Why Indian badminton is steadily losing top foreign coaches who took the country’s shuttlers to dizzy heights

  • Kim Ji Hyun is the fourth high-profile badminton coach to quit the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy since Rio 2016

  • Earlier, India-born Englishman, Tom John, had left the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, and branched out on his own

  • Few people in India appreciate that a player-coach relationship is far more complex than merely conducting training and practice sessions

The resignation, in the first week of September 2019, of crack South Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun, who had guided Indian shuttle queen PV Sindhu to World Championship gold in Basel a few days earlier, is not a solitary instance of a quality foreign coach leaving this country’s shores before the expiry of a term contract.

Kim was the fourth high-profile badminton coach to quit the Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) in the three-year period since the 2016 Rio Olympics, the others being Malaysian doubles specialist Tan Kim Her, and two Indonesians, Mulyo Handoyo and Yusuf Jauhari. The former had been mainly responsible for Kidambi Srikanth’s rise to the pinnacle of world rankings on 12 April, 2018, after winning four Superseries titles on the international circuit in 2017.

Still earlier, the affable India-born Englishman, Tom John, had left the Bengaluru-based Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA), and branched out on his own, to train a couple of players privately. The contribution of John to the massive improvement in her netplay has been repeatedly acknowledged by ace Indian doubles player, Ashwini Ponnappa, whose women’s doubles partnership with the mercurial Jwala Gutta had netted India medals in that event at two Commonwealth Games — the gold in 2010 and the silver in 2014.

 Why Indian badminton is steadily losing top foreign coaches who took the country’s shuttlers to dizzy heights

Kim Ji Hyun, standing on left to PV Sindhu, left India's coaching camp in September. Image credit: Twitter/@KirenRijiju

Today, judging by the unhappy pronouncements of yet another Indonesian, doubles expert Flandy Limpele to Firstpost on Christmas day, the stage appears set for yet another premature exit.

The 45-year-old Limpele, who had partnered Eng Hian to the Olympic men’s doubles bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Games, lamented the laid-back attitude, bordering on the disrespectful, of most of the players currently training at the PGBA, considered the de facto national badminton centre.

“In Indonesia, all the top players identified by the PBSI (Persekutuan Bulutanggkis, the Indonesian badminton association) for national duty train and play together,” said Limpele, who took up the Indian assignment along with compatriot Namrih Suroto in May this year, just before the previous incumbent, Tan Kim Her, put in his papers.

“There is intense competition in Jakarta as they try to push one another to greater heights, but there is also camaraderie amongst them, and they all have the utmost respect for their coaches who impose the strictest discipline on them. In India, however, the foreign coaches are helpless in imposing discipline on the players, who often are a law unto themselves. If we want to impose some penalty on them, they simply laugh it off!”

Limpele insisted that absence of proper discipline amongst the Indian players (though he drew the line at naming any of the errant players) was the primary reason for the departure of Handoyo, known to be a stern taskmaster. No doubt the latter was not given sufficient power or autonomy to handle his charges the way he would have liked to have done.

Chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, however, said that Handoyo had left for family reasons, as his wife was not keen to live in India, and preferred the more culturally compatible Singapore. Ergo, the Indonesian did not require much persuasion to move to the Lion City as Singapore’s head coach before the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Tan, meanwhile, appears to have left simply because the Badminton Association of India (BAI) was unable to match his salary demands or offer him a longer term contract. The Malaysian had been specifically told that two Indonesian coaches were being brought in to train the second-string doubles players in the academy, which would leave him free to concentrate all his energies on the top half-dozen pairs that had a realistic chance of qualifying for the Olympics.

“Tan’s contract with us was due to run through until the end of the 2020 Olympics, but he wanted a five-year deal, more money and greater autonomy to train his charges,” said Gopichand.

“He got a contract from Japan that runs through to 2024, and a bigger pay packet. The Japanese have strengthened their coaching team with the objective of bagging all five gold medals at Tokyo next year. Kim Her was also happy at the chance of coaching the talented Japanese doubles players who have come up by leaps and bounds, even as (South Korean) head coach Park Joo Bong will concentrate on singles. There was no way we could have stopped him from leaving.”

Gopichand perhaps omitted to take into account the fact that the Japanese players’ attitude towards their coaches is totally different from that of the Indian shuttlers. There are no prima donnas in Japan, where coaches are treated with great reverence and given almost God-like status. Nor do the players at the PGBA follow the European style of easy camaraderie and address by first name.

Few people in India appreciate that a player-coach relationship is far more complex than merely conducting training and practice sessions, and giving advice from the coach’s courtside seat during tournaments. The relationship is built on mutual understanding, affection and trust, which needs time to flower and show results.

The absence of this last factor appears to have been the main reason why South Korean coach Kim left India immediately after the 2019 Basel World Championships, ostensibly to look after her ailing husband in New Zealand. Within weeks, she had taken up a coaching assignment with a small club in Chinese Taipei — a move that gave the lie to her reason for leaving India in the wake of her greatest coaching triumph.

Earlier this week, Kim declared in a televised interview to a Korean channel the true reason for her quitting India and giving up the job of guiding the freshly installed women’s singles world champion. She accused Sindhu of being “heartless”, selfish and desirous of taking the entire credit for her World Championship triumph.

In this situation, one simply has to go by the principle of there being no smoke without a fire. In spite of father PV Ramana’s impassioned defence of his daughter’s behaviour towards her Korean ex-coach, there does exist the sneaking feeling that Sindhu may have — however unintentionally — hurt Kim.

It is hard to accept that the player did not make a phone call to her coach on the very first day that Kim missed a scheduled practice or training session. If such a call had been made, there is no doubt that Sindhu would have been brought up to speed on the coach’s indifferent health situation.

If such a call had been made by Sindhu after two or more scheduled sessions had been missed, the first question that ought to have been put to Kim (if relations between player and coach were on even keel) should have been, “Hey coach, what gives? Are you all right? Have you been ill, or something?” Certainly not the bland “When are you coming (back) to coach me?”, as has been reported.

Again, as reportedly said by Kim: “After winning the World Championship, we were supposed to come back to India together because we went to the Championships together, but she told me to go back alone. So I asked her, “Why should I go back alone? What about you?” She said she had to receive some prizes. I said, “Do you abandon me after winning?” (sarcastically), and then she said, “Oh, Coach, okay okay.”

Once again, it appears to have been a response utterly lacking in warmth — normally a quality associated with Sindhu. It therefore becomes fairly apparent that all was not right at the personal level between player and coach; and that Kim did feel she had not been given due importance for the part she had played in whipping Sindhu into prime shape for the World Championship gold medal campaign.

Gopichand has often spoken of the need to bring in more qualified coaches to train the core group of about 45 in the PGBA. There is only so much the man can do on his own — and the international results of the top half-dozen Indian stars in 2019 bear mute testimony to this hard reality. Apart from Sindhu’s World Championship gold and B Sai Praneeth’s bronze at the same Worlds, there was nothing to write home about.

Until Gopi himself was at the helm of coaching in Hyderabad, Indian badminton appeared to be moving in the right direction. However, as soon as his prime focus dissipated into the task of setting up similar coaching centres all over the country, and he was forced to travel almost constantly to set up these centres, it seems that the old adage “the mice will play when the cat is away” manifested itself at the PGBA.

And therein lies the crux of the problem.

Does Gopichand scour the world for quality foreign coaches who can lend their expertise towards licking back into shape a band of prodigal players who earlier went up the ladder, rung by painful rung, but are now basking in the glory of their past success, and rolling in lucre they have never before seen in their Spartan lives? Does he then delegate authority and power to them, to mould the players as they would like? Or does he go back to the courts, and employ his own personal acumen, skills and hard work in turning them back into world-beaters?

On the final decision of this former All-England champion and Dronacharya Award winner rests the future of Indian badminton.

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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 18:45:19 IST