“There has been a huge influx of people interested about shooting after Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004. There have been continuous good performances by Indian shooters since, and that has motivated more and more people to take up the sport,” says shooting ace Gagan Narang.
There is a thing about Gagan Narang that makes him stand out. The Olympic bronze-medallist shooter loves speaking his mind. Be it about his individual form or the challenges shooting faces in the country — Narang likes being honest with opinions.

There is also another side to him. For the last few years, he has also donned the mentor’s hat, starting his own academy — Gun for Glory — to nurture more shooting stars. And recently, his initiative ‘Project Leap’ has taken another step by joining hands with the Centre for Sports Science (CSS) and give coaching and training to 12 prodigious young rifle shooters of the country.

And that brought Narang to Chennai recently, where a camp for the selectees was held at the Sri Ramachandra University.

Taking time out of his quite hectic schedule, Narang got talking to Sportstar.

Excerpts…

Question: How did the camp in Chennai go for ‘mentor’ Gagan Narang?

Answer: (Laughs) It was good. I did not coach throughout; it was being done by Slovakian coach Anton Balack. I was there to smoothen things out. The Olympic Gold Quest is very supportive, so is the Centre for Sports Science (CSS). It would be good if more and more people come to support the sport.

Shooting is still considered an expensive and niche sport. Do you think shooting has really become a mass sport, or is it still early days?

Of course it has! There has been a huge influx of people interested about shooting after Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004. There have been continuous good performances by Indian shooters since, and that has motivated more and more people to take up the sport.

Also, earlier the guns were not available (easily) and it was difficult to import. But now, the rules have been relaxed and that has got the parents enthusiastic and they want their kids to take up shooting. It is such an interesting mind sport. It also has its advantages because it is not a team game. You are left with your own performance and there is no depending on anybody. You are in control of your own sport and can’t blame anybody else. It has its own advantages. It is a mind sport and the Indians are generally good in mind sports — be it chess or billiards. So, I think the interest has grown immensely after the last two or three Olympic titles. As an academy, we have reduced the entry-level barrier for people to get into the sport. That could be achieved because of sponsors, who have supported our cause. Now, if one has to start shooting, there is no need to buy an expensive gun.

But then, the country still lacks training ranges. The major centres and most of the ranges cannot be accessed by the general public…

I personally feel, the country should have some four or five major centres, which it already has. Instead of building more major centres, at a fraction of cost, you can build multiple training centres. That way it will be accessible to more and more people. It will help people in small towns. We (Gun for Glory — the academy run by Narang) have about 14 or 15 academies, we believe in taking the sport to the people. When I started my first academy in Pune, we had shooters from small towns like Jabalpur or Bhubaneswar. It was too far for them to travel but were very interested. Today, we have academies in Jabalpur, Bhubaneswar.

I believe we should have more of training infrastructure than competition venues. It should be like a hub and centre model, where a big city — with all international infrastructure — will have the hub, while the cost effective centres will be in small towns. It is useful for shooting as it as an expensive sport. We have our own challenges and hope people come forward so that the game can be more accessible.

You say that shooting is a mind sport, but then, don’t you think Indian shooters have flattered to deceive in the big ticket tournaments? Despite doing well otherwise most of them have failed at the Olympics. Are they lacking the mental fortitude?

Why do you say that? Shooting is one sport where we have won medals across competitions and at all stages. Be it the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games or the Asian Games… we have gone on to win medals in all the competitions. If you are going to talk about the bench strength, then that definitely has improved. If you are talking about individuals, the whole idea of a team means that if one has a bad day, the other guys cover up. That is where bench strength comes into play. That is what the team is all about. That way the country’s medal prospects are not lost.

As far as individuals are concerned, a bad day or a bad phase is quite natural. It can happen to anybody at any point of time. If I have won so many times, I have also lost on more occasions. You learn more from your losses than your victories.

That’s how it is.

Let’s talk a bit about the change in format in the mixed events. Do you think that the changes in rule have affected the prospects of a shooter?

I am not thinking about anything apart from shooting in those events. Ultimately even in the mixed events, when your scores are tallied, on the lane you are not taking what your partner is shooting. In pistol events, you may still breathe a bit, but in rifle events, there is no such possibility. It is a solitary sport, and it is all about yourself. You have to keep your cool and just go for the shots. Although, you have mixed events which are enticing for the spectators to watch, at the lane you are all by yourself . There you are trying to stay calm, composed and focused. May be if you feel terribly under-confident, you may look at your partner’s scores to motivate yourself. For instance, if your partner shoots a low nine or something, it could pull your confidence and help you shoot better. But then, it differs from individual to individual and also depends on how they strategise. Majorly, it is about one’s own shooting and what they want to achieve.

So, are you saying that the rule-change has made it more challenging for the shooters?

Pressure will always be there in all the competitions. It is inevitable whatever the rules are. Actually, it is the pressure of performing that gets to you. But the change in rule has changed the dynamics of the sport. Now, you not only need a decent qualification score to get into the panel, it all begins from zero there, meaning you have to start from the beginning. Unlike badminton or other sport, here there is no break between the qualifying round and the final. You have to keep the momentum going throughout. It is not about one shot, it is about sixty shots in the qualification and then 24 shots in the final.

So, irrespective of whether you shoot even a world record in the qualification, you have to be on your game throughout. It goes on for long. If a qualifying round starts at 9 o’clock in the morning, the finals will be around 1 o’clock, so your mental condition has to be at the top for these four to five hours. Your physical condition too has to be optimum. The dynamics are different altogether.
Of course it is easy for the new generation, who started with the new format. But all over the world, I think some of the old shooters are still struggling to adapt to the rule changes. In the next couple of years, a lot of shooters will get used to it and shoot better. I am saying this from a global perspective.

The next year is going to be quite challenging for the shooters. Personally, how do you look at it?

The challenge will be about prioritisation of the events. You have the Commonwealth Games, the World Championships. The priority will be the World Championships because that’s where you would earn your quotas for the Olympics. Then there are the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. That’s how it is going to be. Everybody will say that the focus will be on these three events, and then shoot in a couple of events in between to test your form.

The selection trials will also be in India, so unless you give your best in the trials, you won’t make it to the team. Then, also you need to perform. This is an important challenge.