When Argentina-born Santiago Nieva took up the post of India’s boxing coach in March, he had big shoes to fill. He was following in the footsteps of BI Fernandez — the Cuban who was bestowed with the Dronacharya award and successfully moulded a generation of star pugilists. But apart from living up to the high standards set by his predecessor, the 42-year-old had other worries too.
The new job would keep him away from his family and the apple of his eye — his three-year-old daughter Luna. He also had to adapt to the local cuisine, which he had heard was spicy. On the coaching front, Nieva wondered how he would cope with a pool of 60-odd boxers. While his palate has got used to Indian food, Nieva has used technology to deal with home sickness and the large pool of boxers. For Nieva, who has now been elevated to the position of a chief performance director, the phone is an “extension” of his body. Video calling helps him keep in touch with his family, while he uses a WhatsApp group, which comprises elite boxers, to post boxing videos and constantly interact with the large group.
“They can watch and learn. That’s how I grew up. There was no WhatsApp or phones then, I would watch fights on VHS tapes. I have learnt a lot watching videos, I still have thousands of tapes at home. I once sent a video to someone and I ask if they watched it and he said ‘yes sir 11 times’. So I know they are learning,” Nieva told The Indian Express, while observing a few junior boxers train at the IG stadium in New Delhi.
The coach was in Delhi last week to oversee the preparations for the women’s World Youth Championship, which will be held in Guwahati from November 19.
With a full-time video analyst at the camp, Nieva is also able to send a video of a particular boxer or a training session to the WhatsApp group. He has also tweaked the strength training regimen of the boxers.
“It was a little old school. So I called in athletics and lifting coaches to help the campers,” he says. Gaurav Bidhuri, who won a bronze medal in the bantamweight (56kg) category at the World Championships held in April, felt that changes that Nieva has brought about in the camp had helped him immensely in the run up to the championships. “He changed our strength training pattern. He incorporated weightlifting exercises. Dead lift and bench press were routines we never did at a camp before,” Bidhuri said.
Bidhuri also explains that even their warm-ups were modified. Instead of long runs, Nieva preferred them doing short bursts with ample breaks. “It’s like boxing rounds. You get to rest in between,” he opined.
But it has been Nieva’s “whatsapp classes” that have helped the trainees the most, feels the 24-year-old. At the end of every week all the boxers are given feedback on their training, along with clips sourced from the video analyst. “We are also told in advance what areas we will work on in the coming weeks. If the coach wants us to improve our jabs, he will find a clip of a boxer with the best jab and send it to us,” adds Bidhuri.
Nieva was born in Argentina and moved to Sweden with his family when he was five. He went back to represent the Argentine national team and most recently the AIBA three-star coach was training the Swedish national team. Nieva is a huge football fan and grew up idolising Maradona. He is modest in admitting that he couldn’t really master the game and was only good enough to be a “local player.” “I was eight maybe then. I tried football but I always found myself on the bench. I already liked boxing so I decided that football is not the sport for me.”
After his arrival, the biggest challenge Nieva faced was the World Championships in April. India finished with one bronze, Bidhuri’s and three last eight finishes.
“I know it is a tough job to coach in India but I am prepared. I know Fernandez personally and I had long chat with him before coming to India. So I have an idea of what to expect,” he says. Did Fernandez warn him about anything? Nieva laughs, “If he didn’t like the job, he wouldn’t have stayed here for so long.”