The 26-year-old archer, ranked No. 9 in the recurve women’s category by the World Archery Federation, says fear is a natural sentiment, whether you are a sportsperson or a businessperson. “I feel it too. Our brain is such that when we are in practice, we don’t feel fear. But under pressure, during a competition, negative thoughts come in. You can’t create the same pressure of competition during practice,” says Kumari over the phone from the Army Sports Institute in Pune (when we spoke last month, she was in training there).
“During the competition, we begin to wonder, what will happen if we lose? Then you focus on why this question came up? If I hadn’t practiced enough or if I don’t have confidence, that’s where the fear comes from. So you start answering it. Accepting that is important. It’s important also to be satisfied with answers to the question: what will happen if you lose,” says Kumari.
She adds that distractions like music or movies are the worst solutions because they work only temporarily. Negative thoughts will come back unless you deal with them. It’s better that when you feel anxious, speak to yourself, to your coach and psychologist, and deal with it.
"Leave it as fear, perform with it," is her advice.
Kumari, whose career-best ranking was No.1 in July 2012, has been to two Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro but is yet to win a medal. She spent most of the lockdown at home, doing yoga and meditation to stay calm and flexible.
She says there are two kinds of meditation practices she follows: One to “feel” the competition and how she wants to perform. Another is to focus on the body and to quieten the mind. “The mind is like a monkey, jumping around,” she says, laughing. “We relax the mind to be clear of thoughts. Meditation improves concentration. Yoga helps too—we shoot 450-500 arrows every day standing for eight hours. For that, you need flexibility in the legs and shoulders.”
Visualisation is an important tool of her preparation. If she is having problems, she visualises what she wants to correct. There are various aspects that come into play during competition—the sound of the next person’s bow may be distracting, for example.
“When we practice,” Deepika says, “we induce pressure. In competition, we feel fear. So we think of it during practice. Whatever problems you may have, you have to deal with it during practice...focus on the body, mind and the breathing.”
She has not competed since November last year, when she finished first in the Asian Continental Qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, which has now been pushed to 2021. Besides, there is no clarity yet about when international competitions in archery will resume.
Over the last couple of years, the Jamshedpur resident has been receiving help from Mugdha Bavare, a sports psychologist associated with the not-for-profit Olympic Gold Quest. “She has taught me everything because I am still a child in mental training,” the archer adds.
Fellow archers often advise each other and seek help. “When I was a junior, I could not ask the seniors because of fear,” she recollects. “I learnt from observation, without asking questions.”
Unlike more physical sports like football, there is little friction between competitors in archery, she says. It is a “calm, non-violent sport”. If someone is staring you down, it’s up to you to take it as a challenge.
Her husband, fellow archer Atanu Das, is calm and relaxed unlike her, she says, admitting that she tends to be aggressive, particularly when things don’t go her way. The two, who got married in June during the lockdown wearing masks in Ranchi, may become the first married couple to represent Indian in the same sport at the Olympics next year.
She talks about the importance of rhythm in archery, saying that during her best moments in competition, her subconscious mind gives her body a certain rhythm. “It’s better that you remember your best form and hold that rhythm. If I am getting bothered during practice (of not finding the rhythm), then I just stop and storm back to the room,” she adds, chuckling.
Ultimately, sport is fun, Deepika says, which she has turned into a profession. “Who says our life is hectic? If you play for fun professionally, it’s not hectic. Sometimes, we have a benchmark, expectations from people and ourselves that we have to achieve this or the other. To maintain that can be a problem but we have the experience to know we have to work harder. That’s a challenge."
“But sports toh bahut achhi cheese hai, yaar (sport is a good thing),” she says.
'Mindgames' is a series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure