Press "Enter" to skip to content

Men behind the medals

Winning medals is a joint effort between the player and the coach, who develop a very close relationship. success hinges on a perfect partnership where the goal is the only obsession for months before a competition

The Commonwealth Games 2018 has been the most successful tournament in terms of medals for the Indian contingent. With a total of 66 medals, including a record gold medal tally of 26, India stood third in the medal table just behind Australia and England.
While the nation basks in the glory of this incredible achievement and lauds the athletes, the people who remain in the background and often miss out on accolades are coaches — the people who work day in and day out to train these athletes.
“The role of a coach is very important in the shaping of a player,” Gurbux Singh Sandhu, former boxer and coach of gold medalist Vikas Kishan Yadav tells Patriot on phone from Patiala. “He plays the role of a parent, a guide and a mentor at the same time. When the player leaves home for training, it is the coach who shapes his skills and looks after him. He is no less than a parent,” he adds.
In badminton, India’s most successful sport at the international stage, the shuttlers brought home a total of seven medals. While Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu faced each other in an all Indian final for the women’s singles event, with the former clinching the gold, the Indian mixed team created history as they clinched gold for the first time. In addition to this, Kidambi Shrikanth won a silver and Satswikiraj Ranikireddy, Ashwini Ponnappa, Sikki Reddy and Chirag Shetty all won medals in the men’s doubles and mixed doubles category.
The connecting link between all these players is the fact that they are all products of the academy of Pullella Gopichand, often considered the greatest coach that India has ever produced.
While Gopichand receives a lot of accolades and much deserved recognition for his contribution to badminton, there are a lot of other coaches who work day in and day out to shape world class athletes who bring in so many laurels from the country, and do not get the limelight that they deserve.
Manika Batra was one of the shining stars of the Common-wealth Games, winning two gold medals in table tennis, one individual and one in the women’s team event. While she was doing the nation proud on the grand stage at Gold Coast, Australia, back home her coach Sandeep Gupta had tears of joy in his eyes.
Batra used to train at Gupta’s Stag Table Tennis Academy in Hans Raj Model School in Punjabi Bagh, New Delhi since 2000 at the age of four. “She used to be right there,” says Gupta pointing to the table where she first started playing. The Academy has 10 branches all over Delhi.
“Manika used to be a workhorse ever since she was young. She may not have been the most talented player, but it was her sincere dedication and hard work that has made her so successful,” says Gupta. “When she was in school, she used to come here at 6 in the morning, train for three hours and then attend classes. Again after school, she started training at 4 in the evening till 8. This was her level of dedication,” adds Gupta, who himself is a former national level table tennis champion.
Sandeep Gupta was a former national champion in table tennis, and won medals at the prestigious SAASF Table Tennis tournament thrice. However, he could not attain the level of success that he wished to achieve. “There was no private coaching academy where the coaches give individual training and teach them techniques of the sport. We used to train in government facilities with little or no attention to detail. So, I decided to set up an academy of my own and collaborated with Hans Raj School to form the Stag Table Tennis Academy in 1999”, he says. “I was the first coach in Delhi who gave birth to this concept of collaborating with schools to form an academy”, he adds.
The academy, located in the Punjabi Bagh area of West Delhi, boasts of 12 table tennis boards, of which three are separately reserved for newly admitted amateur students. “As the level of their game increases, we slowly shift them to other boards, as we have separate boards for different level of players, right from amateurs to international level”, says Gupta. He also says that they bring in state of the art equipment from countries like Japan and Indonesia, so that the athletes receive the best facilities.
Gupta spotted Batra at an under-8 state level tournament and took her under his tutelage when she was just 4 years old in the year 2000. She has been training under him for the past 18 years.
However, achieving this feat at the Commonwealth Games did not come easy for Manika. “She won silver and bronze medals at many stages, but a medal at one of the grand tournaments like a Commonwealth Games, Asian Games or an Olympics still eluded her. Moreover, the losses in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games quarters and the 2016 Rio Olympics had a crushing effect on both of us and we were determined to win a medal this time around,” says Gupta.
For that, Gupta made a rigorous regimen for her. In the morning, she would train for four hours (6-11 am), followed by a one-hour session of workouts and exercises. Again, she resumed training in the evening with a one-hour workout session followed by a three-hour-long practice session (7-10 pm). “During this time, I made her maintain a very strict diet, with no fat and carbohydrate intake,” says Gupta.
“I never miss a match of Manika, but this time around I could not be with her in Gold Coast, because I had to travel to Japan to get some equipment for my academy. But I could not sleep and eat properly as I was always worried about what she was doing there,” says Gupta. “She too used to call me every day, especially before her matches,” he adds. “After she won the semifinals and hersilver medal was confirmed, she was ecstatic. But I didn’t want her to come second as I knew she could win the top prize,” says Gupta. “The last bit of advice I gave to her before the final match was to remain calm and not be bogged down by her opponent, who is currently ranked no. 4 in the world.”
“When she won the gold, she shocked the whole table tennis world: everybody called it an upset, but I knew that she had the capability in her,” says Gupta. “It was such a proud moment for me. All the sacrifices I made to make my student the player she is today, seemed worth it,” says Gupta, who admits that he spends less time with his family and more with his students. “I have a very supportive family, so much so, that my wife accompanies me to my training. Even our son Utkarsh is an international level player,” he says. “I have dedicated my life to training these kids, all because I want them to bring laurels for my country” concludes Gupta.
While Sandeep Gupta has his own private academy where he trains his players, P Manikyala Rao, a weightlifting coach at the Telengana Sports School in Hyderabad, is paid a salary of a meagre R20,000 per month by the government. Even with this limitation, Rao has coached many national and international athletes. But, perhaps his biggest achievement came this year, when his student, Ragala Venkata Rahul, brought home a gold medal in the 85-kg category. “It is all Rahul’s credit. I have merely helped him in his goal,” says a humble Rao.
Rao spotted Rahul at a school-level competition and immediately recognised his potential. “Since then I brought a young Rahul under my guidance and admitted him in the Telengana Sports School and has been with me for the past 10 years.” Since he got admitted in the school from the sixth standard, Rahul has maintained the same training schedule that coach Rao had set him. “He trains from 4:15 in the morning right till 8:45 am. Again, after a few hours of exercise sessions at the gym, he starts training in the evening from 4:30 pm right up till 8 or 9 pm.”
“He had shown a glimpse of what he can do when he won a gold at the Commonwealth Senior Weightlifting championships just a few months ago, even though his mother had passed away recently,” he said. After that things were going smoothly, when just a few weeks before the Gold Coast event, Rahul injured his knee. “It was a very testing time for us, as we thought that his chances are almost over. But I didn’t give up and constantly trained him and arranged for the best possible physiotherapy so that he could recover quickly”. Though he was not at his 100 per cent, Rahul still managed to clinch gold after he lifted a total of 338 kgs of weight. “He had achieved a better record in the Commonwealth championships, and he could have lifted much more had he been fully fit,” says Rao.
“When I saw him on the winners’ podium on my television, I was moved to tears. I had never been so happy in my entire life. This not just a proud moment for me but the entire coaching staff at the Telengana Sports School,” he says.
But after so many years of hard work, doesn’t he feel the need of a better salary? “Who doesn’t want money? But it has never been my motivation. It is my passion for weightlifting that drives me every day to train these kids and see them achieve medals for the country, something which I couldn’t do during my playing days.”
However, he does hope that his school gets some recognition after his achievement and they receive some funds so that they can buy new equipment and do a much-needed upgrade.
“I feel Rahul has much more left in his tank, and this is just the start of a wonderful career ahead for him. I believe that he can even win laurels in the upcoming Asian Games and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” concludes Rao.
For Gurbux Singh Sandhu, one of the most prominent faces in the Indian boxing circuit, his life had come a full circle after training many world class boxers like Vijender Singh. So, he decided to call it a day after the 2018 Commonwealth Games. “But I did not take things lightly just because it was my last tournament before I retire from coaching. I trained my boys hard, and I was determined to get one last medal for my country,” he says. His dream came true, when his protégé Vikas Kishan Yadav won the gold in the lightweight category.
“When Vikas came to me he was a frail boy from Haryana, who had the spark in his eyes to achieve laurels for India. After years of training, he has finally become a world class boxer, with many accolades to his credit,” says Sandhu. “But this is his first gold, and this is what makes it a more special occasion. He has worked hard and trained for hours to finally achieve this feat.”
These Dronacharyas all deserve the award named after them but so far only Gubux Singh Sandhu received a National Award in 2017 from the President. And Gopichand got the Dronacharya Award in 2012.