Olympic medal not the right benchmark to assess coaches

Manisha Malhotra, head of Sports Excellence & Scouting at JSW Sports, elaborates on how grooming coaches is as important as looking after an athlete.

Published : Jul 10, 2023 12:59 IST - 5 MINS READ

FILE PHOTO: Foreign rifle coach Thomas Farnik looks on as Indian shooters participate in the Bhopal World Cup.
FILE PHOTO: Foreign rifle coach Thomas Farnik looks on as Indian shooters participate in the Bhopal World Cup. | Photo Credit: Santadeep Dey/Sportstar

FILE PHOTO: Foreign rifle coach Thomas Farnik looks on as Indian shooters participate in the Bhopal World Cup. | Photo Credit: Santadeep Dey/Sportstar

It’s closing in on that time in the quadrennial cycle when most sports administrators are bombarded with the eternal question, “How many medals do we expect?“ While not many will have the answer, it is quite apparent that for us to be perennially in the middle rung of the medal tally of any Games, the key lies in the hands of the Indian coaches. They are the answer to whether we hope and pray for medals every four years or if we go in with a solid contingent each time. For that to happen, the Indian coaches are going to have to reinvent themselves.

Over the last month, I have seen systems from both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. I happened to be in Doha, Qatar in May, where the facilities at the Aspire Academy are nothing short of amazing. They have pretty much every trend in sports science and the backing of world-class experts from all around the globe in one place. The fields are immaculate, catering to the smallest and minutest details. Take for instance, the force plates under the running and jumping lanes, allowing them to get any sort of data imaginable.

An indoor football pitch at the Aspire Academy in Qatar.
An indoor football pitch at the Aspire Academy in Qatar. | Photo Credit: Santadeep Dey

An indoor football pitch at the Aspire Academy in Qatar. | Photo Credit: Santadeep Dey

From Doha, I flew straight to Havana, Cuba where a group of our athletes were training. This couldn’t have been more the opposite of Aspire. The track was packed with over 100 athletes and 30-odd coaches. The track is the same one that had been built for the 1991 Pan American games and the seating looked like it would crumble under the slightest pressure. The gym was a room devoid of light with nothing more than squat racks, dumbbells and kettlebells. ‘Rudimentary’ would even seem too elaborate a term to describe the training facility, yet there is no comparison in the results achieved between Cuba and Qatar.

This brings us to the question: Are good facilities the key to good results? My opinion is an overwhelming NO!

In Cuba, I witnessed coaches, who are pretty segregated from the rest of the world, do not speak English well, are not in the mainstream of research and development, and are not the highest paid. Yet, year in and year out, they are producing athletes who are not only doing well but are also at the pinnacle of their events. They have managed to master the art of circumventing a lack of infrastructure with good, basic coaching. They are extremely creative in making their programmes target specific needs and shortfalls.

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To get into details, there is hardly any scientific material available to the coaches in Cuba. The maximum that they have are speed gates which measure the time and distance of the athletes. The coaches are using their naked eye to test improvement in the athletes which is very rudimentary because even at IIS we are using various scientific methods and machines to get the athletes tested.

What I witnessed significantly is that the whole process is completely result-oriented in the field. They train and have testing on the field, where they do jumps and different exercises. They measure those manually to understand the progression. There is a huge impetus on hill training and very basic methods of textbook training that used to happen in the olden days. Today, we don’t see too much of that because the HPCs (High Performance Centers) are using different gadgets, from altitude chambers to different machines that substitute things like basic jumps on boxes, et al.

The group of athletes that Jeswin (Aldrin), Praveen (Chithravel), and the rest were training with was something that motivated them the most. They were jumping with some of the best jumpers in the world; Lazaro Martinez was there.

And there were several junior champions. There were 10 Olympic medallists among the jumpers. To see how these athletes train and how much they push themselves was a huge eye-opener. It also proved the point that you don’t need fancy places to stay or fancy food. You just need good training, and there’s no telling where you can reach.

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It is this creativity and outside-the-box thinking that our coaches need. They must overcome the lack of infrastructure and exposure with good coaching. Our coaches need to study not only the sport but also our athletes and create tailor-made programmes that target our needs. We don’t need to import expertise if our coaches start thinking of the big picture and hold themselves accountable for their jobs. Our coaches seem to be quite happy with mediocre results, and therein lies the problem.

Grooming coaches is just as important a job as grooming athletes. We have to understand that not every good athlete becomes a good coach, and vice versa, so we have to create a robust mechanism in our coaching pathway. There needs to be a much different process of evaluation of our coaches, and an Olympic medal is not always the right benchmark to assess a coach. For the last two decades, we have been importing coaches from all over the world, yet we have not been able to create our own world-class coaches. Barring a few (whom I can count on one hand), we have no world-class coaches and are still dependent on imports. The blame is as much on the Indian coaches, who refuse to open their minds and learn from the experts in the system.

Indian sport as a whole is at a crossroads. We have had the best Olympics of any in Tokyo, and now it is up to us to build on that. We would need coaches to start innovating rather than following, and to forge a path for our athletes that is not a copy of any other successful story but one that is our own.

The author is the head of Sports Excellence & Scouting at JSW Sports.

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