Tokyo Olympics 2020: Ramji Srinivasan discusses working with Olympic-bound athletes, challenges of being strength and conditioning coach

In an exclusive chat with Firstpost, former Indian cricket team strength and conditioning coach Srinivasan talks about his experience working with the likes of Achanta Sharath Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Bhavani Devi.

Amit Banerjee July 20, 2021 12:35:03 IST
Tokyo Olympics 2020: Ramji Srinivasan discusses working with Olympic-bound athletes, challenges of being strength and conditioning coach

There are certain roles in the world of professional sport that aren’t quite as glamourous as being an athlete or even a head coach for that matter, and it’s members of the support staff in a coaching setup that end up staying away from the limelight for the most part while donning roles that are nevertheless crucial.

Strength and conditioning coaches, for example, have a major role to play in the physical well-being of an athlete over an extended period of time, and unlike physios whose jobs are akin to repair work, their jobs after often long-term in nature. When they win medals or trophies, it’s the athletes who are the face of the achievement and are hailed heroes, while coaches are next in line as far as getting accolades is concerned.

Ramji Srinivasan had filled in for that particular role with the Indian cricket team between 2009 and 2013 and has also served as the SandC coach for athletes across various other sports, from Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok in motorsport to Ramesh Krishnan and Somdev Devvarman in the world of tennis.

More recently, he’s been looking after athletes who are set to represent the nation at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 — table tennis stars Achanta Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and fencer Bhavani Devi — the first Indian in the sport to participate in the Olympics.

Tokyo Olympics 2020 Ramji Srinivasan discusses working with Olympicbound athletes challenges of being strength and conditioning coach

Having collaborated closely with these athletes, Srinivasan sheds some interesting insights into the differences in training between Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan, both of whom have found success in the singles and doubles disciplines and are part of a generation of Indian paddlers that is experiencing a steady surge in fortune on the international stage, though they are far from breaking China’s vice-like grip on the sport.

“Needs are different. His body structure is different. His game is different. So you have to analyse the game what is required. For example, Sharath Kamal wants to work on his backhand. He needs to work on the body position and how he is able to transfer body weight and how he is able to get into the position to attack the ball. That is different.

“For Sathiyan, he may need more power. Explosive power… So needs are different. I cannot give the same workout and the same protocols,” said Srinivasan, who was set to accompany Sathiyan to his maiden Olympics, but ultimately couldn’t due to COVID-19 protocols that saw the contingent sizes being trimmed across the participating nations.

Both Sathiyan and Sharath Kamal — who is perhaps the most decorated player in Indian table tennis history — had qualified for the Games in the Asian Olympic Qualifiers that took place in Doha in March earlier this year. A total of four Indians — Manika Batra and Suthirtha Mukherjee in addition to the aforementioned duo — will be representing India in the upcoming Olympics.

Tokyo Olympics 2020 Ramji Srinivasan discusses working with Olympicbound athletes challenges of being strength and conditioning coach

File image of G Sathiyan. Image credit: Twitter/@ittfworld

Looking after Bhavani Devi, who had qualified for the Tokyo Games in the World Cup in Hungary in March, and her fitness regime was a learning experience as well for Srinivasan.

“I learnt a lot because especially the footwork, the explosive power, the reaction time, those things are very important for fencing. The balance. The lateral shuffles and explosive power and jumps. So it is more of a proactive and reactive sport.

“Most of the sports are like that, but the degree varies, the ratio varies from skill to skill, sport to sport. We have worked on other aspects (such as) footwork, biometrics, explosive power… strength basically, on Bhavani,” said Srinivasan.

Srinivasan, who happened to be a sprinter and a long jumper himself during his youth before an injury ended his hopes of pursuing a senior athletic career, shed light on some of the most crucial aspects of his job, one of which is to gain the trust of an athlete and build a positive dynamic with him or her.

The head coach or a member of the coaching staff might not necessarily get the recognition that the athlete gets upon success, but the relationship between the two often dictates the fortunes of the sportsperson or the team and as such, a healthy relationship is always beneficial.

Srinivasan, in fact, went on to make bullet points of the dos and don’ts pertaining to his role.

“Trust is the most important thing. You may be highly knowledgeable, highly eloquent in your subject, but at the end of the day if they don’t trust you all the things are wasted. As a SandC (strength and conditioning), you need to be open, with no hidden agendas. First. The second thing, be open about your knowledge. If you don’t know, you accept you don’t know. Third, don’t try to use jargon or technical aspect of it in front of them to get away from the situation.

“Fourth one, be honest in approach and goals, what you’re dishing out to them. You cannot say to Sharath Kamal, 'Tomorrow you’ll be world number one. Sathiyan will be world number two today and tomorrow, and you’ll be the fittest table tennis star in the world.' No. And not to curry any favour from any players, which is very critical. Don’t curry any favour for sponsorship, for endorsing fitness centre.”

Developing a bond with the athlete or the team isn’t the only concern as far as Srinivasan is concerned though. Maintaining communication with coaches, the trend of head coaches becoming jack-of-all-trades instead of allowing decentralisation of roles are some of the others.

“I need to have an open line of communication with the coaches and other support staff related to a particular team or a particular individual to progress into the next level of performance over a period of time.

“I think there is a huge gap here in India between the coach, the support staff and the player. It has to be like a tripod stool. One leg goes off, then there’s no balance. Protocols and processes need to be very clear in place.

“Sometimes what happens in India is that coaches become everything. He becomes physio, he becomes a fitness trainer, he becomes a mental conditioning coach, he becomes a massage therapist, all or nothing principle. So it can be a very dangerous trend. So one person need not have knowledge about everything. That’s why coaches need to pick their right support staff for enhancements of the players and to prevent any sort of injuries and to step up the progression protocols in place.”

Another area of concern according to him is blindly copying fitness regimes that have worked for top athletes across various sports and applying it to those who might have a very different set of requirements. This, he explains, is the result of focusing only on the end results achieved by stars in the field instead of looking at some of the finer aspects of the process.

“From exercise protocols, I think we directly lift off what is suitable for No 1 players. For example, Novak in tennis, we directly lift off the workout that is suited for them, what made them successful. But we don’t sit down and understand the exact level of how they progressed over a period of time due to variables. We cannot see the end product and copy. That is why we fail miserably.

We have to Indianise it, we have to individualise it. It has to be a bespoke workout according to individuals, according to skill, according to the need, according to the tournament where they’re going to go along with the diet regime, along with the recovery protocols, along with the tactical and technical aspect of it, everything has to culminate at the right place and the right time for the athlete to peak. Otherwise, we are shooting in the dark.”

Srinivasan also recollects rather fondly his stint with the Indian cricket team, which spanned some of MS Dhoni’s most glorious years as captain with the Men in Blue being crowned world champions in 2011, No 1 Test team in 2009 and Champions Trophy success in 2013. His role as strength and conditioning coach doesn’t necessarily require him to stick to just one sport, and as such, Srinivasan has the luxury of observing a wide variety of athletes from various disciplines from close quarters.

Srinivasan, who helped Sachin Tendulkar recover from his tennis elbow injury, though has no second thoughts in describing the cricketing stint as the most rewarding in his career, and the Indian cricketers some of the best athletes to work alongside.

“Indian cricket team and BCCI have got better infrastructure and facilities and player management, top class. And other sports can take a cue out of BCCI for sure. If we want to perform well and if we want to make an athlete confident and comfortable, just to focus on their performance and not anything else.

“BCCI has been tremendous… if you want something, immediately it gets done. I’ve been part of the Indian team for five years, I never complained. If I want some supplements or some fitness items, immediately it is sanctioned. I don’t have to go through red tape.

“There is absolutely no red tape in the BCCI. They see it adds value to the team or to the player, immediately they sanction it, no questions asked, however costly it is. In 2010, when we planned for the World Cup, I said no sodas, nothing in the dressing room, no cheese, no butter, no ghee, no fried items. Everything was sanctioned,” recollected Srinivasan, adding that Indian cricket had also immensely benefitted from some of the legends of the game giving back to the sport in any way they could, something that other sports and their respective administrative bodies could learn a thing or two from.

Srinivasan is based in his hometown of Chennai, having co-founded Sports Dynamix, a high-end fitness centre in an upscale part of the city that focusses on the development of athletes, and not the general public. He certainly doesn’t rule out working with more athletes and teams in the future even if he’s occupied in a role that’s more entrepreneurial than a traditional sporting one.

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