P. Gopichand: Indian badminton needs the right structure

Badminton has become athlete-driven for the top players, but for the younger players, there is hardly any structure, says chief national coach P. Gopichand. “To ensure a continuous stream of players comes through, it is important to develop a structure for the sport,” he says.

India has had great success in previous Olympics because of its training programme and this time too it will be the same, says P. Gopichand.   -  Nagara Gopal

For someone whose primary objective since taking up coaching more than a decade ago is to ensure that contemporary players don’t miss out on what he did during his peak, chief national badminton coach P. Gopichand has clearly set a benchmark that is not easy to emulate.

The 47-year-old, whose two academies — one set up jointly with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) — have become the hub of Indian badminton, is still hungry despite having already produced Olympic medallists (Saina Nehwal, bronze at the 2012 London Games, and P. V. Sindhu, silver at 2016 Rio de Janeiro) and a world champion (Sindhu in 2019), and ensuring the emergence of Kidambi Srikanth as the world No. 1 in 2018.

In an exclusive interview with Sportstar, Gopichand shares his thoughts on the various aspects of badminton and sports in general in an Olympics year.

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How do you look back at the pandemic?

I think more or less it has been a challenging time for all sports. At some level, 2020 was a very important year for sport because of the Olympics [which were postponed by a year]. For certain, momentum for the teams has been lost. But considering the fact that the whole world has been affected in the same way, I think it is okay.

From a coach’s perspective, what has been the biggest impact on sport in general and badminton in particular?

The long-term impact will be known only after a few years. We didn’t have the national championships in 2020 after many, many years. We haven’t had big tournaments. The kids especially would have lost a lot. For some of them, it would have been the last year in their age groups.

What kind of challenges did you, as a coach, and the players face during these testing times?

For the younger players, it has been a real challenge. They had serious doubts about when the sport will come back, which resulted in lower numbers at the summer camps. In fact, no new kids are joining the summer camps this year. This has been a new kind of vacuum. To a certain extent, we lost some tournaments, including the regular ones like the PBL (Premier Badminton League) and the world events. Professional players have lost, and so has the younger lot.

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Do you believe the pandemic broke out at the wrong time for Indian badminton, as the country’s leading players were threatening to dominate the international circuit?

Confidence is down. I think at some level there has been an impact. The coaches, academies, support teams who have depended on the sport for their livelihood have also suffered.

What sort of major adjustments did you have to make as a coach? Were you forced to change your style of coaching when badminton resumed a few months ago?

Personally, I could spend time with myself and my family. The lockdown also meant that for the first time in 30 years, I have not travelled much. That way, it was not a bad phase for me. For many young kids, it has been a struggle. From a generic perspective, many players who had injuries have benefited from the rest, but those who have not taken care of themselves may have to struggle.

Have you seen any perceptible change in the attitude of players after training resumed? Is there any fear factor?

There are people who have come out of the pandemic mentally and physically stronger. There are many who are mentally tired and fatigued, without a goal, frustrated and directionless. We have to see who made good use of the lockdown. This amount of time in a career is definitely a luxury to have.

Gopichand has produced two Olympic medallists in Saina Nehwal (right, bronze at the 2012 London Games) and P. V. Sindhu (left, silver at 2016 Rio de Janeiro).   -  V. V. Subrahmanyam

 

You must have had a glimpse at the Thailand events of how the Indian and foreign players have shaped up. What is the big difference you see in their approach, style and standards?

As far as the Thailand Open in concerned, the performance needs to go up in the coming tournament. Unfortunately, Sai (Praneeth) and Srikanth had to go through a rough patch. The results were not encouraging. But this particular Indian team had to be in quarantine and was declared “high risk.” That meant the players didn’t have enough chance to train in the gym and on the courts. There are a couple of issues. But I am happy with the way doubles players Satwik (Satwiksairaj Rankireddy), Chirag (Shetty) and Ashwini (Ponnappa) have played. It is but natural that the players are feeling rusty after such a long break. Hopefully, in the coming events we will see better performances.

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Were you surprised by Carolina Marín and Viktor Axelsen winning two consecutive titles in Thailand?

Marín and Victor played brilliantly and looked sharp.

Travelling has apparently been the biggest scare for the players and support staff. What sort of mental preparation did they have to do?

There has been fatigue because of the lockdown. Even the support staff and coaches had a tough time, not been able to take a holiday. Some of them have gone back, some couldn’t get flights. Adaptability is the key. Still, it is commendable that many of the coaches and support staff never said no [to travelling]. Of course, they have been scared and sceptical. I am happy to note that things are coming back to normal.

Do you think the pandemic taught the athletes any lessons in particular?

It has definitely taught a lot of lessons, the fundamental being not to take things for granted. Nobody would have expected in March 2020 that they would have to experience the year pan out in such a way. To cherish every moment, look at the present is what I expect all of us to do whenever we have an opportunity.

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Given that this is an Olympics year, how do you look at the preparations, even as there is hope with the vaccine now being made available?

A lot more resources are available for the athletes thanks to the Sports Authority of India, Badminton Association of India (BAI), nongovernmental organisations, et cetera. Sponsors are available now. It is fairly good for the players. I wish there is some sort of discipline to the structure of the sport at the moment. We struggle as it has become athlete-driven or -centric for the top players. For the younger players, there is hardly any structure. We have to have the right one in place.

Ideally, what sort of training programme would you like to have to produce another Olympics medallist?

As a sport, we have been phenomenal. We have had some great successes. To build on this, to ensure a continuous stream of players comes through, it is important to develop a structure for the sport. I do believe the BAI, SAI and the government have ensured that we have a system in place where the players get the right opportunities, the coaches get the right freedom, and performance is monitored and becomes a big parameter.

Gopichand says he is happy with the way doubles players Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (left), Chirag Shetty (centre) and Ashwini Ponnappa played in the Thailand events in January.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

As a coach, are you happy with the fitness levels of the lead players?

We have had great success in previous Olympics because of the training programme. I do believe this time too it will be the same. I do believe we will have the right kind of preparations. The qualification is not yet over. Once it is done, we will have good time to prepare, and hopefully some good performances can be expected, too.

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As a coach, you have set a benchmark for many in Indian sport. How optimistic are you about producing more champions?

Thankfully, my role has changed over the last year and a half. We have foreign coaches taking care of the players, like Park (South Korea’s Park Tae-Sang) handling Sindhu and women’s singles. I have been spending a lot more time with the doubles teams in the last few months, and we have been working harder overall, taking care of the programme. My earlier role was more travelling with the players, and that has changed a bit in the recent past.

As a coach, what is the biggest dream you are still chasing?

From when I started as a player to now as a coach, badminton has seen a huge rise and change. With the number of players going forward, it is very important to devise a system which ensues the players know their responsibilities, the coaches and administrators their role. It is imperative that each one does his or her role in a systematic manner to ensure there is a continuous flow of players coming through. From that perspective, as a coach, this is what is important for me: We can produce top players as we have shown, and with that possibility and huge talent available, it is important we streamline the system in such a way that there is long-term sustainability.