Shlok, a contemporary of Satwik-Chirag, carves his niche as pioneering USA badminton coach

Despite retiring early as a player, USA Team Coach Shlok Ramchandran has worked his way up from the bottom, and aims to help his players qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Published : Oct 26, 2023 18:57 IST , New Delhi - 11 MINS READ

Shlok (centre) with his students, Allison Lee (left) and Francesca Corbett, who won silver medals at the Junior World Championships.
Shlok (centre) with his students, Allison Lee (left) and Francesca Corbett, who won silver medals at the Junior World Championships. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Shlok (centre) with his students, Allison Lee (left) and Francesca Corbett, who won silver medals at the Junior World Championships. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A couple of weeks ago, Allison Lee and Francesca Corbett, the doubles badminton players of the United States, were passed on a message from Chirag Shetty.

Just a few hours earlier, the two had made history, becoming the first Americans to win a medal at the Badminton Junior World Championships.

While their achievement was a milestone in the development of sport in their country, the two were hardly expecting congratulations from Shetty, who just the day before had partnered Satwik Rankireddy to win the men’s doubles gold medal at the Asian Games, and, who, just a day later would rise to World No. 1 in the senior rankings.

‘Congratulations guys. You can be proud of yourself. But this is only the start. You have to keep going,’ the message read.

“You can just imagine how thrilled the girls were,” says USA Team Coach Shlok Ramachandran.

“Chirag and Satwik are among the biggest names in world badminton right now and they took the time out to congratulate a junior pair from another country,” says Shlok who had received the message.

While it might come as a pleasant surprise for the two young Americans, Chirag’s message wasn’t out of the ordinary for Shlok, who coaches them at Synergy Badminton Academy in Fremont, Near San Jose California.

“We go back a very long way,” says Shlok. They grew up playing badminton in the same Goregaon sports club in Mumbai and later trained together at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad, where Shlok was Satwik’s roommate for two years.

Shlok, who reached a career-high of WR 32 in 2018, was both compatriot and rival to Chirag and Satwik.

And now, while Chirag and Satwik have now risen to the top of the world on the court, Shlok is steadily making a name for himself in the chair just behind the playing area, as one of the youngest coaches and most promising coaches in international badminton.

The tough call of an early retirement

Not many expected Shlok to turn to walk away from the court as soon as he did.

Partnering MR Arjun, Shlok was just 26 years old when he played the final international match. He had been amongst India’s top doubles badminton players at that stage.

“Between 2015 and 2020, at the domestic level at least, it was always the four of us (Shlok, Arjun, Chirag, Satwik) who would always be on the podium,” he recalls.

“Badminton was the only life I knew. Even now, there are some days when I wonder what it would have been like had I continued playing. But it’s just a case of the grass being greener on the other side.”Shlok on his retirement

But Shlok eventually realised he had probably reached his limit as a player. A particularly poor result against Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng in the second round of the BWF World Championships only cemented that belief.

“We played a good match but the scores were average (14-21, 13-21). That night, I realised that I had prepared as best as I could but I didn’t have that X factor in my game which is what I felt it took to be a top 10 or top 15 player.

“I don’t think there were many who prepared as hard as me but I realised I have a very standard game. I’m proud of being a world number 32 but for me, what I strive for is to be the best 10. It wasn’t that I didn’t get chances. I had enough opportunities but I don’t think I had enough top 10 wins to show for it,” he says.

Not everyone agreed with his decision to step away from playing.

“I had a really long chat with Gopi bhaiyya (Pullela Gopichand). We must have spoken together for about 40 minutes. I spoke with HS Prannoy, Sameer Verma, (Parupalli) Kashyap. They all tried to get me to hold on and that I was just going through a bad phase. I had some great seniors but ultimately it was my call to make,” he says.

The final choice was a tough one.

“I’d been playing since I was 8 – so that’s nearly two-thirds of my life. Badminton was the only life I knew. Even now, there are some days when I wonder what it would have been like had I continued playing. But it’s just a case of the grass being greener on the other side,” he says.

There was also a financial reality that he had to face.

“It’s different if you are a Chirag and Satwik or a Lakshya Sen. If you are the best Indian player, you will get the money you need to travel and play international tournaments. But the options are limited for everyone else,” Shlok explains.

“I looked at all the savings I’d made over the six years I played and I knew that if I didn’t have any sponsorship, I could probably sustain my career for maybe another year on my savings.

“But in case I didn’t get any results in that year either, I’d have nothing to show for myself. I could have gotten a job in one of the Public sector employers but I didn’t see myself doing that. I thought I had a lot more potential than just being a junior government employee.”

Starting from own backyard

Shlok tried his hand at multiple fields. With a degree in mass communications, he worked as a consultant with PMG – the sports management firm founded by Sunil Gavaskar.

“I was doing regular office, going from Kandivali to Dadar in a Mumbai local,” he says. He tried his hand in media too starting a podcast with fellow doubles player Tanvi Lad.

Within a few months though, he realised his real interest lay in coaching.

“Even if you talk to a lot of my juniors, they’d always say I would try to be a good mentor to them. Guiding players comes naturally to me. Because I was never the most talented player around, I was always someone who studied the game,” Shlok says.

“I was always someone who would dive into the coaching manuals. I would watch matches and play (game)videos. Satwik still calls me ‘professor’. He would say Shlok bhaiyya,‘you can’t win matches with your skill set. You win everything because of your strategy,” Shlok says.

For all his interest in coaching, Shlok admits his relatively young age meant he didn’t get many opportunities starting out. He began all the way from the bottom -- giving weekend classes to kids at the Goregaon club where he himself first picked up the game.

That’s when he got a lucky break.

Former National Champion Asavari Parmar suggested his name for a job opening as a basic coach in North Carolina.

“They weren’t just looking for someone who knew badminton but someone who could communicate well and fit into American society. It was just luck. I had no idea I’d ever have ever even been considered for the opportunity,” he says.

Just as he was at Goregaon, Shlok started working with beginners in North Carolina’s Triangle Badminton and Table Tennis Sports Academy in Morrisville.

“In my first class I think I had four kids who showed up,” he recalls. Despite the modest start, Shlok says his work prepared him for bigger challenges ahead.

“As a player, you have to think about yourself. As a coach, you have to keep your ego aside. As a player, you need an ego, because you are playing alphas. As a coach, you have to leave that attitude behind. You can’t wait for a player to come to you. As a coach, you should go and talk to a player,” he says.

“I learned a lot about coaching there. I wasn’t under a lot of spotlight and I had two years in which I could get my foundation strong. I learned how to build a structure. By the end of my first period there, we had a strong junior program and had won six medals at the junior national level and even an Under-11 national champion.”

Donning the robes of the USA National Federation

Shlok’s performance in Morrisville earned him the recognition to move to one of the biggest clubs in the USA – Synergy Badminton Academy in California at the start of 2023.

“It’s one of the biggest clubs in the USA. There are around 27 courts in the Fremont Center and another 8 courts in Menlo Park,” says Shlok. Some of the USA’s top players train at Synergy including the current No.1 homegrown singles player, Ishika Jaiswal.

It’s here that Shlok started working with Lee and Corbett.

“I’ve been working with them for seven months now. The first thing the two told me was that it felt so easy. The first training session felt very easy.

“I’ve had interactions with them. They are super committed. Both of them have got into top colleges but have deferred enrollment so that they could focus on badminton for a year,” he says.

The pairing proved to be a natural fit.

At the USA Open, Lee and Corbett, both aged 19 years reached the pre-quarterfinals. That performance, in turn, earned Shlok an interview for the role of team coach with the USA National Federation – a position he’s currently serving in.

Shlok coaching Lee and Corbett (right) during the Junior World Championships.
Shlok coaching Lee and Corbett (right) during the Junior World Championships. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Shlok coaching Lee and Corbett (right) during the Junior World Championships. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

While they have delivered promising results – apart from the medal at the Junior Worlds, the pair is ranked World No. 40 in the senior rankings – Shlok says that wasn’t the only goal he had set.

“When we started working, we knew that the Junior Worlds were being held in the USA and so it was important to do well but we weren’t just training for that.

“We are training to get better every day. We aren’t chasing rankings or wins. We are chasing to be the best version of ourselves,” he says.

That understanding has come from his own experiences as a player.

“During my career, I would often chase results or rankings. As a result, I’d get the constant feeling of being burnt out if the results didn’t come about. When they go on-court, I feel I am playing with them,” he says.

Pushing limits as a coach

Shlok has another milestone set for his players. “We are definitely trying to qualify for the Olympics. 2024 Is on my mind. But 2028 would be even more special since it would be in the USA itself,” he says.

“I’m nowhere close to being a finished article as a coach. There’s more stuff I pick up each day.”Shlok on learning a coach

These are high targets. He himself admits that not many believe he can pull it off.

“I’ve always been judged. It’s a fact that there aren’t many Indian-origin coaches in the USA. There have been many Malaysians and Indonesians (Most notably Tony Gunawan who won Olympic gold for Indonesia and then a men’s doubles world title while playing for the USA) but not many from India.

“I’m also really young. A lot of people didn’t take me seriously. But I’ve started from rock bottom. I’ve earned my way to where I am,” he says.

For the most part, Shlok’s journey has been rewarding.

“I’ve only got support from everyone. There was a time when my girls were playing against an Indian pair in the quarterfinals of the junior Worlds and I was wondering how people might react but all the Indian coaches and staff were just really happy for me,” he says.

While he’s carving out his own niche as a coach, Shlok says he’s learned from those who have come before him.

“I’ve learned something from each of the coaches I’ve worked with. From Gopi sir, (I learnt) you have to admire his work ethic, passion for the game and knowledge of how to make an athlete. From Matthias Boe, you don’t need to train for very long if your intensity is high. Tan Kim Her taught me to keep drills as close as possible to match scenarios.

From the Indonesian coaches, I learnt the art of not lifting the shuttle as much as possible. I’m nowhere close to being a finished article as a coach. There’s more stuff I pick up each day,” he says.

Rooting for Satwik-Chirag with an eye on a reunion

Although he’s happily settled into his role as a coach, Shlok says he is often reminded about his playing days, especially when he watches Chirag and Satwik compete on the world stage.

“It always makes me happy when I see them play and win. There’s absolutely no envy over what they’ve achieved. They might have grown up around me but even then I knew they were meant for bigger and better things,” he says.

Indeed one of his reasons to make it as a coach to the 2024 Olympics would be to get to meet the two, whom he considers favourites for the title in Paris, once again.

“We were texting after the Asian Games and he said all this was fine but we needed to catch up. I told him when you win the Olympics we will have a massive celebration,”

The Olympics might also be a good chance to meet once again with his former coach P. Gopichand. Shlok says he’s often thought of what that reunion might be like.

“I hope that I would get his respect as a coach in his field. I hope I get his respect not just because he knows me as a player but because of my work as a fellow coach. Gopi sir was my coach but now he’s my peer.

“But he’s such a legend in the sport and so well respected. I’m just trying to make my little space in the field. Just like he’s done in India, I hope I can create a similar thing with USA,” he says.

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