When M Sreeshankar leapt to a distance of 8.26 metres at Patiala in March, he not only qualified for the Tokyo Olympics 2021, but also achieved a personal best distance in long jump. It improved upon his previous best of 8.20m, a national record then, set in Bhubaneshwar two-and-a-half years before that.
More than that, the jump helped Sreeshankar silence his distractors, who believed that the 21-year-old may not fulfil his potential. The gap between Bhubaneshwar and Patiala was long enough for his critics to doubt his ability to achieve higher glory.
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“People said I would not be able to breach the 8:20 mark,” he says over the phone from his home near Palakkad, Kerala. “The expectation from high performance (the Sports Authority of India’s select set of chosen competitors) athletes is always high. They expect us to get records every time. But that doesn’t happen every day. Every aspect and condition needs to be perfect for that personal best to happen.”
What Sreeshankar did was shrug off all the negative comments directed at him, focusing instead on getting into proper shape for competitions. “If a cricketer doesn’t score a century, people start to criticise. If he does not perform for 2-3 matches, they criticise. But in the next match, if he scores a ton, they stop. That happens to all athletes—for every down, there is an upward phase also,” he adds.
The most difficult phase of his nascent career was the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Doha in September 2019, in which he failed to qualify for the finals. He felt low that day, but his parents goaded him to be more mature. Two weeks later, he had a gold medal at the Indian Open in Ranchi with a jump of 7:93m.
His father, S Murali, a former international triple jumper, and mother K S Bijimol, once an 800m runner, know how to handle stressful conditions, teaching him to deal with this aspect of the sport. He came out of the low phase more focussed. The best moment of his career is this 8.20m jump, making him one of only about a dozen Indian athletes to have qualified for Tokyo so far.
He says a jump of above 8:35-8:40m can get him an Olympic medal but he would have to make a lot of corrections to his technique. He is focussed on getting the right rhythm in his runup followed by a powerful take-off, which he feels will get him the results (the bronze medal in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics went to a jump of 8.29m).
He has consulted with a sports psychologist in the past and acted on the suggestion of doing some yoga, visualisation and breathing exercises—besides 10 minutes of meditation every morning—to help control his nerves during competitions. He feels it was beneficial—he used to have anxiety problems which forced some mistakes.
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He watches movies for distraction, switches to PUBG—before it got banned—or Candy Crush—after the ban—and other simple mobile games to relax his mind. Sometimes, he carries his books during competition so he can revise for his BSc Math exams.
He ends up shuttling between National Institute of Sports, Patiala, and home in Kerala. Long-distance travel can be an issue for Sreeshankar—he makes sure he is well hydrated, gets good quality sleep and does some mobility exercises during the long flight so his body does not feel tight.
The covid-19 lockdown in 2020 was a blessing in disguise for Sreeshankar because it gave him time to prepare for competitions, though there were none in 2020. He was confident that given enough time, he could transform for the 2021 season. The whole family created a bubble in Palakkad—parents and five cousins, some of them basketball players and a tennis player—to train together.
His father is his mentor and coach and though Sreeshankar does not seek others’ opinion, Murali is open to suggestions on technical aspects or corrections from other coaches. “Every coach has a different view point and a different side to a technical event. They have good and bad opinions,” says Sreeeshankar. “Dad takes it into account. There are factors that he may not properly recognise and others may. That’s his good quality—he has an open mindset to accept where I am going wrong and make corrections accordingly.”
“The most challenging aspect (of being an international sportsperson) is managing pressure. There is a lot of expectation on athletes like us—we should know how to deal with it. I am an optimist—I don’t sit back and think about what I did wrong and stay low. I quickly recover after one day and get back to work.”
'Mindgames' is a series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure