Pullela Gopichand is the coach India needs for all sports
A success graph featuring 2 Olympic medals in badminton, countless BWF and World Championship medals, Pullela Gopichand has redefined coaching standards in India.
Much before there was Kabir Khan mouthing motivational dialogues on our screens, there was Pullela Gopichand who gave us the version of what an 'ideal' coach should be like - proving it through his real actions. Here was a former badminton player familiar with success - medal wins at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, a bronze at the 2000 Asian Championships and a prestigious title win at the 2001 All England Open, Pullela Gopichand switched from being on the court to being the man behind the players on the court most smoothly.
Considered to be the Dronacharya of Indian badminton, Pullela Gopichand all but rescued the sport of badminton from ignominy and towed it towards the limelight - making sure that the country emerges as a ticking bomb for producing ace shuttlers - erupting every now and then with a new talent. In the hands of Gopichand alone, Indian badminton has radically transformed - reaching unprecedented heights, kissing glory and lingering awhile even, with marvellous consistency.
Ever since the Andhra Pradesh man assumed charge of the helm as the coach, Indian badminton has surged - aided by top-quality players like 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist Saina Nehwal, 2016 Rio silver medallist PV Sindhu, former World No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth and 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty being its exemplary products.
Today, with the Tokyo Olympics around the corner, Pullela Gopichand is once again going to bask in peace knowing that all the shuttlers headed to Japan from India have been tutored to perfection by him, at one point in their life or other. With PV Sindhu leading from the front - hungry for a second Olympic medal, there will also be 2019 World Championships bronze medallist B. Sai Praneeth in the men's singles event while World No. 10 pair of Satwik-Chirag will make their Olympic debut in Tokyo.
The paradigm shift - from pro player to star coach
In a career cut short by injuries, Pullela Gopichand's transition from being a player to a coach started to happen very gradually as Gopichand was extremely keen on giving back to the sport. Realizing the potential India has for the nation to churn out champion shuttlers, Gopichand desired to do away with the areas they lacked in - speed, endurance, agility and strategy, by starting his own state-of-the-art training centre - the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in 2004.
"I was lucky, because the end part of my career, I jumped into coaching. That gave me energy going forward. Many of the times, players tend to push that bar for too long, and hold on to the cliff for too long. They almost fall down hard and find it hard to bounce, because they have spent too much energy hanging on to the cliff," the Chief National Coach of India said in a YouTube interview with cricketer R. Ashwin in 2020.
Just as Pullela Gopichand started out as a coach, along came a 14-year-old Haryanvi star - Saina Nehwal, knocking on his doors in Hyderabad. Made of boorish strength and a lot of talent, Gopichand immediately recognised the potential she had and decided to make her his dream project and thus began the work.
There were some initial hurdles that Gopichand had to cross and it did take him a while before he could earn the trust of the players and the associations.
"I trusted myself, but I knew I was working in a system and I had to take people along. But luckily, as All England champion, you walk into a badminton court and people respect you. That initial honeymoon was very important - the kids just trusted me blindly," Gopichand said in the interview with R. Ashwin.
With Saina Nehwal ready to be moulded in his hands and fashioned for global glory, budding shuttlers from all over the country arrived at the Gopichand Academy, like moths attracted to the flaming light. Gopichand found his talisman as a coach in Nehwal as she, with her incredible prowess and champion spirit and sheer determination to be the World No. 1 (a feat she achieved in 2015, too) conquered titles far and wide.
Gopichand drew from his extensive experience in playing international tournaments and having perceived how the training works in Asian and European countries, he implemented similar patterns of training on the Indian shuttlers. If Saina Nehwal was the fuel to propel the success graph, it was the lanky and lithe PV Sindhu who helped boost it to an all-time high, making Indians sit up and take notice of the world's fastest racquet sport.
Setting up an enviable framework soon, Pullela Gopichand managed to devise a foolproof road to achieving success in badminton. No other sport, in recent history, has grown in such leaps and bounds and with such medalling consistency under the tutelage of a single coach. Not someone who only focuses on the elite category players, the Arjuna awardee also harps on the need to give attention to the grassroots of India - where the real talent germinates.
"Today, coaches are believed to be good are awarded more and rewarded more if they coach with the national team. But truly, someone who works at the grassroots level and churns out player after player, should be really regarded as a top coach," Gopichand mentioned in the interview.
The spike in the success graph
Making it his motto to fashion champion shuttlers who would aim for success on the grandest of stages - the World Championships, the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Olympics, Pullela Gopichand could malleate any talented and dedicated player into a multi-medallist sensation.
Working closely with his two star pupils - Saina Nehwal, first and then PV Sindhu, later, Pullela Gopichand remained with them step by step during the majority of their initial years on the tour.
"Between 2005 and 2008, every tournament that my players went to, I also went. I stayed with them literally all through the journey," the 2009 Dronacharya awardee revealed to Ashwin.
Being so wholly dedicated to the top players, Gopichand regrets having missed out on the opportunity for carving out more champions.
"But the last few years, I have spent so much time with only the top players, that I have not been able to spend that time with the younger generation. We have suffered because of that in the assembly line. Some of the players that could have become [good] have not transformed," Gopichand mentioned.
Yet this time he spent was not in vain and the spike in the success graph of Indian badminton is enough to reveal that. With him as the coach, India has seen Olympic medals coming their way for the last two editions of the Games, two players - Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth reaching the perch spot on the BWF rankings and PV Sindhu winning the World Championship crown in 2019 - the journey has been littered with successes galore.
Although the 47-year-old Chief National Coach of Indian badminton has opted out of travelling to Tokyo to make space for B. Sai Praneeth's current coach, Agus Dwi Santosa, there is no doubt that he will be beaming with pride as the Indian shuttlers, his erstwhile pupils set sail for Japan. The final onus will be on these shuttlers however - to go ahead to Tokyo and bring home a medal for India and extend the legacy of both Gopichand's coaching act and take Indian badminton to the greatest heights.