"Pick up the bloody gun and shoot. The gun doesn't know where you are thinking. The gun only knows where it's being pointed. No matter what you are feeling, let it be. No matter what you are feeling, pick up the gun and shoot your shot."
That's the advice to Manu Bhaker from her coach Ronak Pandit on the eve of the mixed team air pistol event - where Manu and Saurabh Chaudhary are among the medal favourites. And that's why Pandit took Bhaker to the shooting range in Asaka to practice today. "Normally I might not have. But she needed to feel the reassurance of the pistol in her hand. That everything was okay," he says.
In the past four days, everything that could possibly have gone wrong for the Indian shooting contingent has gone wrong in Tokyo. Now, Manu and Saurabh - teenagers still - face not a foregone conclusion of a medal but possibly the biggest test of their short careers.
How will it impact the pairing? Saurabh's composure is famous. "He is completely unshakeable. After losing his final, it was as if he was coming off any other match. The first thing he told the reporters was that he's got his whole life ahead of him. That's such a rare mentality to have," says Pandit, who's in Tokyo with the squad.
If anything, there will be concerns over Manu's state of mind. "Too emotional," foreign coach Pavel Smirnov once wrote in his diary in 2019 after she broke down following a defeat at the New Delhi World Cup.
Pandit is aware of the possible impact of Sunday's defeat. "Such a defeat can be absolutely shattering. When you win all the medals at World Cups it builds a certain kind of self-belief in you. But when you compete in an elite competition and you lose, then it can really make you question everything you believe about yourself," says Pandit.
What would hurt more is that there is precedent to this kind of disappointment for Bhaker at the biggest stage. She lost in the Jakarta Asian Games in 2018 too, a tournament where she was one of the medal favourites. Even the nature of her exit in Tokyo was painfully familiar. Back in 2019, Bhaker missed out on an Olympic quota in the 25m pistol event after an equipment malfunction in the final. "When these sort of things happen, it's almost as if there's a devil behind you," says Pandit.
Pandit says Bhaker is at a crossroads right now. "This is a crisis moment. And what matters right now is how you respond to it. Do you fight, do you run or do you freeze?" he says. There are different ways you could deal with this situation both entirely normal. "What matters is what Manu choses to do. When you face a setback like this, it's very human to think I am a victim. I gave so much effort, I made so many sacrifices and I didn't get anything out of this. The world is out to get me," he says.
Pandit says he's told Manu she has a simple option. "I've told her you could be a deer, worried about every step it takes, thinking it's going to be eaten at any point. Or she could be the tiger, hungry for its next meal," he says.
"The Olympics is always a unique situation to any other tournament because you know no matter what I do in a World Cup, I always have another World Cup. When you go to a CWG and compete, you know the field is so low that even if you don't do well you have a sense of security. But in the Olympics, it's a different animal all together," says Pandit.
As a coach Pandit says he can try his best to help Bhaker navigate the internal storm of self-doubt and recrimination. But only she can actually helm that vessel. "Abhinav Bindra said a really great thing once and I've tried to help these young shooters think the same way. Shooters always believe that there is going to be a day when they will be able to master their mind and not take pressure. Abhinav said that day will come only on the day you die. As long as you are alive, you are going to feel the jitters, you are going to shake. You are going to be caught in the tide eventually. At that point you can't try and swim against it. The key isn't to solve the problem. But to accept the problem. You make peace with it," he says.
"She has been taught the tools and she will be reminded that she knows how to use those tools. The gun doesn't know that she's not slept the entire night." Ronak Pandit
Can Bhaker come back? She sure can. She's done it before. Back in 2019 at the Munich World Cup, following her exit in the 25m pistol final, she called up her father. "She was upset then too. But at the end of our call she told me, 'Tommorow never dies. Tommorow I have another chance'," he says. Bhaker would win an Olympic quota in the 10m pistol event the following day.
Perhaps she could draw from that moment.
It won't be easy. "She is devastated. She hasn't slept yesterday night," Pandit admits. But he believes that she can do it. "She has been taught the tools and she will be reminded that she knows how to use those tools. The gun doesn't know that she's not slept the entire night," he says.
Pandit is keeping a brave face - telling Bhaker there's nothing much to worry about, that what she's going through is entirely normal -- but he will have his own sleepless night too. "In the morning I just want to see her smile and say good morning. I'm speaking both from a human perspective and a coach's perspective. My shooter is a human being and if she is at peace with herself as a human being, she will be in a position to perform," he says.