'Our thinking has changed a lot': Avinash Bhavnani on the changing dynamics of Indian Squash
Veteran squash coach Avinash Bhavnani speaks about the growth and ever-changing dynamics of squash in India in an exclusive interview with The Bridge.
Avinash Bhavnani has been actively coaching for more than a decade and noticeably leaves his mark on Indian Squash.
Over the course of his illustrious coaching career, he’s coached quite a few national champions and squash players who have represented India at the grandest stages.
For Bhavnani, it’s not just about the love and passion for squash. It’s about the journey with every child he coaches – right from the time he teaches them to hold a racquet to watching their journey to the highest levels of squash that inspires him to coach and give back to the game.
A new chapter at the turn of the century
Avinash grew up playing at Otters Club, Mumbai and represented the club at the local and national level. When he became squash secretary in the early 2000s, he hosted India’s first level 1 coaching course at the Otters Club.
He wanted his fellow professionals (who were called markers back then) to learn a formal way of coaching instead of replicating a haphazard approach which they had witnessed as kids.
Avinash stated, “To encourage them and motivate them, I told them, you have to do the course and to help you all, I will do the course myself so that you all feel comfortable. That is where the journey started.”
Changing dynamics of the sport in India
According to Avinash, the game over a period of time, in the last five-six years has changed a lot. As the game has dynamically changed, so have the dynamics of coaching.
He stated, "What we used to teach at an under-17 level, let's say a slight drop of the wrist for a drop shot, today, you have to start teaching this to the kids at under-11."
He highlighted that the mere concept of coaching has been revamped and the ground reality situation has drastically improved for the betterment of Indian squash since the intertwining of HCL and Indian squash.
“There are a number of kids coming in and playing from various strata of society. So you cannot be just sitting back and say, ‘we'll go the old traditional way.’ It made us also think and consequently, our thinking has changed a lot dynamically. We have to adapt.”
HCL - The game changer
Due to initiatives ushered in by HCL, Squash which was once branded as the ‘sport of the elite’, now witnesses a lot of people from the Indian middle class as well.
Avinash emphasised, “HCL has given this push, where the number of players has really increased.”
And when that happens, someone like Avinash becomes more than a coach to those picking up a racquet for the first time.
“Every person is different, every kid is different. So you’ve got to adapt and see how the kid will react to you. Somewhere you have to be a friend, guide or mentor, father figure. You wear various caps. And these are challenging at various stages,” he added.
Previously, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai were the main hubs of squash. Avinash believes that the HCL Podium Program has been pivotal for change and laid the platform for more players from towns such as Salem, Nagpur, and Indore.
“A lot of these other places where squash was not really picking up a lot, it has now really picked up. Kids have more tournaments to play in their home state, or close by, and they can really show what they are made of.”
The digital realm - Blessing for Indian squash
Avinash might be a veteran coach but no one could prepare for the extent to which one’s life was put at a standstill due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With his daily routine coming to an abrupt halt, Avinash had to resort to scheduling frequent fitness sessions online and encouraged them to practice whatever little they could inside their own bedroom or against a wall – something his students looked forward to amidst all the chaos.
But he admitted there’s only so much of fitness one could do for squash. Something one can’t really practice without being on the court but the digital world definitely helped a coach like him to keep in touch with his students and provide an escape for him and students.
The role of technology and social media didn't stop there.
Avinash exclaims that if HCL didn’t advertise the sport through social media and the digital platform, Indian squash wouldn’t have the reach that it encompasses today.
“We need people like HCL to actually push but one person cannot do this. And we can't keep telling SRFI to keep pushing, they are doing their bit, but obviously, HCL plays a very, very big role by supporting the national body and the game of squash.
Additionally, the initiative to market the sport has made a positive impact. If there’s a squash tournament going on somewhere in India, it is reassuring for squash enthusiasts to know that it is being telecast on YouTube, Facebook or online – either by SRFI or by HCL.
Talking about the benefit of the brand value that HCL brings to squash in India, he stated, “The minute you see HCL podium program, people say, ‘Oh HCL is there, so it must be something good. Let's go and see it’. And I also see more and more people coming to watch the sport.”
Indian squash on an upward trajectory
Indian squash is inarguably smashing expectations and overcoming barriers every day. When asked about what is causing this ascent of squash in India, Avinash identified two main factors, both being of equal importance.
He stated, “One of the factors is a lot of the ex-players (who possess better communication skills) have come into squash and started coaching and SRFI is doing this level one, level two, level three certification programs for this for squash coaching, which is really helpful…Previously, it was very haphazard, there was no structure.
“Today everyone has a structure, there's a fitness plan, there is a diet plan, there's a squash plan. Everything is put into place where the kid knows exactly what they're doing. And there's a full structure of how to how the kid will be progressing for the whole month right up from one tournament to another tournament,” Avinash added.
To Avinash, another crucial factor is that parents of today’s age are providing a lot of opportunities by taking them to tournaments, be it in India or abroad. This simultaneously provided a lot of awareness and shapes their hunger to play at the highest level.
Way forward to improve Indian squash
Avinash is in complete agreement that Indian squash is on the right trajectory but also recognises that there are some things that can be done better.
He has been proposing the idea for an annual local conference where all the squash coaches would be invited.
“I think our junior programs will flourish much better. And we could do much better, because we have a lot of junior coaches who do the course, but they really don't know how to implement things to a 100%. They have the book, they have the knowledge, but they have nobody to guide them a lot. So something like this would probably help them a lot,” said Avinash.
On the other hand, he feels that the sport really needs to be brought to the grassroots level.
We have kids who are playing squash, yes, they become national champions and they play for India. But we lose them at the age of 18 and 19 because they are going abroad to study. And I really don't see anything wrong with that, because everyone has a right to make their future.
“But if we want to ever produce a world champion, we will have to get someone from the grassroots, who has that hunger, because very, very few people who are well off are really going to take the risks. I know Saurav Ghoshal is definitely one is but then one Saurav Ghoshal in the whole country? We should be having at least 10-15 clean like him to really move ahead,” Avinash added.
In turn, this would not only take squash in India forward but also coaching forward and ultimately provide results somewhere to produce a world champion.