Paris 2024: Indian athletes looking for the personal touch

Paris 2024: Indian athletes looking for the personal touch

Mumbai/New Delhi: It’s an increasing trend in India’s sporting spectrum. Across sports, several Indian elite athletes are preparing for this month’s Paris Olympics under personal coaches, following individual training programmes by branching off from the national set-up.

Reigning Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra with his team. (IIS/X)
Reigning Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra with his team. (IIS/X)

Be it shooting, wrestling, athletics, table tennis, badminton, boxing – personal coaches or those in the national set-up providing specific training plans are guiding the athletes.

Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra, twice Olympic medallist PV Sindhu or world championships medallist Vinesh Phogat traveling with their own support staff is not new. More athletes, however, have adopted the approach with government and sponsors providing financial support to hire trainers and physios.

Dronacharya awardee badminton coach Vimal Kumar believes with Indian sport growing, the shift is understandable.

“If you look at the world’s top sporting nations, professional athletes have their personal coaches and make their own training programmes. Indian sport is also moving in that direction,” says Vimal. “But I feel that top athletes in India who now earn well enough should spend their own money (to hire support staff) instead of using government resources, which can be used to develop sport at the grassroots.

“I also see many of these youngsters are going in the wrong direction when it comes to planning, selection of tournaments. They need proper guidance.”

From 2021 Tokyo to Paris, shooting has seen a big shift with elite shooters preferring individual coaches and programmes. The national federation (NRAI) has even allowed personal coaches to be with their trainees at camps ahead of the Olympics, with some guidelines.

Former shooting international Deepali Deshpande has been on either side of the fence. As a national rifle coach at the Tokyo Olympics, she was shattered when Indian shooters failed to win a medal. She has since focused on working with her trainees, four of them — Anjum Moudgil, Arjun Babuta, Sift Kaur Samra and Swapnil Kusale — are in the Paris squad.

“Only the top three shooters in an event make it to the national team. When a shooter loses his/her place in the national team, who is going to look after them? There must be a system in place for them,” says Deepali.

She cited the example of ace rifle shooter Anjum, who will compete in the 50m rifle 3 positions in Paris after not being part of the Asian Games or world championships squad last year. “She was able to train on her own and make a comeback with support from TOPS (government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme).”

The way forward for NRAI, Deepali says, is to make space for personal coaches while drawing up their national programme.

“Shooting requires individual attention. Personal coaching is only going to increase. It is practically not possible for NRAI to have a national set-up where they can have 15-20 shooters in every discipline and fund their training. Shooters can then have their personal support system to fall back upon when they are out of the team.”

Pistol shooters Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala too have specific training plans. Manu reunited with former pistol ace Jaspal Rana after their acrimonious fallout in the lead up to Tokyo.

Manu feels she is “richer and more confident” with Rana present at the range. Rana has charted out the overseas training plan of Manu who, unlike the rest of the selected shooters, didn’t compete in the Munich World Cup ahead of the national camp in France.

Wrestling fetched India two medals in Tokyo, but has been in turmoil after protests by top names in the sport against former president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh over sexual harassment allegations. In the absence of national camps, elite wrestlers were left to train at their respective academies. They want continuity in that process before the Olympics. Three of the five women wrestlers chose to train on their own in India instead of joining a multi-nation camp in Hungary.

Star wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia’s success with personal coaches since 2018 has encouraged others to follow suit. Aman Sehrawat, the only male wrestler to qualify, has spent a few months in Russia under coach Kamal Malikov. All five women wrestlers have different training programmes.

Vinesh has joined forces with Hungarian coach Woller Akos. She has also hired Wayne Lombard as strength and conditioning coach, besides having a travelling physiotherapist and sparring partner.

Anshu Malik chose Japan – the most feared nation in women’s wrestling – to rekindle her Olympic dreams after injury. She was at Nippon Sports Science University in Yokohama and sparred with some of world’s top wrestlers, including four-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho and world champion Akari Fujinami.

“It helped Anshu to improve her technique and you saw that in her performance at the Asian qualification from where she won the Olympic berth,” said her father Dharamveer Malik, who accompanied her to Japan.

Boxer Amit Panghal doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes he made in the lead up to Tokyo, where he lost in the first round. The 2022 Commonwealth Games gold medallist is thus training at home, away from the national camp, under the Cuban former men’s boxing coach Blas Iglesias Fernandes.

“Before Tokyo, we had a camp in Italy for a long time and it did not suit me. I had issues with the local food,” Panghal said.

The stamp of personalised training is there on almost every paddler. The personal-national coach friction flared up at the Tokyo Games when Manika Batra’s then coach was denied court-side access and then she refused to have national coach Somyadeep Roy sitting for her singles matches.

Indian TT hasn’t had a national coach since 2018 or a proper national set-up. Italian coach Massimo Costantini has been roped in just ahead of the Paris Olympics and he had his first session with the players at the recent camp in Bengaluru.

Sharath Kamal timed his personalised overseas training stint ahead of that camp. Along with his coach Chris Pfeiffer, Sharath spent around three weeks in Germany for a high-intensity training block. “The moment we got the know about the camp, I thought let me step out now for my high-intensity phase. He (Costantini) may not be able to make big technical changes to our game, but giving us the right confidence is something he is very good at,” he said.

At the Bengaluru camp, personal coaches were also welcomed by Costantini, who said he will ask them “for full cooperation”. For someone like Harmeet Desai who has been training in Surat for a year with a couple of foreign coaches roped in by the Gujarat government, it helped to get different perspectives. “It is good to have a balance between a national coach and a personal coach,” said Paris-bound Harmeet.

“In Paris, Costantini’s words and inputs will help during team events,” felt Sharath Kamal. The Italian has already tweaked the players’ planned competitive outings between now and the Games and will also travel to those tournaments.

In badminton too, top shuttlers, including the pair of Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Sindhu and Lakshya Sen, are all working as per their personalised training plans.

Clamour for personal coaches in Paris

The relaxation given to personal coaches in shooting and table tennis for national camps will bring the national coaches in sync for preparing the athletes. Only a limited number of personal coaches can be accommodated in the squad for the Paris Olympics, where the national coaches will largely be at the helm.

The number of athletes asking for their personal staff to be taken on board is high this time. The federations are getting a number of requests for this. An Indian Olympic Association (IOA) official said they have identified “medal hopefuls”, who will be allowed personal coaches and other support staff members, depending on the availability of slots.

“You can’t fit every coach and support staff member in the contingent. Some of them can stay outside and access Games Village through passes,” said the official.

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