netflix which, “when you enter, you can’t exit”.
He does not restrict himself to seeking professional help only. Das says whenever he needs to ask someone for assistance, he does it. “If I know someone handles something well, which I don’t, then I ask. I have learnt from others, including from Brady Ellison, the world No. 1 (in the Recurve Men's Individual category).”
It also helps that his wife is the archer Deepika Kumari, who also won an individual gold medal in Guatemala. “We speak every day about our sport, skills, our minds and it helps handle situations,” he adds.
He says the biggest challenge they have as archers is in dealing with the conditions on hand. “We can’t give these excuses—that there was wind or no wind. We have to handle all situations.”
As a sportsman used to travelling often for competitions, he has learnt to enjoy his time outside the country—he does not think of it as being away from home. As a child, when he started at the Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur, he used to feel homesick a bit because he could not get home food, Das remembers laughing. But then he got used to it.
“When success comes, everything else gets managed,” he says.
'Mindgames' is a series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure