The just-released biography on Pullela Gopi Chand, the coach of the Indian badminton team, traces the rise of this star through struggle: practising without an adequate supply of shuttles, finding it tough to get badminton rackets repaired, and not finding coaches who could help enhance his game. But then, as Gopi Chand says, he considers himself very lucky to have got the chance to be a sportsman. “Anything else would have been hard work, not playing.” He now runs the Gopi Chand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. We spoke to him about his coaching methodology, and why he believes a balance between individualism and regimen helps players. Edited excerpts:
As a player, the book says, you sometimes did not listen to your coaches and decided your own training regimens. As a coach how do you handle players who do the same?
The teacher: Pullela Gopi Chand coaches at his academy in Hyderabad. By Priyanka Parashar/Mint
When I have 20 kids at the academy and five singles players who are at the same level, I tell them that the guy who is winning has to ensure that other guys don’t really come up. If all five of them follow the same training programme set by me, no champion will emerge. A player needs to be out there and put in his or her own thinking as well. He/she has to be really ruthless and push themselves. I believed that doing a few things in a certain way would help and I knew they were right for me, like what to eat, how many repetitions to do, meditation, yoga. I wanted to be sure that I never had any regrets and should not tell myself at the end of my career, “I wish I had done it this way.”
I have only one thing to say to players: If you can handle yourself independently, then fine. I am okay with any player who wants to do more for improving their game. I benefited from it and so will they.
But then this goes against your other philosophy: that the Chinese win because they are disciplined and regimented...
The kind of authority that the Chinese coaches have, the number of students they have and the focus they are able to inculcate in all their students—well, we do not have such a structure.
Unless we have a structure that takes care of players at the basic, intermediate and top levels, with people of competence taking charge of their discipline, it is not possible to adopt the Chinese way of coaching and training. Try asking a coach in Rajasthan, Haryana or elsewhere in India about the changes that happen in a game at the international level; he won’t have any idea. What coaches teach here is outdated by at least 20 years. The Indian player has to innovate, and think on his own.
Pullela Gopi Chand—The World Beneath His Feat: By Sanjay Sharma and Shachi S. Sharma, Rupa, 320 pages, Rs 495.
You were thinking about setting up a coaching centre as early as 1998. You told (badminton player) Aparna Popat this. Why would a player at his peak do that?
I really wanted to train abroad with the Chinese, Indonesians. But when I went there, none of those countries allowed me to train. I was in Denmark asking the Danish team if I could play sessions with them but there was no one who would train with me. In Indonesia, the only person who would train with me was a Delhi boy who had come there for a holiday. So I realized early that if we don’t do something in our own country to train and facilitate player growth, no one else will help us get better.
Sure, countries were approaching me to come and train their players when I decided to retire, but I wanted to stay in India and do this work here.
As a young coach, do you feel you have a better chance of getting through to your players?
Yes, I have the advantage of still being able to play with my players. My coaches, except for Prakash sir (Padukone), could never really play with me. It helps tremendously because you can tell them, show them and you don’t have to rely on verbal skills all the time. It also helps the players to relate to you more freely.
You do a lot of yoga but the book indicates you don’t insist your players do it. Why?
I have seen in a few players that they tend to resist it. With physical training exercises the muscles show, so they are happy. Yoga and meditation help build mental strength. But mental muscles are not out on display, so players resist. For a few of them, I insist that they do it. But I have to leave some players alone. Wanting to do yoga, breathing and meditation comes from within, you cannot force players to follow your beliefs.
The key thing about coaching is that you cannot always insist on what you believe is right. You have to give the players a little bit of freedom to try and experiment.
When Saina Nehwal decided to train with another coach earlier this year, was that a blow? Though she returned a couple of months later, did you feel her leaving would affect your image as a coach, and other players training with you?
I have lived my life without making any compromises. I have always done things that I believe in and I will want my younger students to look at me that way. I don’t want them to feel that my ethics are softened by the stature of the player.
If Gopi Chand does things differently it will maybe affect one player from coming back but then the institution will suffer. The system is important because it will keep producing players and it is important that it does not get diluted.