Suma Shirur confident of Indian shooters success post-pandemic

Having performed well before the COVID-19 outbreak, India’s high-performance coach with the junior team believes the shooters will deliver when the Olympics come around.
By Naveen Peter

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the organisers to postpone the Olympic Games, India's shooters have been forced to rework their plans.

Helping them tackle this unexpected problem is former Olympian Suma Shirur.

The past few years have seen Shirur work with the elite of Indian shooting in her role as high-performance coach with the junior rifle team.

The Olympic Channel caught up with the 46-year-old to get a glimpse of how Indian shooting is dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic, the role of the coaches, and the way forward.

You have been the high-performance coach with the Indian junior rifle team for the past two years. How has the experience been?

I think it’s been fantastic. I remember when I took charge of the Indian team back then, the junior team didn’t win a medal at any of the World Cups. But after I joined the team, in the last two years we have won more than 50 medals, have set new world records and dominated most of the competitions that we participated in. I think it’s been a fantastic journey over the past two years.

Indian shooters are extremely talented. And when they go the right direction, they make themselves and make me and the country proud. I have thoroughly enjoyed being with the team.

Given the pandemic situation that we find ourselves in and with the Indian team largely composed of young talents how much does the role of a coach magnify in such times?

I think it’s now that our role has become extremely important. This might not affect the senior shooters as much as it would the juniors because they are young and relatively new. They might not know how to handle such a situation.

Moreover, their bodies are growing and probably after the lockdown they might feel different. Some might be an inch taller, others will be a bit wider… we don’t know. I think they will need the support and the guidance of the coaches so that they are not shooting in all directions. And so that they have a more concentrated line of work.

And, you know, children need other children around. They love hanging out with guys their age. Not being able to have this kind of social contact for this long a time is not easy, especially for children. I think, for our young adults, being locked up in their houses for this long can have its effects. So, the coach needs to keep the shooter motivated, to keep them focused and help them get through the day by giving them a specific task and continue to give them direction even though they are not at the range.

The NRAI has initiated online sessions for international shooters over the past few weeks. How has the conversation on such calls been?

After about a month or so, after the initial high of the lockdown, we realised that it’s time for us to do something before things could start falling apart. So, that’s when we started these video sessions at all levels. I have one with the Olympic squad and one with my academy shooters as well. 

Like I said earlier, young adults and children, they need other youngsters to talk to, laugh and have downtime. That kind of keeps them motivated and keeps them going. These video calls have given them a platform where they can interact with the other youngsters, laugh, chat with them and so on.

For me, the main task is to keep them mentally stimulated. That’s what I am trying to do. So that even when they are doing their dry practice and wall holding, which too can get boring after a certain period, I am giving them certain tasks that they can perform. It’s about keeping it interesting and also to let them understand their muscles better. After all, muscle memory matters a lot in shooting. I am asking them to work on their muscle memory, inner position and so on, so that when the lockdown is lifted and we are back at the range, getting back (on top of their game) will be a lot easier. 

It’s been good so far. Especially with the Olympic squad, we have started with an online physiotherapy and fitness sessions which is to ensure that everybody is keeping themselves fit and ready for the upcoming season.

With no international competition in sight this year, how is Indian shooting planning to approach the remainder of the 2020 season?

Everything is pretty much planned out. We have a plan A, B and C with the priority being that we need to ensure that everyone has the equipment to train at home. Home training is the priority and we have to ensure that everyone on the Olympic squad has a basic one-lane facility at home. Thankfully, shooting is an individual sport and at times we can innovate and come up with ideas where they can train at home.

The second plan is to have camps in isolation only for the Olympic squad in the next few months. And then we have to look forward to competitions, which I don’t think will happen before the end of the year.

Nevertheless, whenever it happens, we have a plan in place. So, even if things are to open up, there will be a lot of care that we will have to take in terms of maintaining hygiene and social distancing. So, keeping that in mind, there will have to be a lot of changes that could happen in future.

Suma Shirur assured that the NRAI has planned for every possibility in the remainder of the season, keeping the shooter’s well being as its core motive. Photo: ISSF

The Indian shooting contingent came into the 2020 season high on confidence, in time to peak just before the Tokyo Olympics. But with the Games being pushed back, how challenging is to recalibrate the programme?

It was very disheartening (to see the Olympic being pushed back) because our shooters were doing extremely well. Of course, this is something that’s out of our hands and this as the most viable solution.

As far as the shooters are concerned, we are on track in terms of keeping them physically fit and organising home training. But then there’s no international calendar this year to make a concrete plan as to how we should train for the Olympics next year.

I think it’s difficult to have a concrete plan (given the uncertainty that still exists), but once the international calendar opens up, it will take close to 3-4 months for them to get back to their best.

But given the talent that our shooters have and the understanding that this pandemic is not just restricted to India and is a worldwide phenomenon, I don’t see why our guys who have done so well in the past, can’t come back to peak form just in time for the Olympics next year.

The NRAI is keen on announcing the Olympic contingent this year. Your thoughts...

The NRAI will be announcing the Olympic squad, that’s your basic team with 2-3 reserve shooters. That’s important so that things can be done and you can protect these shooters and we can organise training camps at a very small number of shooters to ensure that they are ready once the lockdown is lifted and sports resume. Because if you don’t do that, you don’t know whom to work with. You’ll have a very wide range of shooters.

Secondly, these shooters have already done everything that they had to do to keep their place for the last two years. These guys have been performing and delivering results at every single competition and have maintained their level. It’s not an easy job. They have done it for two years and I am sure that they can do it for another year.

I think it’s important to have an Olympic squad in place. We have had an Olympic policy for the past four years and all the shooters have been selected based on their rankings and performance. So, I think it’s important to respect the policy and go ahead with the squad that will include a shooter or two more.

Post Rio 2016, Indian shooting made a conscious decision to focus on its junior programme with an eye on the Tokyo Olympics. You have been an active part of this transition. Could you talk us through the past four years?

2016 was a year where NRAI had to sit back and think of what needs to be done. This is because everything was in place (for the 2016 Olympics) but we didn’t come back with a medal. I appreciate the role of our president and NRAI as an institution for bringing about all these changes.

They involved all the former shooters who were on top of their game in the past and knew what needed to be done to bring home a medal at the biggest stage. Guys who have been there and done it. I think involving them in the entire process was the game-changer for Indian shooting. I appreciate the confidence that the president showed in us to drive the entire programme.

Before 2016, we never had an Olympic policy in place. But this time with the former shooters, the coaches and experts sitting down to draft this policy, it’s been a responsible role for the coaches. And the results are there for everyone to see.