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Guest Columns

Indian athletes still prefer coaches they like, not those they need

Nurturing a successful athlete or team is no longer a coach-only job and needs a holistic team to keep the juggernaut rolling - be it in cricket or Olympic sports.

Coaching alliances to ponder about - Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli and PV Sindhu with Park Tae-sang
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Coaching alliances to ponder about - Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli (left) and PV Sindhu with Park Tae-sang

By

Manisha Malhotra

Updated: 2021-12-20T15:53:49+05:30

Just like Rome wasn't a product of overnight toil, neither were its gladiators who dared out for every fight-till-death encounter a one-day miracle. Behind the success of any form - be it, individual or team, lies a larger framework that pulls the strings in constructing the perfectly successful 'elite' athlete. The fabric of Indian sports is strange and helplessly enough is inflicted with the cultural attitude that is otherwise prevalent in the Indian society - the one where we are quick and easy to forge familial relations even in professional relationships - that in more cases than not, blur the lines between ordinary success and true excellence.

If I'm allowed to indulge in a culinary analogy, creating the perfect sports team or even an athlete is no longer a single-handed job comprising a single ingredient. Like a cake bakes into perfection only when every ingredient is measured and put in it in the right proportions, and the magic happens - similarly, in sports, for success to achieve the perfect rise, a whole team of specialized people exists in propelling the athletes towards more success. But does India really understand this concept of having support roles and not just a lone coach they prefer and perhaps not even need?

The joyous Indian women's hockey team after defeating Australia at the Tokyo Olympics (Source: Getty)

The world of sports isn't without magic but the magicians are oftentimes the people who stay behind the scenes - take the case of the heavily inspired Rani Rampal-led Indian women's hockey team who went to the bronze medal clash at the Tokyo Olympics and en route even outmaneuvered a strong Australian side? Entering as absolute underdogs, the Sjoerd Marjine coached girls' didn't just stand their ground against the world's best because of the coach alone - credit also goes to the presence of then-analytical coach Janneke Schopman's wise interjections that pushed the girls' towards the summit clash — almost.

Vinesh Phogat missed her physio at the Tokyo Olympics (Source: Getty)

On the other hand, star wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who was one of India's biggest medal hopes from the Tokyo Games faltered. The glaring absence of her long-time physio, Poornima R Ngomdir was apparent and perhaps played a big role in Phogat's dismal performance that has left the grappler herself feeling 'broken' as she did not have the familiar faces to help her through the weight cut process before the Olympics. Moreover, Vinesh later confessed that she was not in the right mental state during the matches and more than ever, needed Poornima around but she never received accreditation and Vinesh had to make do with a different women's team physio.


Sports is no longer an only-coach-based activity

In the wake of the success and mixed results of Indian athletes across a variety of sports - what is the most important takeaway is to realize that the functioning of elite sports has radically changed. More than basing it on sentimental relationships solely, sports demands tactical liaisons instead that will all come together to work towards achieving that success. Think of it as a mass election campaign, if you will, sports also function in the same pattern - where a number of specialized forces assemble to propel the team or the athlete. But in the context of Indian sports, most athletes hardly realize the importance of such an approach and the Federations are only slow-learning the need to have this motley mixture to create perfection.

PV Sindhu with her coach Park Tae-sang (Source: Getty)

My mind stretches to PV Sindhu now and her shifting of coaching camps from Pullela Gopichand to that of Korean coach, Park Tae-sang. While the parting of ways from Gopi invited controversy galore given that it was he who played the lion's share role in shaping the 2019 World Champion, in the larger context, it is so important to realize and understand that not all alliances have to be forever, just for the sake of it. With Park Tae-sang in, Sindhu's game also changed - as is expected with any coaching shifts, but the results also began to show as Sindhu maintained her consistency and even medalled with a bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.

The wake-up call then is really for Federations who need to understand how integral the correct performance support staff matters where the coach is just another member of that very team and not a separate, exclusive entity. For India's medal shower to continue, Federations will need to compile a team that is specialized and available for all aspects important to an athlete - nutrition, mental health, strength and conditioning, and physiotherapy, et al.

A technical, not a sentimental approach towards sports


Rahul Dravid with Rohit Sharma (Source: BCCI)


Call it a cultural issue if you will, but India's issue is largely sentimental - an emotion that doesn't parry well with the world of athletic excellence, in general. Teamwork does matter but recognizing if the teamwork is bringing in the results and pushing the whole unit - be it individually or in the case of team sport, is crucial, especially at the global stages. A shift towards a more technical, tactical, and strategic approach is therefore the need of the hour for the growth of Indian sports.

A lot of hullabaloo has been caused recently with Ravi Shastri's departure as the Indian cricket coach and Rahul Dravid's takeover of the reins while Virat Kohli passed on the captaincy baton to Rohit Sharma as well. In sports, the landscape cannot be kept static when you are expecting results in a dynamic space - in the form of trophies and medals. The Shastri-Kohli duo's general alliance boding well cannot mean that it is the wise call for the whole team, isn't it?

The need, therefore, is for this consciousness to arise - be it Shastri today, Dravid tomorrow, Kohli yesterday, and Sharma today - every change has its own repercussion but the question of adjusting to a new face, a new team leader - ultimately will come down to how and if the entire thing is working in tandem and if not, after a span, quick corrections need to be made.

Neeraj Chopra with his former coach (left) Uwe Hohn (Source: Instagram/Neeraj Chopra)

For Tokyo Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra, a similar case follows. Trained by two German coaches, first Uwe Hohn and later biomechanical expert, Klaus Bartonietz, the approaches of the two of them may have been different but the goal was one and common, that was shared by the athlete in concern too and accordingly the result showed. The influence of the coach cannot be discounted and the changes will reflect in the athlete and the ripples will be caused - but it is about how the whole team works and not just a coach here, especially at the elite level.

As India is already into the next Olympic cycle for 2024 and a new year also beckons at the near horizon, reminding us of the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games that lie ahead in store, Indian athletes and Federations alike will need to take stock. For India to properly keep the ascent going on this ladder of success, the need to have a holistic approach towards coaching, training, strength, and conditioning is more important than ever. Like the aforementioned cake going wrong with the miss or ill-measured quantity of the ingredients - India's chances of winning medals and delivering at the elite level will stand jeopardized if wise calls are not taken and a technical approach towards sports is not embraced, ensuring that the conjunctive creation assuredly translates in the form of medals and trophies.

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