Why isn’t India a sporting superpower?
Sport is not just about fitness – vision and skill are just as important. It's time India's coaches understand that.
Every time an Indian player loses a match the first reaction from coaches and even the players is to blame either their fitness or the natural physical superiority of their opponents.
For years the Indian sports federations and coaches have been hiding behind these excuses and the situation has come to such an impasse that even the players have started believing in this and work overtime on the physical aspect.
In a sport like football, if physical attributes were the only criteria for success, then it is hard to explain how the diminutive Maradona and now Lionel Messi have mesmerised the world. But coach after coach in India has been hunting for tall and sturdy footballers to match the world, without explaining why a 5’8” Bhaichung Bhutia has been the most successful striker in the country for over a decade.
Even in tennis, the likes of Justine Henin, who played a traditional single-handed backhand and boasted of a feminine look, got the better of the muscularly built Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and others to win seven Grand Slam titles.
Closer home, badminton legend Prakash Padukone never had the power of the Chinese and the Indonesians but still held the World number one position in the 80s while the likes of Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes and Vijay Amritraj made an impact on the international stage despite not having any special physical attributes.
So what is really wrong with the Indian system? Why is it that a country of over a billion people has failed to produce champions consistently?
The answer lies in the below par grass-root coaching system that suffers due to lack of quality coaches. All India Football Federation’s new Technical Director Robert Baan in an interview to a football magazine a few months after taking over the job was spot on when he blamed the lack of proper coaching system and too much emphasis on getting results at the junior level for the dearth of international class talent in the country.
Analysing the junior circuit in India, Bann said, “Well to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. Also, only when a player made a mistake did the shouting and coaching begins. A good coach makes sure that the players avoid those mistakes in the first place. When coaches aren’t good enough, the players won’t learn.”
This is precisely the reason why the Indian football team still plays football, which in terms of tactics is still stuck in school. They play the kind of football that everyone can play. The vision, the technique, the skills – are all sorely lacking.
The story is similar across all sports. Apart from cricket, none of the sports federations have bothered creating a coaching system that can identify and groom talent in a proper manner. Most grass-root level coaches struggle to teach the players proper technique, which is very important to succeed on international stage and not something that can be drilled into a player when he is 17-18.
This is the reason why former Indian hockey coach Jose Brasa had to start from scratch by working on the national squad's technique of dribbling and passing the ball without looking down during his first year in-charge. He was criticised by many local coaches and former players over the issue.
I am sure the Spaniard would have also liked to directly start working on the tactical approach with the national team but he was hampered by the lack of technical knowledge and weak basics of the Indian players.
While explaining this point, squash player Sourav Ghosal pointed out a case of a few youngsters in the Indian circuit who have been dominating the junior circuit but have failed to make a similar impact at the senior level.
“You speak to any of them after they have lost and their instant answer is that they need to get fitter. I am telling you they are extremely fit, even fitter than us. But they are caught on the wrong foot when it comes to technique and understanding the game situation and that is where the real problem lies. At the senior level it can make a big difference,” said the world number 26.
Squash is undoubtedly a physical game. But a similar point was made by chess coach Vladimirov, who was once a second to the legendary Gary Kasparov. In an interaction with coaches and people associated with a few sports lovers, Vladimirov insisted that the Indian players were still weak in terms of fundamentals and that has affected the growth of many talented chess players.
The problem is compounded by the insistence on instant results at the junior level. Parents who put their children in coaching camps want their kids to participate in as many tournaments as possible.
Children as young as 10-12 years are seen scurrying from one venue to another to play tournaments and are train and flight hopping for most part of the year.
Coaches across the spectrum complain that they get little time to work on the players as the junior season is getting longer and longer with every passing year and the parents are not willing to look at the larger picture.
The hunger to win at a young age drives players to adopt wrong techniques to compensate for the lack of power, something that explains why so many Indian players suffer from stress injuries in their early 20s itself.
As we usher into a new year that will bring the Olympic movement back to London, where independent India began its sporting history 1948, lets hope that the sports administrators, coaches and everyone related to sports in this country are prepared to look at the bigger picture and invest more time and energy in the fundamentals of the sport.
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