Ridhi, steady and good to go
- The teen archer is part of the India team at the world championship in USA.
For a couple of years, Ridhi Phor has been quietly awaiting her turn. She came close to a spot in the three-member Indian women's recurve archery team for the Paris World Cup in June, which was a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In the months prior, the pandemic stalled her progress.
After a long pause, it’s go time now for the 17-year-old. Ridhi is part of the new-look Indian team for the week-long Archery World Championships that began on Sunday in Yankton, USA. She finished in the top-three among the recurve archers during last month's trials, where none of the Tokyo contingent members including Deepika Kumari made the cut. In a sport where a lot of the country’s top performers have flattered to deceive on the biggest stages, the teen is among the brightest prospects.
“This tournament is very important for her. She was to play a few international tournaments in the last two years but couldn’t go because of the situation,” said Manoj, Ridhi’s father.
Ridhi’s strides have been steady since she was first selected for the Asia Cup world ranking tournament at the age of 13. In that 2018 Stage 2 edition in Manila, she won bronze in the mixed team as well as the team event. She pocketed three more international medals in the team and mixed events over the next year, though she is yet to replicate the kind of showing in the individual event. Her father believes it’s a matter for time, for she has been doing that consistently in the domestic circuit across age groups after she won her first medal (silver) at the senior nationals at 14. She was crowned junior national champion in 2019 and in the same year also won silver in the senior tournament after losing to Ankita Bhagat in a shootoff.
“Except for her first nationals, she has won medals in every tournament she has taken part in,” said Manoj. “I’m confident that at the international level, she will only get better with more experience and maturity.”
Trust her father to know Ridhi better than anyone else, for he’s been the sole reason behind her archery journey. A budding weightlifter in college, Manoj wanted his child to get into either pistol shooting or archery. The former was too expensive for a man who ran a small business of manufacturing ice cubs in Karnal, Haryana. Procuring bamboo bow and arrows was comparatively cheaper and so, when Ridhi was two-and-a-half, Manoj had zeroed in on the sport for her.
As Ridhi turned eight, Manoj realised she needed professional coaching. His search took Manoj across Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and even the famed Gurukul Prabhat Ashram in Meerut that has produced Olympic archers. But with the parents not comfortable with a young Ridhi staying away from home and shifting to the training base, most places turned him away. Manoj therefore settled for next best option: bringing the training base home, even if it meant donning the coach’s hat himself.
Manoj found an academy in Gurgaon that was ready to teach him the basics of archery. For three months, he handed over the running of the business to his wife, stayed as a paying guest in Gurgaon and practised archery for 8-10 hours daily. “Everyone, from the fellow trainees in the academy to my PG roommates, would laugh at me, saying ‘look what this man is doing at 33.’ But I wanted to learn the sport so that I could teach my daughter,” said Manoj.
The crash course completed, Manoj began training Ridhi in any possible empty space he could find in Karnal; by setting up the target in nearby grounds, fields, schools or private residential colonies or at times even on the terrace of their house. No matter when and where he took her, not once did Ridhi raise a fuss. Not even on a harsh December winter morning before dawn.
“We had gone to a nearby school to train. She was shooting arrows at 5am. Standing behind her, I started feeling cold, so I went inside a room. Within a minute, I thought, “on your insistence, your little girl is doing this and training alone in this cold”. She is so dedicated and hardworking. On an average day, she would do 1,000 arrows, which is not easy at her age,” he said.
It started to reflect in her medals in various domestic tournaments across age groups from the age of 10. Ridhi also progressed to training with the international standard recurve equipment under the coaching of Jiwanjot Singh Teja at Punjabi University in Patiala.
Ridhi’s developmental route took a significant turn in 2019, when the Reliance Foundation started supporting her under its elite athlete scholarship programme. It meant access to strength and conditioning experts, nutritionists and mental trainers to groom the young body and mind.
“When I first saw her, it was clear that she’s not just a typical teenage girl because she was so focused and talented,” said Leandi van Zyl, head of sport science and strength and conditioning at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai.
“We first did her basic assessment, which involves bio-mechanics analysis, fitness, nutrition and psychology testing. From a fitness perspective, we did a movement analysis, where we looked at certain instabilities or imbalances in her body. Then we looked at endurance, strength, mobility and stability, which is important for archers. It’s great to see how much she has grown in the last couple of years in these aspects, be it physiologically or psychologically.”
The latter, perhaps, is more crucial in a sport where even the most talented and experienced Indian archers have often crumbled under pressure. It’s an area in which Ridhi has shown signs of improvement.
“She is extremely dedicated, and I’ve always seen her set accurate goals. But she had the tendency to choke under pressure. Now, she has improved in the ability to bounce back from adversity, wherein if she has one bad arrow, she won’t let the entire set go bad,” said Maithili Bhuptani, the centre’s lead sport and exercise psychologist.
The process involves cognitive behavioral therapy, plenty of self-talk and visualisation techniques during matches, simulated pressure training, breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, among other things. Her father has seen the changes in Ridhi’s behavior, from a girl who would show extreme emotions--too happy after wins or too sad after losses - to finding a more balanced state.
In many ways, how the 17-year-old’s mind develops and handles the emotions of a mentally demanding sport could go a long way in shaping her career. “She is making progress there,” said Bhuptani. “She is also learning from her seniors, but it needs to be something different. They reach these high levels and falter under pressure. Ultimately, at that last second before you shoot, you need that self-belief: am I going to do it or choke under pressure. For Ridhi, we want to develop that self-belief from now. We want to have that in her as an inculcated personality trait that gives her more emotional control.”