Neeraj Chopra’s hot streak is all about fitness and focus

Around this time last year, Neeraj Chopra was the toast of the country. His historic Olympic gold medal led to countless congratulations across India and it took him almost 10 days after returning from Tokyo to return home to Panipat. All the public events and the demands of sponsors and advertisers eventually took a toll on his health – he had to leave a ceremony near his village halfway through due to exhaustion and fever – and his fitness; was absent from the track for nearly three months and gained 14 kg.

Something had to give, and in December he went to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California to finally focus on his craft.

For six months, we heard little about Neeraj. He has given occasional press conferences and social media posts, but there is no talk of a comeback. As his competitors began their seasons, Neeraj continued to train. There was curiosity, maybe even mild anxiety, among the media and fans: What’s up with him?

We don’t need to worry. When he finally returned to competition, at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland on June 14, he returned with a bang. In his first competitive event in 311 days, he needed just two throws to break his own national record [88.07m] with 89.30 m.

Over 87 days, Neeraj Chopra won a World Championship silver, two personal bests and a podium finish in all six events he competed in, culminating in the Diamond League title on Thursday night. What was it that he did in those six months in California that led to such a sharp improvement?

“I was quite late to resume training after the Olympics and the biggest challenge I faced initially was my fitness. After regaining my fitness, the next hurdle was that I had less time to get back to racing, but I was determined to make the best use of the time I had. I worked on my technique, did a lot of medicine ball work and got my strength back. Earlier, I was putting in a lot of effort but half of it was wasted effort due to mistakes in my technique.. But my technique got better and it turned into better throws,” he said in a media interaction.

Neeraj’s trainer Klaus Bartonietz, an expert in biomechanics, is a strong advocate of proper technique over strength. In earlier interactions, he emphasized the need for “the body to bend like a bow and then expand with explosive force when the spear is released.”

Improved technique has done wonders for Neeraj: he has been extremely consistent this season, averaging in the late 80s in each of his six events. He hasn’t crossed the much-hyped 90m mark, but he doesn’t seem the least bit worried about it.

“The 90m mark is a barrier and it’s certainly a magic mark, but what if I throw 90m and I don’t win? Then even 90 meters will feel less and maybe I would like to throw 93 meters. The main thing is to win the gold, regardless of the distance. What matters is how you handle the situation and how you perform.”

“I’ve been very consistent this season and that’s my biggest result. I threw 89m in three events and jumped 88m in the other three events. I’ll say once again that I’m not disappointed that I didn’t cross the 90m mark.”

Imagine you have a billion people cheering you on to cross the 90 meter mark, but you’re not worried. “It’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen,” he says with a disarming smile.

He adds that while people’s expectations of him serve as motivation, he can’t always win the gold. “The wild one [issue] is that everyone wants gold. There is only one gold [on offer] and they want you to win the gold.”

How do you deal with stress? “I deal with the pressure by focusing on giving 100% in every race. The pressure will get to me if I focus on just needing to win the gold. Recently, when I won silver at the World Championships, I saw a lot of people saying ‘he won silver and why didn’t he win gold.’ That mentality will have to change.”

Today’s Neeraj has a very mature approach to sports. He was conscious enough to take time off and miss the Commonwealth Games after straining his groin at the World Championships. The elbow injury in 2019 that sidelined him for almost 18 months had taught him to give his body a break when it needed it.

It’s a continuation of that mature approach that has led him to focus on the medal rather than the distance. When asked if he would rather throw 88m and win gold [which happened at the Diamond League final] or threw 89m and won silver [which happened at the World Championships]he says: “I feel there is not much difference between 88m and 89, but the color of the medal is more important. If you win an event by throwing 85m, it means you handled the situation well. It means the conditions were tough and you did well in the conditions.”

A prime example of this was the Kourtane Games, where he threw 86.69m to top the podium. The track was treacherous – slippery and wet – and he kept his composure to make it through. He didn’t give his all, the focus was on staying injury free. He adapted the same approach to the Diamond League event in Lausanne, where he returned from a groin injury. As coach Bartonaitz says, Neeraj raced with the “handbrake on” and didn’t go full throttle. The goal was to stay injury-free and give my all at the final in Zurich. Neeraj did just that.

The mature approach is also evident in how he plans to continue the offseason. He is strict on two fronts: not gaining weight and balancing his other commitments.

“The last time [after the Olympics] it was a new experience for me and it was a bit difficult to balance it but I learned from it. I will plan my commercial commitments in advance and then focus 100% on training when the season starts, because that is paramount. Last time I ate a lot and had no control, but this time I will try not to gain weight. I will plan it properly so that I am in good shape for next season and the Olympics in 2024.”

Leave a Comment