Abhinav Bindra, India's first individual Olympic gold medallist
Image: Mexy Xavier
About three feet from where he sits, a piece of recording equipment is less than four seconds from crashing on the floor. It had skipped everyone's attention until then. But we watch in awe as he catches it just in time! His reflexes are sharp, effortless, and his timing is perfect. There's a certain Zen energy around him. He's composed and focussed: Doesn’t fidget, nothing distracts him, and every sentence he speaks is measured. These are the hallmarks of a five-time Olympian who devoted 22 years to shooting but hasn't picked an air-rifle in seven years.
He is Abhinav Bindra, India's first individual Olympic gold medallist. But he doesn't gloat over the fact that he created history. He's entitled to do so, but for him it's the past and he has moved on. Instead, he dearly treasures the values he learnt as a sportsman. “Sport teaches one so much. It teaches you a thing or two about winning, but more importantly sport teaches you how to lose. Sport teaches you how to set goals and go after them with honesty and integrity. Sport teaches you a lot about respecting rules, competitors, and also about learning to respect yourself,” Bindra says in an exclusive interview on Forbes India Pathbreakers.
His contribution to Indian sports, his openness to talk about his imperfections and vulnerabilities make him a hero and a pathbreaker. But much beyond his many achievements and medals is his boundless and courageous spirit, his determination to do his best, and his ability to win despite soul-crushing setbacks. That's what I found most remarkably inspiring. Here's his story of what it takes to achieve that perfect shot against all odds. Edited excerpts:
‘I learnt how to fail well’
I think success in sport and success in life in general is about learning how to fail well. At least in sport you will encounter failure much more than success, and in order to make a success out of it, once in a while you have to use those failures well and learn how to take those experiences in a positive manner. You have to learn to let go of the unwanted baggage that failure brings, you have to learn from those experiences, and not get overwhelmed or carried away by those difficult moments. Yes, it will be difficult. Nobody likes to fail. There is disappointment and we are all human beings. It’s alright to whine about it and be grumpy about it for a couple of days but I think after that you have to reflect back on those experiences, see what you could do better, and try and be better than what you were yesterday. That is precisely what I did. I learnt how to fail well. Sometimes succeeded, most times failed.
‘I was a perfectionist’
I was someone who always struggled to have faith. I frankly never came out of it. I just learnt to co-exist with it. I was in a lonely sport but a constant companion in my career was self-doubt. Why did I have so much self-doubt? Because all my eggs were in one basket. It was all in or nothing and there was a lack of balance. I was extremely obsessive and a perfectionist. While that helped me in many ways to get better, no question about it, but it was also a drawback in many ways. I worked with trainers, psychologists, this that and the other, but I could not achieve it in my sports career. So, I learnt to approach it a bit differently. There was a breakthrough moment when instead of chasing self-belief I started chasing self-respect. The self-respect was born of the fact that I would leave absolutely no stone unturned in preparation. So that was my process of getting better as an athlete and dealing with doubt which stayed with me constantly. Also read: With two Diamond League wins, Neeraj Chopra sets the tone for another smashing year
‘Ability to adapt’
There wasn’t much peace, there was a lot of conflict, but it also drove me. I would suddenly wake up at 4am with an idea and I would be at my shooting range at 4:15am to try and execute that idea. So, it was a little bit crazy. Chasing perfection is like taming an untamable beast. You can never find that perfection. The factors which come into play when there is pressure, and when everything is not in your control, you have to find a way to perform there. There it comes down to many aspects and it also comes down to mindset, and by mindset I mean the ability to adapt in decision making and having the nimbleness to make quick decisions, and that becomes critical to performance under pressure. It’s a very fine line. I think chasing perfection is alright but I realised at one point of my career that, while I can chase perfection in training, when I go into competition it would be a desperate attempt to hold on to or gather whatever skill I had to just perform decently. But the idea was to get so good in training, that the quality of execution was so good in training, that even if I did fall down or was under pressure my level of performance was still good enough to be among the top in the world.
‘My greatest void’
The greatest void I had was when I had my biggest success as an athlete. My greatest void came two days after I won a gold medal at the Olympic games and I achieved my life’s biggest goal. For 16 years until then I would go to bed with a dream and wake up every morning trying to achieve that dream and make it a reality. One fine day this dream was achieved and this beautiful looking gold medal was in my pocket. I was all dressed with really nowhere to go.
Frankly, post Beijing, I was in half a mind to quit sport at that time and move on to some other calling. Of course, I did not know what the other calling was but I was very confused and certainly had a lack of motivation and exactly this void what you talked about. I went on a vipassana meditation course with the goal of trying to find my new calling. On this silent retreat I had to meditate 10 hours a day for 10 days. Frankly, all I did in these ten days was think back to shooting and how I could get better.
That taught me something. It taught me that I loved what I did. I loved the process of my sport and that realisation in itself was very empowering. To move ahead after a success like that you know you can’t jump on to the next peak. You have to climb down from the mountain peak you are sitting on to climb the next peak one step at a time and that requires full commitment to the process, the boring and the mundane. There is a lot of boring and mundane in achieving big successes. Also read: I was afraid I wasn't good enough, so I just kept working hard: Ray Allen
‘Living in the present’
The journey was unbelievable. It taught me so much. It made me who I am. But I am a firm believer, and that’s what sport taught me, of living in the present. While the past was great, it is my past, and I don’t really look at it too seriously. That’s gone. It was some wonderful years in sport but my life has moved on from being an active athlete. It imbibed certain values in me which will stay true in whatever I do but I don’t dwell on the past. Sometimes to move on in life you have to burn your past. That’s my approach towards my present that I don’t think much about my past. That’s gone.
Now that I have exited my investment of sorts and I look back at my 20-odd years in sport far more dispassionately, I don’t look back at this room or these medals that hang on these walls, but I really look back at my many years in sport for the relationships I was able to build, starting with my mum and dad, for example. The relationship I was able to build with my coaches, my support staff, many of them who became extended family. Those are incredible relationships which will stay with me in whatever I do. Some of those relationships were difficult relationships as well. There was one particular coach in my career who I did not get along with but found a way to work with and we continue to be very good friends. He, of course, doesn’t give me any sports advice any more but he is now my stock market adviser.
(Here’s the magic bullet Abhinav Bindra recommends for success-- Coming up in part two of the conversation)