Gopichand: 'Sindhu & Saina vital for Indian badminton'

"The dream of producing an Olympic medallist was there. I always had a hunch that it was possible. Having said that, producing two medallists in successive Olympics was possible because of God’s grace," says the former All England champion and now India’s chief coach, Pullela Gopichand.

Gopichand has tasted enormous sucess as a coach.   -  PTI

India’s chief national coach Pullela Gopichand’s ability to shut himself off from routine issues while on court imparting valuable tips to his trainees is amazing. He is one who is not satisfied even if a trainee puts in 99 per cent effort. A perfectionist, the 42-year-old former All England champion-turned coach has every reason to sport a big smile, as people come one after another to pat him or greet him for his wonderful achievement of producing two Olympic medals winner in successive editions (London 2012 and Rio 2016).

READ: >P. V. Sindhu Interview

In an exclusive interview to Sportstar, Gopichand shares his thoughts on various aspects of badminton and his coaching.


Question: At this juncture, how do you look back at your journey in world badminton?

Answer: Well, to start with, I am blessed to have parents (Subash Chandra Bose and Subbaravamma) who gave me the liberty to choose the sport I loved and, more importantly, supported me right through. I mean, the best part is that they were and are still conscious of the demands in my career — as a player then, and now as coach. Had it not been for them and my life partner, Lakshmi, I would not have achieved all this.

The challenge as a player and as a coach — which is bigger?

In terms of expectations, both posed similar challenges. As a player, the onus is completely on you. You need to keep performing irrespective of the conditions in which you train. Apparently, the players now are better off in terms of facilities, mentoring and exposure. I must mention here that, when I had a knee problem in the early 1990s, I couldn’t afford a knee cap. We even had to literally beg for quality shuttles to train, for everything was dependent on the system then. Many players could not afford to buy shuttles on their own.

As a coach, your role is limited to a certain extent. You can only train the players in the best possible and scientific manner, given the availability of the latest technology. The inputs will be there, but it all boils down to how well the player performs on a given day. So, it is not just how many hours you spend in coaching, but understanding whether the players are imbibing the qualities needed to become a champion. This role also means taking care of every player. As a coach, I cannot be biased and focus only on someone like Sindhu. That would lead to problems. Luckily, I have been successful in keeping the spirits of everyone in the Academy high because of the different training schedules we have for each age group, the fringe players and those on the verge of making it big in the international circuit.

Has being a former All England champion helped you in coaching?

As a player, I went through the grind and faced all sorts of challenges. That helped me a lot in the early stages of my coaching. Players looked up to me, and when I kept telling them that they had the potential to be champions, they believed in my words and started performing well. The performances of Saina (Nehwal) and (Parupalli) Kashyap lent credence to my viewpoint.

Honestly, did you expect to produce medals winners in successive Olympics — Saina Nehwal at London 2012 and Sindhu at Rio 2016?

I would say it was not about expectations, but yes, certainly the dream of producing an Olympic medallist was there. I always had a hunch that it was possible. Having said that, producing two medallists in successive Olympics was possible because of God’s grace. We put in a lot of effort. Nevertheless, I repeat, I am grateful to God for these results.

The idea of setting up the Academy was to ensure that there is an assembly line of players ready to bring laurels to the country. I was aware that it would take some time but definitely, I am pleased with the way things have shaped up in the last four years. However, the credit should go to these champions too for paying back the faith I had in them with their hard work and sacrifices.

Talking of sacrifices, how difficult was it for you to stay away from your family for close to 18 hours a day?

True, I must thank all of them for the kind of support. Luckily, for me, my family was part of the Academy. And Lakshmi being a sportsperson herself, she understands the demands of my job. They are a great motivating force and every time I tried to push myself that bit extra, their support actually helped. Seeing all these enthusiastic players go through the grind is inspiring.

Regarding the emergence of Sindhu, was there a desire to prove a point or two especially after Saina decided to leave you and move to Bengaluru?

I sincerely believe that both Sindhu and Saina are important for Indian badminton. I am happy that Saina has done so well at the highest level. She has many more years of badminton in her. And it is good that Sindhu delivered at a time when it was good for her and for Indian badminton too.

I thank each member of the support staff for his contribution to the success story.

Sindhu joined you when Saina was already doing well in the international circuit. What were your first impressions of Sindhu?

She was immensely talented, and what impressed me even when Sindhu was a kid was her attitude — full of positive energy. She was bubbling with enthusiasm. She had sports in her genes — her parents (P. V. Ramana and P. Vijaya) were international volleyball players. It is always a joy for any coach to have a gifted young player with parents, who were in sport.

Did you ever think that not winning a major Super Series title in the run-up to the Rio Olympics was a big minus for both Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth?

We really worked hard for the Rio Olympics. Sindhu is a big-match player. In the two months of training, when we shut ourselves off from everything, the whole effort was to make her a complete player. Sindhu had a good draw and played against players in the top 10. The only player she could have lost to was the one she met in the final. I must say, Sindhu played with a lot of self-belief.

Both Sindhu and Srikanth, who was unlucky to lose to Lin Dan in the quarterfinals, raised the level of their game, and physically and mentally, they were on a different plane.


So you think Sindhu played her best in Rio for the silver?

By all means, yes. However, there is still scope for improvement. This would not have been possible had it not been for her talent, lots of hard work and the willingness to make the changes at the right time — in her game and mental framework. Here, I must thank the physio, Kiran, and the SAI athletics coach, Nagapuri Ramesh, for their immense contribution.

Are you happier now as a coach than you were as a player?

I have no regrets as a player. I am lucky to enjoy success as a player and coach. These kinds of results give you the energy to keep pushing. I am grateful to God. Glad that we could make the country proud and provide happiness to millions.

Producing two Olympic medal winners also means more pressure, physically and mentally. There is also the pressure of expectations…

Maybe, yes. But these are the kind of challenges that give you great satisfaction when you overcome them. I tell you, after Sindhu’s silver, we have been flooded with almost 1000 phone calls daily for admission to the two Academies we set up in Gachibowli. Having a real tough time handling them, we cannot take everyone. At the same time, it gives me joy that Sindhu has triggered a revolution of sorts in badminton, especially amongst girls in India.

You have been setting up academies in the country. How difficult is it for you to focus on each of them, for everyone wants you to be personally present at the academies?

Obviously, it is not possible to be present at all these academies. As a nation, we have talent across the country. We should provide the right infrastructure and proper coaching. I am keen on seeing a grassroot revolution in the sport in India. I believe the sport is system-driven and is less about people. So we are in the process of chalking out training schedules under qualified coaches and putting in place a system that provides scope for a critical review of not only the players but also the coaches and physical conditioning experts. That will enable me to visit each academy once a week or a fortnight to fine-tune some of the key areas. But what is good is that players in different centres across India will have access to world-class facilities, which is the most important thing in any sport.

Did you ever think of saying enough is enough to coaching?

I thought of quitting after the London Olympics, for it (Saina winning the bronze medal) was a major accomplishment by any means. But fresh challenges were thrown at me and I had to accept them. Just before Rio, I had a feeling that enough had been done. But on arrival from Rio, when some girls told me that they will make it an Indian show in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it kind of rejuvenated me and made me think all over again. The more the merrier is the feeling I have now with regard to producing champions.


What is it that you miss the most because of your coaching schedules?

Honestly, I have always been an introvert. I am not very keen on partying or spending lots of time with friends. So, in a way, it was easy for me to adjust to the demands of coaching. But yes, there were times when I felt that I am not spending enough time with my family, especially the kids — Gayathri and Vishnu — though they both train at my academy. I mean, the social life takes a beating. But you have to make some sacrifices somewhere to make it big. At the end of it all, I am happy with being what I am today. I am feeling great and immensely satisfied with my achievements as a coach.

What are your future goals?

I have to start planning already for the next Olympics. The fact that so many players look to me is a big motivating factor that keeps me going.

Finally, what is the difference between a champion player like Sindhu and a potential champion who never really scales the heights of excellence?

The difference is in the willingness to put in hours of hard work, making lots of sacrifices at an age when there are temptations of a different kind, like being active on social networking sites, which gobble up plenty of time and makes one lose focus. You have to set your goals and pursue them with single-minded devotion. No one can deny you the fruits of hard work and perseverance.

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