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Abhijeet Kulkarni

Abhijeet Kulkarni worked as a sports journalist for over a decade and is currently associated with LAKSHYA, a non-governmental organisation which identifies and nurtures sports talent at the grass-root level.

Gopichand's belief: Want a champion, forget democracy

A few years ago, the trainees of the Pullela Gopichand academy at Gachibowli had the tendency of calling the training complex a three-star jail since none of the players were allowed to walk out of the premises for even a general stroll or shopping without the permission of the coaches and a gate pass.

Some of the players even had to surrender their cell phones after the morning training session and it was difficult for many to fathom the logic of all these rules. Slowly but surely they understood that it was coach Gopichand’s way to ensure that the players utilised their rest time only to recover from the strenuous training sessions and not waste their time and energy indulging themselves in unnecessary activities.

The Gopichand Academy, which gave India its first Olympic medal when Saina Nehwal won the bronze in London last week, has now become a cradle for badminton talent in India and the man who dreamt of making India a superpower in world badminton one day, rules it with an iron fist.

Gopichand has shown Saina the way. AFP

Gopichand has shown Saina the way. AFP

“If you want to produce champions, there is no place for democracy,” Gopichand had told the writer way back in 2009. The conversation about India’s future in badminton had then wavered towards the 2001 All England champion’s strict control over his wards and Gopichand had responded saying he needs to know everything that his player does every minute of the day.

Gopichand has firmly believed the progress of any player depends as much on what he or she does on the court but also outside the court as it can physically and emotionally affects their overall development.

The Indian Oil employee was very clear in his mind that the Indians were second to none in skills but lacked the fitness levels to match the best in the world. A fan of the Chinese training regime which puts tremendous emphasis on fitness and agility, Gopichand’s went about the task of building the fitness levels of his players with extensive training and strict diet control.

“Not one of my trainee will lose a match because he or she is unfit,” a statement Gopichand today makes with pride anytime he is asked about the players at his academy.

But that was not an easy task. When in Hyderabad, Gopichand is at the academy at 4.30 in the morning preparing the daily training schedule of the 30-odd trainees and explaining his assistant coaches what they are supposed to do for the day. The elite shuttlers are put through three sessions each day with the physical training and gym sessions customised to every individuals needs.

“During breakfast time, Gopi sir would stand behind some of us, even weigh the amount of food intake we had because we used to hate eating the protein rich food,” Prajakta Sawant, now the women’s doubles national champion, had told me once.

The rules were even stricter for Saina. Even when she was on a break and attending promotional functions, she would excuse herself and go to her room once it was time for her to sleep and I have personally witnessed how Gopichand would remind her about the time if Saina did miss the deadline.

Once Saina became a star and the entire nation began following her progress, the most popular ward were given certain liberties but Gopichand was never willing to compromise on certain issues and that became a bone of contention between the two last year.

But Saina soon understood the importance of the strict regimentation that Gopichand had prepared for her considering her body’s tendency to quickly gain weight, something that slowed her down on the court.

In the run up to the Olympics, Saina’s public appearances were restricted and there was a rationing on even the amount of time she can spend talking on phone.

The results of the regimentation are for everyone to see. Saina won the country’s maiden bronze in badminton and her academy mate P Kashyap became the first Indian male shuttler to reach the quarterfinals at the Olympics.

There is a battery of youngsters who have the potential to carry the baton from these two and have already started showing the spark on the international stage. P Sindhu is already the junior Asian champion, Sameer Verma has been a finalist in the junior Asian meet and HS Prannoy won silver in the inaugural Youth Olympics.

In order to match the best, Gopichand has adopted the same philosophy of strict regimentation the Chinese, Koreans or the Japanese follow. The results have just started to show.