Arpinder Singh suffered a setback when he was dropped from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports’ Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS) core group in late 2020. The scheme extends support to athletes expected to perform well at the Olympics, aiming for the next, postponed, event to be held in Tokyo in July.
Even the TOPS disappointment though didn’t match up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, in which he failed to qualify for the men’s triple jump finals, struggling to clear 16m—his best was 17.17m achieved in June 2014.
He felt confused, started doubting his coach at the time, which is not healthy for a professional sportsperson. When he returned to India, Arpinder could sense people dissing him behind his back, saying that he could achieve nothing except being stylish (his Instagram is flooded with him posing). “That was tough—people who spoke well of me where (now) criticising me,” he says.
Arpinder had trained in London prior to Rio, assuming that a stint abroad would do him wonders and he would get to jumping around 17.5m by the time he head to the Olympics. However, his technique and running style changed during the stint and his performance ended up being different from what he had expected. “He (John Herbert) was a good coach, but our thoughts didn’t match. Everyone has their own way…” he says over the phone from Ludhiana.
For about two months after the Olympics, Arpinder did nothing—he could not do anything because he felt drained. He started eating recklessly and as his weight ballooned, he realised he had to get over the self-pity.
“I was hurt, I was low with the changes (to his technique). I felt I had done so much (in his career up to that point) and it wasn’t that I was 35-40 years old that I could not achieve anything further. So I decided to train in India,” says the 28-year-old, who is originally from Harsha Chhina village in Amritsar district, Punjab.
In August 2018, Arpinder got India’s first men’s triple jump gold medal in the Asian Games in 48 years, with a leap of 16.77m at Jakarta. It was the highest point of his career. Eleven days later, he became the first Indian to win a medal in the IAAF Continental Cup, flinging himself to 16.59m for a bronze.
But Arpinder says he is the kind of person who does not make a big deal of anything, win or loss, having become used to a bit of fame from the time he won a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. His life changed after that—people recognised him, said he has done wonders—before it came crashing down in Rio. He realised the fleeting nature of success and failure and decided to treat them the same.
He does not do any specific mental exercises now, though before getting to the ground, he used to close his eyes and visualise running, hopping, step jumps, and then seeing himself on the podium. In the days leading up to a competition, he tends to talk about “20% less than normal”, keeping it to mostly within the family. One of his best friends is Tajinder Singh Toor, who won the Asian Games gold in shot put, a steady travel companion and someone he reaches out to in need.
The long-jumper takes solace at times in Punjabi music and if he can’t sleep or has free time, he prays. “Not always, sometimes if I think of it,” he says quickly. “If I can’t sleep, I do smaran (remembrance).”
He was stuck at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala without a coach or training partner for a part of last year’s lockdown. He waited for three months for approval to attend a camp in Kerala, losing precious time.
Being stuck indoors was tough even as news would come in about fatalities in Italy, the US, and he would wonder whether it would take 2-3 years for the virus to disappear. With no track, no coaching, at home with limited access to weight training, he consoled himself by saying that the whole world was suffering the same fate.
When he heard last year about the Olympics being postponed, he initially felt disappointed—he has not yet qualified for it. Having won at Asian and the Commonwealth Games, he wants medals at the Olympics and the World Championships. “Everyone has that ambition,” Arpinder says. “I convinced myself that everything happens for a good reason.”
'Mindgames' is a series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure