Beneath the lustre of Indian badminton’s big triumphs is a coaching system restricted by tight purse, divided attention and foreigners using stints as stepping stones. The Indian Express speaks with Gopichand on the need to have a well-defined structure for the nation to become a shuttle powerhouse
If silvers come with questioning clouds, a gold is a good time to blast the full spotlight on the dark nooks and crannies, shorn of that success. So national head coach Pullela Gopichand is celebrating PV Sindhu’s World Championship victory with a clarion call to put the badminton house and the sport’s ecosystem in order.
The Olympics are a year away, and the 46-year-old reckons this is as good a time as any to aim for gold standards in everything else that goes into making of champions. Acutely aware that India’s aspirations towards becoming a shuttle powerhouse can skid and brake if the country sits smug on this gold, Gopichand is urging for clarity to the system, the lacunae which can easily get glossed over by the glee and celebration of Sindhu’s success.
“I’m not even talking about my role to be defined. India with its large geographical extent and with multiple stakeholders will have to figure it out. I just want a system to be defined. And me defining it might not make it sustainable. So I don’t want to go down the route of explaining what I want. I want something which has structure, accountability and roles defined put in place. This could be done by talking to everyone,” he states.
Scratch the proverbial surface — titles for Sindhu, Saina, Srikanth and Sai Praneeth in the last few years – and a mountain of work is left to be done beneath that level. The pyramid of Indian coaches just below Gopichand is in shambles restricted by neglect, a tight purse and a harebrained policy of random coaches accompanying travelling teams to international events. Fifteen NIS coaches graduate each year in badminton with a syllabus that’s decades behind the science and expertise that Gopichand employs, even as close to 3000 courts across the country are attempting to churn out the next batch of champions. Independent academies are not in sync with the one success model that’s delivering results at the highest levels.
Badminton’s breakthrough age is between 17-25 years, and Indians are not hurrying up in stepping up to seniors, dawdling away needlessly in juniors, reaching the international levels far too late, and coming in the national coach’s line of sight even later to effect changes. Japan’s delivering results in time for Tokyo 2020, from a system that was put in place in 2002. India’s foreign coaches bring invaluable technical inputs, but have largely viewed the job as a stepping stone to the next big contract. A large number of deterrents stop expanding of Indian coaches numbers at the national camp, though that is the most obvious area needing attention.
Actually, two years back, the Badminton Association of India, had attempted to put a system in place but it hasn’t worked. It proved to be a half-baked plan where a panel of 30-40 coaches was rustled up from across India — some promising former players taking their first steps in mentoring and some long-time coaches not well versed with the international hustle, other wannabes, while the players wondered what to make of these revolving door coaching corners.
Back from perhaps his biggest scalp as a coach — a World’s gold, Gopichand declares tautly: “It’s rational to say that coaches who are training the players should travel with the team. That should be adhered to. Last year was a disaster because we had random coaches travelling and that was uncalled for. Because the players don’t connect and it’s almost like a trip to please somebody that you send coaches. And that should not be the case.” The juniors definitely don’t deserve this confused approach and need even greater clarity, he adds.
The BAI president was sent questions but was not available for comment till the time of going to press.
Foreign coach conundrum
Gopichand acknowledges the role foreign coaches have played in the rise of Indian badminton but they leave him with a dilemma. “Foreign coaches leave on short notice in the middle after getting better contracts and I’m left with trying to figure out how to fill the gaps,” he says wryly.
He is all for handing over authority and freedom to the imported experts but he fears the uncertainty. He was happy handing over Sindhu’s charge to Kim Ji Hyun and later credit after the title too, but there was a long time after India Open in March when Kim had kept ill and Gopichand resumed with the other Korean Ji Hyun Marr to help out. Men’s singles coach Park Tae Sang had to fly back a few weeks before the Worlds for his visa, and Gopichand would slip back into his role of the minutiae mentor for the men’s singles players.
Gopichand’s lived through far worse than these unplanned situations. He’s routinely resented being in a situation where foreign coaches have landed better salary contracts and left India in the middle of their contracts. He’s watched foreign coaches take off to France and Japan and Singapore. There is also a case of one coach jumping ship and moving locally within India to another centre when his $4000 was bettered by $500.
“It would not be sustainable if we depended only on foreign coaches,” Gopichand says. “There is definitely a need to improve standards of our present coaching staff. So our dependency on foreign coaches is reduced. To depend on them all the time is not very good. Because when many of these coaches left, they left with very short notice, and we were left to fend for ourselves. That’s something that can definitely be avoided and should be looked at differently,” he says.
India’s had plenty of foreign coaching stints since Gopichand took over in 2006; some more sparring partners than coaches. Some have asked to be excused on weekdays, others have taken off on long holidays, ending up declaring a break for the entire group for 20 days with a leading player sustaining injury in that break; some have pleaded out citing family reasons, others have spoken of detailed plans of 2020 Games on a Friday to a top shuttler, and resigned the following Monday. The uncertainty is all a bit too much for a man who all his life, might’ve travelled and reached Hyderabad at 2 a.m, but showed up for a session at 4 in morning.
At the core of coaching chaos
While all the intrigue of rivalry and jealousy between the top names makes for compelling yarn-spinning, almost every flashpoint in Indian badminton has erupted over a clamour for the coach’s undivided attention. Whether it’s Saina moving to Bangalore or Sindhu shifting to a second facility for few months. Parupalli Kashyap rues missing out on a World Championship medal because Gopichand was on an adjacent court, and was busy guiding Saina instead.
“My personal feeling is you need to trust that person, have a relationship with them in training and then it comes out in the tournament,” explains Kashyap of an ideal coach. “They know you inside out,” he adds, saying he shared this equation with Gopichand, as well as Tom John and Bhaskar Babu, with whom he worked at the academy at different points.
It struck him in 2005 when he was finding his feet and random coaches would go for tournaments. “I didn’t make much of it because we were just busy trying to crack the team and thought this is how the system is. As you become a better player and keep growing and then you see your opponents, and you see the same coaches from China, Indonesia, Japan and Denmark coming over and over again every tournament, and then some players are assigned to some coaches. Then you understand the system,” he recalls.
Gopi too agrees. “It’s rational to say that coaches who are training the players should travel with the team. That should be adhered to. Last year was a disaster because we had random coaches travelling and that was uncalled for. Because the players don’t connect and it’s almost like a trip to please somebody that you send coaches. And that should not be the case.”
It was when Gopichand was focussed on preparing Saina for the 2008 Olympics, and Kashyap felt deprived of that same attention and Bhaskar Babu started travelling with him. “Back then, there were reviews by someone from SAI — 9 years back, I was 24. The previous tournament I went to, some other coach came. He was at the camp as a doubles coach, and he just came as a coach for the entire team. That rapport wasn’t there at all, I clearly felt it, and I said it — it wasn’t that the person sitting behind me was bad or his intention is bad. But you are talking about elite level badminton and I thought, I’m India No 1 right now and I’ve trained with my coach for many months before that. I don’t have that coach behind me. There’s absolutely no link with the person sitting behind me. He had some idea. I had some idea, it didn’t click.”
On court, coaches have 90 seconds in between games. “You need a very small simple input which I’ll connect with. If he speaks some other language or asks me to do something on which I’ve not worked… Or doesn’t understand me as person, my behaviour, my pattern of play, my style of play, what I’m weak or strong at, then it won’t work out. As we are growing as a powerhouse, these are extremely basic things: that one coach is travelling with you the entire time! At least the elite level players!”
Kashyap even remembers fighting for attention. “Because Gopi wasn’t there with me, but with Saina, Tom (John) whom Gopi only had brought in, took total control of my training. He made me like a stone – physically and mentally. He tortured me in training. Sitting in the match, you need that person who tortured you. So if I’m slacking he can scold me, and I’ll understand this happened in training also.”
It doesn’t have to be Gopichand. “If tomorrow, Lakshya Sen is playing a match, it’d make perfect sense for Vimal Kumar to be sitting there because they have that rapport. Our players deserve that consideration,” the coach says, hoping the practice of parachuting coaches ends. While he tries his best to cater to India’s multiple medal potentials — Sai Praneeth did snatch a bronze at Basel too — Gopichand believes competitive demands on his attention by the top players will not cease to cause friction till there are enough coaches at the national camp.
No money for coaches
While Gopichand has spoken in recent days of wanting his role to be defined — in deciding on players’ scheduling, on determining what a panel of coaches should look like, he insists there’s a need to collaborate on this, while seeking clarity. “I’m not even talking about my role to be defined. India with its large geographical extent and with multiple stakeholders will have to figure it out. I just want a system to be defined. And me defining it might not make it sustainable. So I don’t want to go down the route of explaining what I want. I want something which has structure, accountability and roles defined put in place. This could be done by talking to everyone,” he states.
The approach to the dawdling junior program bothers him, as he seeks some sort of coordination between the junior and senior programs for both continuity and smooth transitions as well as some control over base fitness and skill work. He sees the coaches travelling for junior meets as crucial to this exercise, again stressing that these can’t be appointments handed out like loose one-time flyers.
There are practical considerations that no one would’ve even thought of. One coach might order the players to sleep at 8 pm, another might say 10.30 pm. Allowed to speak to girls / not allowed to speak to boys / can eat junk food / cannot eat junk food; gym at 7 or multi-shuttle at 7? Gopichand says that if his coaching has to be sustainable, this philosophy needs to percolate to juniors so that they’re not suddenly subjected to this discipline in seniors. “Several people are putting in 10 crores plus to raise academies across the country. The numbers are growing. I owe it to them to give them a clear pathway to succeed since I have delivered the results at the top level and can help,” he says. “How much more do I have to prove that my methods work?”
A massive roadblock to putting in place a system where the next rung of coaches is India shying away from paying candidates who could form an authentic panel. “The payments of Indian coaches has to be looked at very clearly. We don’t have a system where we are able to pay our coaches well. So that they leave their existing jobs, leave other avenues of income and focus fully on this because it is also financially remunerative. For the moment, the disparity between what we are able to pay the Indian and foreign coaches is very vast. And it’s an issue that causes a lot of heartburn among Indian coaches. Unless all these issues are taken up — which would be payment and recognition and authority, we’ll not be able to solve this problem,” he says.
India has an excellent crop of former internationals from relatively recent vintage and well-versed with modern badminton — Sachin Ratti, Chetan Anand, Anup Sridhar, Arvind Bhat, V Diju, Jwala Gutta, Sanave-Rupesh, Aparna Popat, and then those on the verge of retirement. Some of these are running academies from their bases though finances are a deterrent despite their capability of shepherding Top 20 games. Some prefer working with beginners, others can steer the intermediate level shuttlers while a few possess capabilities and commitment to put in the hours for the elite bunch, but there is no remuneration at the end of that sacrifice. Some balk at putting in effort into training away from the spotlight of the tournament.
Post-retirement, only the oil-company jobs can safeguard their financial security, and they will need to be paid handsomely for the massive demands that grooming an elite shuttler will make on their time. “Why’ll they leave their jobs and family and come if they aren’t paid handsomely?” Kashyap says. As things stand, the situation isn’t particularly rosy for Siyadathullah and Amrish Shinde, the two coaches at the national camp. A case in point is Amrish Shinde who struggles for most times to get leave letters from his employers job which pays in the range of Rs 30,000 (when he’s not looking at LOP slips), even as he remains on the periphery of preparations of the stars while putting in demanding hours.
Gopichand has a few ideas on the subject, but needs a trusting, listening audience in the fraternity. Kashyap jokes that the badminton world thinks the coach is sitting on the Iron Throne, a reference to the Game of Thrones’ series ultimate seat of power, when in reality the sharp swords the throne’s made of, make power mightily uncomfortable to settle into. The coach is anyways always seen standing from morning to night, his ward adds.
Island Units for Elite Shuttlers
Kim Ji Hyun will resume on her return from Korea, responsibilities of Sindhu’s individual training, while head coach Pullela Gopichand puts in place the overall program heading into the Olympics. “Coaching will get far more personalized closer to the Olympics, but till then we’ve put in place individual teams for all top players,” the coach says.
Off-court commitments have increased manifold for the new world champion, with her having to travel for felicitations and sponsor shoots, which means her travel & training schedules can hardly match that of the rest of the group’s. This means it’s difficult to synchronise Gopichand’s coaching schedule with the larger elite group with Sindhu’s training hours on a daily basis. “We have to evolve our plans according to demands of her new schedule and stature. So, I’ll give control to Kim (Ji Hyun), and there’s trainer Srikanth Verma working with her and Vinita is the masseuse. It’s good she’s using multiple avenues so I’ll only be concerned that she’s maintaining fitness. I’ll monitor the overall program but we have 10-12 top singles and doubles players, and I need to look after everyone which is why these coaching teams were formed,” he says of these island units.
Saina Nehwal, Srikanth, Prannoy, Ashwini-Sikki have dedicated fitness and conditioning teams and Kashyap (helping her out after his training), Siyadath, Coach Park Tae Sang and Flandy Limpele, serving as individual coaches, though a couple more foreign coaches are needed for the likes of Saina and Sai Praneeth.
“We worked hard to get Kim and Park given our budget constraints and the fact that it was middle of the Olympic year. On big competition days, I’ll sit for most of their matches which can be 12-hour-days, so I can’t be there for them pre and post matches always, which is why it’s good to have individual coaches who are always with them,” he explains.