Updated: July 19, 2020 11:21:41 am
In a video chat with The Indian Express, Indian high jumper Tejaswin Shankar talks about his experience during the lockdown in his American university. The national record holder also describes how he is coping with the uncertainty about when he can return to normal training and competition. Shankar also delves into the technical aspects of his craft and how he plans to soar even higher over the bar.
How are you doing and what is happening over there?
I don’t think these are difficulties, but hurdles which you have to overcome. It just takes time and effort to get through them. If you think of them as difficulties then there’s no answerable solution. Otherwise, I’m doing good. The one thing that has been very hard is the uncertainty around. There’s nothing that’s concrete because as a sportsperson – or any person – it’s always very easy to psych yourself up when you have something to look forward to. If you know you have an exam two months from now, you can prepare for it. But if you don’t have anything to look forward to, it becomes harder to go in everyday and do what you’re supposed to do. But that’s when you have to push through and sometimes you have to do what you have to do to stay in the right mindset.
These last two-three months, what are the hurdles that you’ve faced?
The first one for me, as a university student, is the fact that I was supposed to compete in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) nationals in March. We travelled all the way to Albuquerque from Manhattan, Kansas on Wednesday. That same day, I did a quick jump session and on Thursday we had a quick pre-meet warm-up because I was supposed to compete on Friday. So Thursday, I was ready – did a very quick speed lift and then Friday, I was ready to jump high, feeling really good. In the morning, I woke up and went to the track to shake out and then was told that, ‘Oh well, the meet is cancelled’. That was hard to face.
He believes he can fly, and so do we.
— K-State Student-Athletes (@kstate_athletes) May 15, 2020
At that time, we didn’t understand how severe the situation was. We were thinking of what to do and came back to Manhattan in the next flight. When I came back here, I realised the whole country (India) is going under lockdown. At that time, the enormity of the situation started to sink in. It was hard to fathom that everything was being shut down. But then, over time, you figured that the whole world shut down, not just us.
The problem with me was that I was in dual mind whether I should come back home or not. At the same time, I knew that if I came back home, I’d have to sit out for 14 days and if another phase of lockdown started, I wouldn’t be able to train. Those things always held me back and (I thought) that it was better for me to stay here and concentrate on my training and my studies, which are online now. It was the wise choice to make, but I am always wondering, ‘What if I had come back?’ – probably wouldn’t have felt all by myself.
Could you talk about how your training is going? Initially, there were restrictions but are things opening up now? Are you able to get back to a regular training cycle?
Initially, I wasn’t able to find a weight room. I was always able to find a track since all middle schools and high schools have athletic tracks over here. But they didn’t have any equipment – no hurdles, no high jump pit – nothing of the sort. But there is always the athletic track and the turn in the middle and they have the occasional long jump pit on the side. That’s all I have access to even now, as the university has a different policy – as per the state, there isn’t a lockdown as such but the university has been shut and we can’t use the university facilities. There’s another gym that I found initially but they were asked to shut down.
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Then they opened a mini-gym inside their own garage with a squat rack and a bench press – some basic equipment. I was able to train there but now they have been allowed to open back up again, I have access to the gym. Gym yes, running yes, long jump and other stuff, yes but not necessarily high jump-specific training. That’s how training has been modified and at this time of the year, I probably would have been getting ready to compete at the Tokyo Olympics this year, but now I’m just getting ready to get back to high jump training. Hopefully in the fall, starting August, we are still allowed to train and continue what we are doing so that we can probably be ready for indoor season – as long as you have something to do, you feel like you’re doing something. But if you shut down and stay in the house, then it gets even harder.
High jump is a very complicated event, isn’t it? This period that you’ve been away from the jumping equipment… How much does it affect your technique?
High jump is a very technical and intricate event and probably it (lockdown) will affect high jumpers or pole vaulters most. I feel these sports are most affected because there is no access to technical training. You need to have a track to run on, a gym to train and get some weight training. The other thing is you have to work on your technical ability. You can run very fast; you can be very strong but at the same time if you can’t get over the bar, then there’s no point being a high jumper. That’s one thing that’s missing but there’s a lot of time to work on that so hopefully as things open up, I can do high jump technical training.
Some strongman fun. 🏋🏻♂️ pic.twitter.com/J6O99uM8Ua
— Tejaswin Shankar (TJ) (@TejaswinShankar) June 27, 2020
Generally, the indoor season starts in December and goes through March. As of now, I would have probably been preparing for the Games but now I’m just focusing on general preparation. It hasn’t changed much – just the mindset that you can access different things now. If those restrictions go out, I think it just gets easier.
Have you also put on weight like us?
No, I’ve probably put on some muscle! That’s how I like to say it.
For the explosive nature of high jump, diet makes a big difference. Does being in the USA help, with access to meats that are required – that you might not necessarily get here. Does it help to get necessary nutrients every day?
I think the food makes a very big difference. I think you must have heard that 40 per cent of what you train is what you get but the remaining 60 per cent comes from nutrition. I don’t necessarily practise what I preach and always indulge in other foods, cookies and other things but at the same time the pros of being in the US is that you have fresh food available.
But that being said, I don’t think the intent is there. I’m always indulging in other opportunities because there are 10 different flavours for Oreos and five different flavours for other things. That’s what I’m leaning towards but I think once everything starts back up, I’ll go back to my routine and start eating a little bit leaner and cleaner.
There have been no tournaments in the last 3-4 months and World Athletics has announced most tournaments are postponed. How tough is it to keep yourself motivated?
The best way to train is by competing. I would say 40-50 per cent is what you train, the remaining is how you conduct yourself in a competition. Especially leading up to a big meet, that’s how you prepare yourself, compete more and get to know yourself and see what mistakes you are doing in a competition… because a lot of things you do in a competition under the adrenaline which you don’t do in practice and then you figure out in competition ‘this is wrong’ or this is what I do when I am really hyped, this is what I do when I miss two bars in a pressure situation. So those are the things you can evaluate in a competition. That’s why it’s important to keep competing. That’s another way of training.
Push push push 💨 pic.twitter.com/5Tk47HVZYI
— Tejaswin Shankar (TJ) (@TejaswinShankar) June 19, 2020
Without competition, it gets harder to stay motivated because there is nothing to look forward to. They are saying there will be Olympic Games next year in July but still, you never know. What if? They are saying in December, you can start competing. But you never know, if this thing (pandemic) carries on, there’s the possibility that there wouldn’t be an Olympics next year. So what next? So these are the questions everybody has.
But overall, there are bigger problems to address. People are homeless. People don’t have food to eat. A lot of people are dying. Those are the issues which take precedence as of now than maybe Olympic Games or whatever. In my little world, that’s a big decision for me to see what’s coming next and how it’s going to impact my life. At this point, all we can do is sit and wait and see what’s going to come. At the same time, it’s very important to make sure you are prepared for what comes next rather than when it actually happens you are just like ‘oh wow, it already happened.’ I think if you are prepared, it’s easier to address that situation and change yourself according to it.
Taking you back to athletics, you hold the national record. How do you see the progression now?
The only path is time. That’s the easiest, one-word path but at the same time, that’s the hardest part to take because all it takes is time because a lot of people talk about ‘oh, I just changed coaches and I am doing really well.’ Well, I have been here three years, found a spot and been consistent around that spot but I haven’t necessarily made that leap.
But when I asked the coach, ‘well, I have been here three years. It’s not that I am still getting used to training or whatever. I jumped 2.26m in 2017 and after that I have been jumping 2.26-2.27 every year but I haven’t necessarily jumped a 2.30 or a 2.31. Why is that so? Every year, I jump that two or three times… if I compete in 5-6 meets, I jump that 3-4 times. So I am pretty consistent around that mark. But when do you think I will get to the next level and what should I do more to get to the next level or what am I doing less to get to the next level?’
Tejaswin Shankar matches his national record of 2.28m in the high jump at the Federation Cup. pic.twitter.com/kv0YeSrePV
— jonathan selvaraj (@jon_selvaraj) March 7, 2018
He had two answers. One he asked me, when I jumped 2.26m for the first time, how many times had I jumped 2.26 before that. I said I hadn’t. So he said that was a lucky shot. So what we look at here or what the coach’s perspective is that there’s always this idea of improving your best. But at the same time, even in training and workout, we try and improve our average. So say, for example, I can run a 200m in 22 seconds. So what we do is run a lot of 80 per cent efforts… say for example, I can run an 80% effort in 25 or 26 seconds. So over the time, what we are trying to do is get that 26-second 80% to 25.5. So over time, your best time will also go down because your average moves down.
So that’s exactly what he’s trying to do with the high jump as well. He says, over time as you’ll be able to improve your average from a 24-25 to a 29-30, the chances of you jumping a 34-35 increases drastically. He showed me some statistics. He has coached some really good high jumpers, namely Eric Leonard, Jesse Williams. When he showed me his stats, I figured out ‘well these guys also on an average jumped 2.31-2.32 but on a good day, they were able to jump 2.37-2.36’.
To get to that point, you have to move your average up and to move your average up, it takes a lot of time. And the cumulative effect of training is really important… But you have to do your stuff every day and look forward to the next day and do the same thing again. So that’s what all these great sportspeople talk about, the process.
So I have to just work towards where I want to get to and over time you can just see results and think, ‘oh, I never thought I could achieve this.’ The important part is to just understand and fall in love with the process rather than be in a hurry to get to a result or get to a place.
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What do you mean by letting go off too early and falling in love too early? And what they mean by awareness about the bar?
I don’t think that’d be falling in love. That will be falling on your neck, is how I’d describe it. When I jumped 2.29, I was getting a lot of lift but I didn’t know how to land properly on my neck. Because as a high jumper, you’re supposed to land right above your shoulder – upper back and neck.
But that was one area which… you know it’s very sensitive for most people. And when I used to land on that area, I used to hear a click because my spine would just flex like that. It just didn’t feel right for me because one I was very weak in that area and two, I wasn’t able to withstand those forces.
When I asked the coach what I can do about it, he said you have to land more. That’s the easy answer. You have to get more repetitions in. Over time, you know getting some neck strengthening and other things, I was able to figure out this area is okay for me and now I can land more on the back of my neck.
When you are over the bar and if you bring your neck up too quickly to avoid landing on your neck, your hips come down as a result and hit the bar. But if you are able to hold your neck down then your hips rotate around the bar. Once you bring your neck up, your hips are over the bar and that’s when they come down so your legs can just easily follow through. So that’s why they say ‘hold your neck back as long as you can’ and that is done through landing on the back of your neck.
Another reason why probably I wasn’t able to jump 2.30 at that time was because I would get plenty of height above the bar but then try to come down quickly on it in order to avoid landing on my neck. That’s when at the peak of my flight, my hips would come down and hit the bar rather than going over the bar because I was still arching.
So those are some of the technical things I figured out and said, ‘well, you have to suck it up and take the beating.’ Over time, as I was able to withstand that, it doesn’t affect me in any way. Now I am a little bit more comfortable landing on my neck.
And secondly, like you said body awareness is very important. Especially after the first seven steps and in the last three steps, you are not supposed to look at the bar. You are supposed to look above the bar or at the far end… so the far standard, that’s where you are supposed to look. Because where you look is where you go. That’s basic.
So if you look at the bar, you are pretty much going into the bar… you’ll hit the bar on the way up. But if you look above the bar, you are trying to not look at … so you are trying to go up and if you look above the bar, you’ll probably go where you’re looking and that way you’ll probably get more height.
But through the peripheral vision, you get a glimpse and get an idea where the bar is. And to make that stronger, you have to take more jumps, more repetitions. Once you are able to do that, you’ll probably be able to jump even higher. If the gaze is high, they’re able to like manoeuvre their body even if something goes wrong in the air. Body awareness comes with time, but is one of the important characteristics of high jump. You have to make adjustments every stride, and the sooner you make it the better. But if you are not able to figure out what’s going wrong, by the time you get to the bar, in the last three-four steps, I don’t think there’s anything you can do.
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