To realise potential, India needs its youth to be physically literate, says Pullela Gopichand

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NOIDA: Despite his immense success as a coach, national badminton coach and former All England champion Pullela Gopichand has a regret: that his efforts, and that of Indian sport as a whole, has not been able to create a system that wholly encourages sports. During a visit to the TOI office on Monday, Gopichand reflected on his time as coach and reiterated the importance of grooming the next level of talent and of not sitting confidently on this golden era of Indian badminton.

“I think the great part of the last few years has been the success we’ve got. The unfortunate part in the last few years is the fact that we’ve not really been able to build a system,” said the 44-year-old. “High performance, grooming players, long-term vision, systematic development of an ecosystem for sport is something which we unfortunately haven’t developed. There’s a lot more work that has to be done. More importantly, we need a lot more maturity and understanding of the problem and solving it. We as a nation need to start looking at it to get sustainable results.

“We’ve seen what can happen, what is possible in the field of badminton when you put your efforts in and push yourself for a sustained period of time. What we see is very, very good but what we can get is incredible. It is only possible if the entire system works together,” said Gopichand. “In the way we’ve worked, I think I have been very fortunate. God’s been very kind, otherwise we would not have got the results that we have. Having said that, for us to be able to sustain this long-term, it is important that our country starts to look at sport differently.”

According to Gopichand, it was imperative that children across the country become “physically literate”. He drew from his own initial steps into badminton as a child, and that of Srikanth, who was with him during the visit to TOI , and stressed on the importance of enjoyment.

“I think the whole of sport is dependent on the fact that none of us played sport on day one or year one or year two or three thinking that we were going to become Olympic medalists. We played sport because we loved sport, which is the foundation on which everyone should be playing sport. It’s important, it’s fun, it’s entertainment, it’s health, it’s physical literacy … these are the reasons that people play sport initially. The talented out of that group should be groomed and nurtured and then taken to the highest level,” he said.

Then he made a very interesting statement – that while encouraging and nurturing potential champions, it was absolutely necessary to take care of those that slip away.

“It’s also important that in between, the people who fall out of the system and who don’t make it to the best, we are able to provide them a good safety net to ensure that they don’t feel dejected,” said Gopichand. “All three have to be going together, hand in hand, for us to start looking at people taking up sports. For me, the totality in which the system should work is that children across the country should be physically literate; the best of the lot should be identified through a system; and everybody who plays sport and who is not able to make it as a champion should be having avenues to do other things in life, and settle in life comfortably.”

Gopichand, the recipient of the Dronacharya and Arjuna awards, has single-handedly turned India into a badminton superpower through his work as a coach. His state-of-the-art academy in Hyderabad has trained the cream of Indian badminton players.

His pupils include Kidambi Srikanth, currently World No 3 and the first Indian in 2017 to win four Superseries titles; PV Sindhu, currently women’s World No 3 and Olympics and world silver medalist; Saina Nehwal, current world number 10 and Olympics bronze medalist; HS Prannoy, the current World No 10 who last year beat three-time Olympic silver medalist former No 1 Lee Chong Wei, as well as No 4 Chen Long.

Gopichand has also nurtured the likes of Parupalli Kashyap, B Sai Praneeth, Gurusai Dutt, N Sikki Reddy, Pranav Chopra, B Sumeeth Reddy, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Rituparna Das, Sameer and Sourabh Verma and young Siril Verma.

As a coach of young badminton players, many of whom have been brought by their parents with aspirations of their children bringing laurels to India, a big part of Gopichand’s role as coach is striking a balance between fun and competitive.

“One of the important things that every sportsperson will understand is the fact that if you are playing sport, winning and losing are part of it. You cannot have it without different sides of the same coin and you cannot aspire for one without being ready for the other. People should look at sport beyond winning and losing,” he said. “They should start looking at perfecting themselves in that sport and enjoying themselves. Discipline, if done as a burden, will not last you forever. Sport needs discipline over a long, long time and for that reason I think it’s very important that we instil that sense of happiness and joy in the discipline. Kids should not feel that by playing sport they’ve missed anything by eating good food and going to bed early and training hard, or that they’re doing something that is not satisfactory. The kids who do well, you realise, are the ones who have an intense desire to do well but also enjoy the discipline and who are not bogged down by defeats.”
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