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Mental block broken and internal demons defeated, Bajrang Punia ready to shed defensive approach

Having finally managed to shatter his mental block, Tokyo Olympic bronze medallist wrestler Bajrang Punia is sure the best is yet to come from him and he isn't past his prime.

Bajrang Punia Commonwealth Games 2022

Bajrang Punia is a Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist. (Photo credit: SAI)



Updated: 20 Jun 2022 12:36 PM GMT

It's 8'o clock in the morning and one by one, all the wrestlers sneak out of the training hall after the regular 90-minute session.

But not Bajrang Punia. Drenched in sweat, Bajrang gets ready for a 'plyometric' workout and slogs for another 45 minutes. An athlete uses the speed and force of different movements to build muscle power through plyometric workouts. His new-found energy and enthusiasm come from encouraging results from a few tests he underwent -- Technobody Assessment, Functional Movement Screening Body Composition Analysis and Vo2max.

There is nothing wrong with his body, these tests affirm and help in getting rid of a "mental block" that had straight-jacketed the Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist on the mat. It was this mental block that had tied him to an ultra-defensive approach ever since he suffered a knee injury ahead of the Tokyo Games last year. He appeared in the CWG trials in New Delhi and just about managed to beat his compatriots.

A few days later, he competed at Bolat Turlykhanov Cup in Almaty and lost a bout - against Uzbekistan's Abbos Rakhmonov - that he had in his grasp. All because of his defensive tactics, which had triggered speculations that Bajrang is past his prime. Even Bajrang himself began to doubt his worth. "I told my coach that I will attack more and play my old style but the body did not support me in Almaty. There is no lack of effort, I was actually putting in the extra effort but was not getting performance and results," Bajrang told PTI in an interview.

"At times I thought I will never be able to repeat those stupendous performances. I felt my body has slowed down. Something was amiss in my body and it was consistently playing in my mind," he shared his doubts. But he is quick to remind that he has overcome that self-doubting phase.

"Now I feel my best is yet to come and you will see that."

"After coming back from Kazakhstan I underwent a few medical tests on the advise of my physio Anand Dubey to assess power, speed, body balance, stamina and endurance. The results are 'super' if not excellent.

"After seeing the encouraging test results, I analysed that I am doing better in training. Perhaps a mental block was there. It's broken." Bajrang reveals that even an athlete of his calibre can start doubting himself if the mind gets clogged or if the fear of injury grips the mind.

The 28-year-old earned a podium finish in each and every tournament he entered in last five years. But all of that didn't matter.

"I was disturbed, I know media was also calling me out of concern (in Russia), but I did not need media at that time but rehabilitation. There was more load on left knee because of injury in right knee.

"I did not have a physio and was doing rehab on my own after Olympics. I trained for 8-10 days and injured my right knee again. The fear of getting injured again stuck to mind, it just crippled me, my attacking instincts."

His physio Anand said, "To get that mental block cleared, it became imperative to have these tests done. He was playing defensive. He was struggling with speed, which got compromised because he was playing defensive. If he goes for his natural attacking game, the speed will return automatically. That's his weapon." Bajrang is relieved. "I am feeling the change, it was all in the mind. I am attacking more now. There is no reason to fear anything now."

Confidence is not the only thing that Bajrang has got back. It's also the 'desi' style of training. Mat training took precedence over everything when he trained under Georgian coach Shako Bentinidis but now he is back to the Indian style, where preparing 'Akhada' is a must to add power to the body.

"Shako (Bentinidis) never liked Suhagi, Uthak Baithak (sit-ups), 'Palti'. I have been doing these things since childhood. These are important exercises because you need to use power from ankle to head. It's like doing 'cardio'. "You get strength in your lower back, hands, muscle endurance also gets better because you are repeating it again and again. It's not an easy job, you need to arrange good soil, and mix turmeric, oil, henna to keep the soil soft. He had never seen all this. Now I have started doing it again. Twice a week I do it.

"Shako was a different and super coach. But his methods were different, for him mat training was supreme. You begin training from mat and end on mat."

No Complacency

Bajrang Punia

Bajrang flatly refused the suggestion that perhaps getting complacent might have played a role in him getting slow since he achieved stardom on the back of good results consistently.

"I am not someone blessed with talent. If at all I have some talent that is the talent of hard work. Whatever I have achieved is because of hard work. I know what my fight is. I don't get complacent.

"The day I stop working hard will be the day when Bajrang will start falling. If I don't achieve something despite doing all, that is required, I will take that, I will be content. There won't be any regrets, but not working hard is not an option for me."

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