The lowest phase of Annu Rani’s career came during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, where she finished sixth. The 28-year-old javelin thrower felt that she had worked hard enough leading up to the event—Rani had not gone home for a while because she was at the National Institute of Sport, Patiala, training—to deserve a medal. The lack of one earned her an important lesson.
“I have learnt that we have enjoy what we do, like we used to as children. We have to learn to do it without apprehension. That’s when you get results,” says Rani over the phone.
“We get too attached to results. Then things go wrong. I allowed the pressure of having to do well get to me, and then I started making mistakes. Ours is a technical event. Every little detail matters, like where we hold the javelin to when we increase our speed (in the run up to the throw). But when we focus on throwing far, we lose sight of this technique.”
That failure to get a medal left her feeling low and she felt like quitting the sport at the age of 26. She went home to Meerut in Uttar Pradesh and her parents helped get her out of the slump.
Her return to form came with a bang the next year, becoming the first Indian to qualify for the IAAF World Championships in Athletics finals with a throw of 62.43m in September-October 2019 in Doha. It also became a new national record, in the name of the athlete who has broken the national record multiple times.
“No one expected me to reach the finals and (at one point) of getting to the fifth position. I felt that anything could now happen in life,” she says. She eventually finished 8th.
Since that Asian Games loss, Rani tried different psychologists, seeking assistance to get over the failure. “It helps to talk—and one should seek help. Your mind feels lighter. When we work hard and the results don’t come, we get sad because the sacrifice does not yield results. Psychologists, for example, tell you that it happens to others as well. You feel assured and motivated.”
The early months of lockdown following a global pandemic, since March last year, was tough for her. She was stuck at the NIS hostel along with other athletes—sportspeople are not used to sitting in a room, they need activities. She read a bit, including the Bhagwat Gita, watched videos on YouTube, besides inspirational sports-related movies like the 2013 film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and 2014’s Mary Kom.
When she got the news (of the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by a year), she was still working on her qualification for the mega event. But she was not hugely disappointed with the one-year delay, because she would get more time to prepare. Currently ranked No.12 in World Athletics, Rani would need to break her own record to meet the qualifying standard for Tokyo, which is 64m, before the deadline of 29 June. Her best in the last truncated season was 61.15m in the ACNW League Meeting 6 in Potchefstroom, South Africa, in early March 2020.
Since international competition entails a lot of travel, she uses music as a tool to calm her mind. She does not have any preferences, except to find the rhythm that works for her. There are occasions when she may want to listen to something in Haryanvi, which takes some of the stress off her mind.
“Travel can get lonely,” she says, “but it also becomes a habit. We have to keep travelling anyway so I focus on the plan, take the weather into consideration, what to eat, what to train with… this is a technical sport, so I would always have something to correct in my form.”
The most challenging aspect of being an international sportsperson is training, says the athlete, who also competed in the 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles in the early part of her career. Competition lasts only a few hours, while travel requires some hours of sitting. But training is tough, with each move to be repeated daily, for days and months at a stretch.
“I have learnt that if you make no mistakes, you can’t progress. When you do badly, you feel ‘why is this happening to me only’. But you have to get out of it to feel strong again. If there is no toil, you cannot be strong. You will not know the value of something if you don’t struggle for it.”
She has no fear of losing: “We win some, lose some,” says the four-time national champion.
'Mindgames' is a series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure