June 2022 | 1900 words | 7-minute read
There was something about archery that captivated the 10-year-old Purnima Mahato. She couldn’t stay away from the kids lined up with bamboo bows practicing their draw-and-shoot skills on a playground in Jamshedpur on her way to school. While other children rushed to play with friends after school, a young Purnima, unbeknownst to her family, would head back to the playground full of budding archers to watch.
Very soon, though, watching from the sidelines ceased to be enough.
“So, I walked up to the trainer and asked if I could try archery, too. He told me of course I could, and I started training there. My family didn’t know that I was doing this. They assumed that like other children who used to go out to play after school, I was doing the same,” Ms Mahato tells Tata.com.
She finally told her family about it when she came across an opportunity to compete. Though the competition was to be held in Jamshedpur, the venue was a bit too far away for a child to travel alone. Her family proved to be very supportive. Her father accompanied her to the competition, and when she won the third place and wept, he encouraged her to practice harder to win the top spot the next time.
It was the start of an illustrious career that saw her became the sub-junior champion and then the national champion. “I was 17 when I won all the six golds in archery at the National Games in Pune,” she says. “I set a record and won the award for the best player at the National Games that year.”
Internationally, she competed at the 1994 Asian Games; represented the country at the Asia Cup, where the Indian team won the gold; and won a silver medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
Ms Mahato played for the country till 1998 and became a coach in 2000 for the Indian National Team and the Tata Archery Academy (TAA). Since then, she has trained world champion archers like Dola Banerjee, Deepika Kumari and Komalika Bari at the academy; led the Indian archery team to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2012 London Olympics and multiple victories on the world stage; and won the Dronacharya Award, the highest honour for coaches in India.
Tata.com caught up with the Ms Mahato over a phone call soon after she coached the Indian archery team to two back-to-back victories — at the 2021 Archery World Cup Stage 3 in France, where current and ex-cadets of TAA swept the golds and saw Ms Kumari reclaim the World No 1 spot; and the 2021 World Archery Youth Championship in Poland, which saw Ms Bari become the new Under-21 Recurve world champion.
How did your journey with Tata Steel, from archer to coach, come about?
I began my training at the Tata Steel training centres. The training I received there gave me the opportunity to enter the senior team at the state level in my 10th grade, which took me to the national camp and eventually the Indian team.
All of this was possible because of Tata Steel. They supported me when I was under 18, and as soon as I turned 18, they gave me a job to help support my career. Had I not got the Tata Steel job, I might have had to do something else; I might have been somewhere else now. My achievements as a player, my work as a coach, whatever I have done since then, I have done because of Tata Steel.
What drew you to coaching?
I love the sport. As a player, I wished I had more coaching. The training then was more need-based and ad hoc rather than with dedicated personal coaches. I always felt that if I’d had a personal coach, I would’ve done better. I want to help other players do what I couldn’t do. I want to give the kind of coaching I wanted.
What is the importance of TAA to the sport in India?
Before TAA opened in 1996, archery was not promoted in this manner anywhere in India. It was a huge deal for the sport and the country. There are other academies now, but TAA was the first of its kind, and the gains and wins we see in archery today are because of Tata. Most of the current best archers in India are from TAA.
We started winning on the world stage with TAA players from 2004. Jayant Talukdar was part of the Indian team that won the silver medal at the 2004 Junior World Championships. Dola became the first Indian recurve world champion in 2007. Then there was Pranitha Vardhineni; before Deepika won the cadet and junior championships, Pranitha won the second place back-to-back at the cadet and junior levels. Pranitha and Dola were the first female cadets from TAA to represent India at the Olympics.
As the seniors start to do better, the juniors are automatically motivated to do better. It becomes a trend then.
What makes TAA a consistent cradle of world champions like Ms Banerjee, Ms Kumari, and Ms Bari?
Archery is a very technical game, and we focus on the basics. If we spot something wrong in a cadet’s basic form, we pull him/her back to 10m and work on getting the basic form right again before going ahead. We pay attention to the minutest of details.
If someone is not mentally strong or scared of competitions or just nervous, we work on that too. There are many good archers, but the differentiating factor is the mental strength. Only those who have the mental strength can win at the big tournaments.
Many kids come to the academy with high expectations like an Olympics win. This generates a lot of pressure and fear. They have to understand that one cannot directly score an Olympic medal. It happens step by step. If your entire focus becomes a championship rather than the game, you will be under unnecessary and undue pressure. We always tell cadets to be in the right here and the right now. Focus only on where you are standing and the arrow that you are shooting. If your mind is on anything other than the process of releasing the arrow properly, you won’t do well. It is very important for us to make the kids understand this.
And when the cadets go to the tournaments, we never pressure them to get a certain score or a medal. We of course guide them to understanding their mistakes but piling on the pressure in that moment doesn’t work. The players know that we at the TAA have their backs.
How does it feel to mould world champions?
Achievements are good, but I try to ensure that the cadets don’t let it get to their heads. They must stay grounded. They must understand that they are not the only ones, and this is not the end. They have long journeys ahead of them; there is a lot more for them to do.
I teach them that no one can make predications in archery. There is no guarantee that the world champion will even win the next match. There was an Olympic bronze medallist at the World Archery Youth Championship in August 2021 (where Ms Bari became the junior world champion) but she couldn’t win there. You are only as big or as successful as the tournament you are in. When it’s done, it’s the past. What stays with you is your game.
I always tell my cadets that there is no reason to start believing that you are great. The same thing applies to us coaches, too. We also need to stay focussed on the current players rather than past successes.
What demands does this make on you as a coach?
My cadets are like my own children. I treat them with just as much care. It’s not limited to the ground. I keep a close watch on their lives just as I would with my own children.
I have a son and a daughter. I have had to leave them and go from tournament to tournament with the players. My son was only seven months old when I had to go to the London Olympics as the Team India coach. This year, I’ve been travelling with the cadets since March. It does bother me to leave my children behind, but I also want to do something for my country. I want my kids (players) to get the right coaching and do what I couldn’t do.
Having coached world champions, what does the elusive Olympic medal mean to you?
The Olympic medal is my dream. Even if I am not the one coaching them there, I want a win for us. After so many world championships, archery in India needs that win.
Our form right now is very good, but we haven’t been able to overcome the fear of the Olympics. And the fact that we have no archery medal at the Olympics so far is the biggest contributor to this fear and stress. The pressure to be the first is a lot. Once we get that first medal, we will keep winning.
If they have to make it to Paris, they have to first be ready to tackle the pressure and forget about being the first Indian archery medal winner. I am already working on them for 2024. I am working on them to solely focus on the process, be it at the Olympics or any other tournament. I want to stay with them consistently till the Olympics. They are in good form now but it’s a big deal for a player to able to maintain their form continuously, and it’s a huge task for the coach.
What do you think needs to change for Indian archers to get Olympic medals?
The pressure of the media and the nation’s expectations are at its peak then. Even cricket takes a backseat in India then, and it creates an unbelievable amount of pressure on the players. But players from all countries feel the pressure of the Olympics. What needs to change is that we have to stop getting so pressured about it and play it like any other tournament. Every player there is dealing with equal pressure, so it comes down to being able to deal with it.
In archery, you can never predict a win. You could be a world record holder or a world champion. You may have played a phenomenal first match but there is no guarantee that your next match will be just as good. It’s about that day, that moment, that shot. Whoever makes the best shot on that day will win.
What’s been the highlight of your journey as a coach?
The Asian Games bronze in 2010. Asian countries are our toughest competitors, so it’s difficult to win there.
Also, Paris in 2021. If I can motivate my players to stage a comeback from a loss and do well in the next tournament (the team won at the Archery World Cup Stage 3 just a week after failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics), that feels like a good achievement.
But my dream is that we start winning at the Olympics, too. Every coach dreams of an Olympic medal.