Coaching the coaches: Hope for Indian badminton

It happens all the time. India wins the World Cup. A thousand toddlers pick up the cricket bat for the first time next morning. A Saina Nehwal wins bronze at the Olympics. Tears of patriotism flow down our collective cheeks, and the next morning, thousands of parents buy their little ones new badminton rackets for the first time.

But that’s where the similarity ends. While those little toddlers who picked up cricket bats have professionally-run coaching camps to go to in almost every city of India — camps and centres run by internationally-certified coaches — the ones who ended up with badminton rackets probably end up playing with their neighbourhood pals on a grassy patch nearby. But why is there no badminton coaching centre, apart from a handful run by former greats? The answer is simple: there are few qualified coaches!

Selections being conducted at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad

The reason China, Denmark or Malaysia can churn out world champions in badminton every year, is because they have enough internationally-certified coaches — men and women who may not have been the best players but know how to bring out the best in others and make champions out of raw talent.

What’s on the anvil
But finally it seems the racket wielding boys and girls in India too will have their rightful place under the sun. The ascendancy of Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap as two of the world’s best shuttlers along with the rise of Jwala Gutta, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu and others have perhaps made the Badminton Association of India (BAI) as well as former players — coaches realise that there is hope if a scientific approach is taken to the whole thing.

Saina Nehwal with Indian badminton coach, Pullela Gopichand. File Pic

A few months ago, just after Diwali in 2012, Akhilesh Das Gupta, president of the Badminton Association of India (BAI) chaired a meeting with BAI vice president TPS Puri, former All England champion and ace coach Pullela Gopichand and a few others, to start a discussion that promises to usher in a revolution.

“The past three years have seen a radical rise in the popularity of badminton. We were producing winners but it also made us see clearly that we lacked uniformity when it came to coaching,” recalls Puri. That’s when he came up with the idea to conduct training clinics for aspiring coaches. “We realised that there was no formal and uniform coaching certificate that BAI issued. So coaches in different states were following different methods of teaching, some which were badly outdated,” adds Puri.

Luckily BAI did not have to look far to find an Indian coach who is respected the world over. They associated with the Hyderabad-based Gopichand Academy and the Go Sport Foundation to introduce a first-of-its-kind Badminton Coach Education Programme. The first of the week-long clinics for budding coaches will begin end of March (from March 23 to March 30) at the Gopichand Academy and have intensive sessions on physical fitness and training, how to combat professional hazards of badminton, sports massage, psychological training of players, development and training, nutrition, and how to overcome and recuperate from injuries.

Around 30 coaches from across India will be trained to be better coaches, using international standard material. India’s best faculty including Badminton World Federation technical expert Venugopal Mahalingam, National Coach Pullela Gopichand, Indonesian coach Edwin conditioning expert Jagmohan Singh and sports medicine expert Dr Ashok Ahuja have been roped in for this.

The road ahead
Nandan Kamath, managing trustee of GoSports Foundation, which will execute the programme, says, “Gopichand is one of the top coaches in India, after which we have second level of coaches. Then, the level drops drastically. While India has seen spectacular victories, expert coaches can be only at one place at a time.

If Nehwal and Kashyap are playing a match, their coach would travel with them, and the rest of the players are left in a lurch. Our focus is on juniors. The age between eight and 13 is crucial to build a player’s game. That is when each of them need individual attention and assigned coaches.”

The aim of the clinic is to ready the next generation of coaches to upgrade their skill and add depth to their knowledge. “Badminton, as any other sport, has a core technique — how you move your feet, plant your step on court, your attack and defense, etc. A coach has to be alert enough to iron out errors creeping into a player’s game,” adds Kamath.

While most coaches are ex-players, it does not mean only former players can become coaches. “This course will enable competent badminton coaches to be equipped with training methods and updated knowledge of scientific advances in sports medicine and other allied areas. This will go a long way in improving the standard of Indian badminton players at all levels,” feels TPS Puri, course director and vice president, Badminton Association of India (BAI).

Been there, done that
Winner of French Open in 1998, Aparna Popat feels it is the grassroots level that is in dire need of good coaches. “Ex-players turning to coaching is not enough. In the US and Australia, not all coaches have played the game but they have a formal degree and training to be coaches. In India, the mindset is different. We need to update our training techniques, and be in line with the world,” says Popat, who trained under ex-doubles national champion Anil Pradhan.

“I was lucky to have a great coach between eight and 16 years when I first started playing. Pradhan sir taught me techniques, improved my strokes and footwork,” says Popat, who later became one of the first students of Prakash Padukone’s Academy in Bangalore.

But, there was one problem that she faced; her coaches could not always travel with her. “I think I could have received more guidance on how to play my game at critical junctures, if they had accompanied me to big matches,” says Popat.

A new beginning
Agreeing with Popat, Mangirish Palekar, who runs Shuttle Craze, a badminton academy in Pune, and Mumbai, says: “India needs a basic coaches forum. The Gopichand Academy is following the Badminton World Federation method. Playing and teaching are a different ball game. If a student has a strong attack, a coach focusing on improving his defense would only end up spoiling his game.”

With the sport riding high on popularity in India now, it is the ideal time to make a few improvements, says Palekar. “At the grassroots level, kids need to play more tournaments to overcome fear. We should have coaching clinics for selected players under ace coaches. Then see how they play. Sadly, Mumbai doesn’t have either the infrastructure or coaches. A club or an academy has maximum three to four courts unlike in Bangalore and Hyderabad where each academy boasts of 10 to 12 courts at one venue.”

Yet, it is clear that things are on an upswing. Hopefully in a few years time, the game would have a lot more certified coaches and this, will ultimately lead to more champions. May a hundred Sainas rise.

Schools encourage badminton
Many schools in the city focus on badminton as an extra-curricular activity. One such school is Jamnabai Narsee School in Juhu that has been offering badminton coaching for the past 20 years. Sujay Jairaj, trustee of the Juhu-school says, “In the ’90s, our students trained under Sujata Pawar, a former national player. Presently, we have Sanjana Santosh, an international player, as coach. We also offer an optional weekend training programme under Aditya Pandya, a national level player, at a nearly club.”  

The first of the week-long clinics for coaches  will run from March 23 to March 30 at the Gopichand Academy and have intensive sessions on physical fitness, sports massage, psychological training of players, development and training, nutrition and how to overcome and recuperate from injuries

5 question
In China, children as young as eight and nine are taken into residential coaching camps and made into champs by the time they turn 15. Is that feasible in India?

It depends on what we are willing to sacrifice for the success and pride of our nation. Honestly, with our mindset, it’s not a feasible option.

Pullela GopiChand Indian badminton coach

Saina Nehwal, Jwala Gutta, Parupalli Kashyap…in recent years we have thrown up quite a few world-class players. Do you think this has happened in spite of the system?
I think the support the government has been giving to the sport since th Commonwealth Games in 2008 has been encouraging. Still, the system needs to ensure that good players come out of different towns. The supporting ecosystem should be developed across the country.

How has the Indian badminton scene improved over the years?
While Saina’s performance has triggered a lot of interest and put us in the limelight, I also have to mention that the performance of the entire team has been commendable. Good results have not only come at senior levels but also at junior and sub-junior levels.

While cricket-coaching camps by former international stars is common in India, is there a reason why not enough ex-badiminton players don’t get into coaching?
The present system is not encouraging enough for former international players to take up coaching as a full- time job. Also, the recognition and remuneration for coaches needs
to improve.

How can we produce more champs?
We have to build a strong grassroots level programme with the vision of producing players who can perform well at the highest levels. Also, a strong domestic calendar of events is also very important for producing more champions. 

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