Shooting is a way of life, not a sport, says pistol shooter Heena Sidhu
India's ace pistol shooter Heena Sidhu on the philosophy that helps her balance victory and defeat both on and off the shooting range
Professional shooters have strict diets, and if you are a star with multiple World Cup and Commonwealth Games gold medals, things are obviously more stringent.
However, the Punjabi in ace pistol shooter Heena Sidhu couldn't resist relishing some hot parathas almost as soon as she entered the mid-day office recently for a brand new episode of Meet Your Icon, where young fans get the opportunity to come face-to-face with their sporting heroes.
"Cofee is my weakness and since I'm not training at the moment, I can have some," said Sidhu, almost covering up for her guilty pleasure, "And being a Punjabi, I cannot say no to parathas," she said cracking us all up.
Watch the video, as Heena Sidhu opens up about her journey from dentist to shooter:
In a detailed interaction with mid-day, Heena spoke of how her journey as a shooter began, by the swapping of metals, when she had to put away dentistry equipment to pick up a gun. She touched upon her No. 1 ranking in 2014 and highs and lows thereafter.
Heena loves art and all things that define human performance. She also spoke about her life on and off the shooting range with her coach — husband Ronak Pandit.
Besides being a shooter, you are also a qualified dentist. Can you take us through this unique combination of professions?
Shooting happened very late in my life. I was more of a student. I was totally into academics and always wanted to be a doctor. I was a very bright student throughout my school and college years. I started shooting when I was 17. These days, kids start very early. I didn't start shooting thinking that I will make a profession out of it. I just wanted to start something to give me a break from my hectic study schedule. So I started it off like a hobby, but later, I started winning medals and that kept me going and eventually it became a profession.
When did you realise that shooting was going to be your sport?
When I started shooting and later, even after I made the India team, I always thought that I will be here for five or six years and then get back to dentistry. I really enjoyed dentistry, so I thought I will return to a career in medicine. But when I was studying for my graduation, I went to my first Olympics [London 2012]. So just before the Games, I was training and studying for my exams and treating patients — all at the same time. It was very hectic. That's when I realised that I can't be doing this. Eventually, I have to decide what I wanted to do. I can't be half a dentist and half a shooter. That way, I won't be good at either. At my first Olympics, I also realised how close I was because I lost my finals in the last three shots. I was going fifth and sixth and if my last three shots were 10s, I would have made it to the finals. So that made me decide to take up shooting as a profession.
Your husband Ronak is also a shooter. How did you both meet? Did you two hit it off instantly?
No, not instantly. I met Ronak in 2009 through a common friend and in 2010 we were training together under the same coach. That's when I started talking to him and we went out for lunches and dinners, all of us trainees as a group. That's when I got to know him better. In 2012, when I went to my first Olympics, my coach then began training the Indian team while I wanted to train alone. That's when Ronak decided to help me with my training. So, a friend became a coach and then a husband.
So, what are the pros and cons of having your husband as your coach?
As for the pros, he knows the sport and has been-there-done-that many times. He makes sure he is still shooting, so that he understands the shooter's point of view. And of course, he knows me a lot better than anyone else. So, he brings that combination of knowing me and knowing the sport, when he is coaching me.
As for the cons, I think it's very difficult to switch off when your husband is also your coach because you don't tend to leave behind shooting at the range. When you come home, you keep talking about shooting. So there has to be that balance. You have to learn how to strike that balance. For other shooters, they work with their coach and then have their normal life where they go out, meet friends, watch TV and sort of switch off. So we had to learn how to switch off.
Heena makes a point while interacting with mid-day's Harit N Joshi
Besides Ronak and yourself, your father-in law Ashok Pandit is also an ex-shooter. So, are talks at home all about guns and bullets?
Yes, that's exactly what I was just telling you. It's very important to switch off. But when we three are together, we talk about shooting in general and not about what I am doing or where I am going. We talk about what can be done for the sport or what's going on at the range. What's happening at the NRAI [National Rifle Association of India], when are the next matches and stuff. It's not about me.
A lot of young shooters are doing well, like Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary, among others. As seniors you compete with them but do you also mentor them?
It's a great time for Indian shooting but no, there is no mentoring as such. The junior India team has a separate coach and the senior team has their separate coach. In fact, they have separate camps too. Only, if they are selected in the senior team, do we train together. Then too, since shooting is a very individual sport, everyone has their own way of doing things. For example, I am good friends with [pistol shooter] Rahi Sarnobat and [rifle shooter] Gagan Narang but we don't talk about shooting. Besides, they are already training with their coach, while we are under our coach, so there is no mentoring as such. With most parents now also looking at other sports besides cricket, there are a lot of young shooters coming in and you see them being provided the right knowledge because of the new coaches that NRAI has hired. That's a great thing, but we [senior shooters] have no hand in it.
Shooters have strict diets. What's on your to-eat and not-to-eat list?
I follow a rather simple diet. I try not to have a lot of coffee or tea. I had coffee this morning here because I am off shooting for a couple of days. So, when I'm off it, I try to cheat here and there. I try not to have sugar. Whatever sugar you get in form of fruits and stuff is enough. I also try not to have refined carbohydrates. I prefer more nuts and protein in my diet. There is this notion that you should eat frequently through the day in small portions, but I don't agree with that. I think you should eat well to ensure you don't keep binging in between meals because that keeps your insulin levels high throughout the day. And you need to let your insulin levels coming down for a while. Shooters don't like that insulin rush. So you eat well, give your body time to digest that food, and then there should be like a fasting phase. And yes, hydration is very important.
How do you get into your zone while training?
You have to create that storm in practice. Have people sit around you and have them shout at you. Have them create that pressure around you because no amount of pressure that you create in training is going to be equal to competition pressure. So it's good to create as much pressure you can. Go through the storm every day, so you know your way out.
You spoke about the mistakes that you have made. Can you share some inputs on that mindset when errors are happening and you are trying to overcome them?
I believe an athlete either wins or either learns. Even defeats teach you so much. Like, what actually could have been done right. So you have to take shooting as a science and not a sport. There is a reason to everything that happens with you. So you have to first write down what happened today, what could have been done better, and why do you think it's like this and how to improve on it. It's like maths and science. You have to keep working on it and keep noting down your progress so that you know that today you were better than yesterday. Or if not then at least you won't repeat the same mistake. Or even if you do, the margin would have decreased. So that's how you see yourself growing as a shooter. You see the confidence and it gives you that belief that your are going in the right direction. Like, I may not be there today but I will get there tomorrow. It's like how you prepare for your examinations? Don't you prepare in the same way? You make sure that you have covered this chapter and that chapter and then you go through the same chapters again and again so that you have understood everything well. It's the same with your shooting.
So, say for example, if you have an exam on this particular day, you have to make sure that you have to complete your work before that and while you do that, you have to keep ticking the boxes on the way. But shooting is technically not like that. You have to keep meandering a bit too. You learn one thing, then you forget the other. Or unlearn the other. So, you have to keep going back and forth till you get it right. That's all there is to it.
Everyone's looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics after India's fine show at the Asian Games. What's your preparation like in the run-up to the Games?
Before the Tokyo Olympics, the most important thing is getting that quota spot. So we have a few World Cups coming up next year and that is our main goal — the World Cups and Asian Championships. As for training for the Olympics, there is no specific method or path of training keeping the Games in mind. You have to simply keep training to be a better shooter. And that's always going on. You have to learn from every round, every competition. Then, you make your plans accordingly. So it's an ongoing process.
Of course, for the Olympics you train much harder. In terms of the pressure you are going to face, that's the biggest thing. That's the difference between training for a National Championship and training for the Olympics. To make sure you are tough enough to follow the process in the hardest conditions. Other than that, what you do before the Olympics or any other event, is the same.
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Heena Sidhu on her journey from a dentist to a shooter