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  • Mihir Vasavda

Coaching in India Then & Now: A Sports Journalist’s Perspective & Learnings

In this reflection piece, Mihir Vasavda, Assistant Editor (sports) in the Indian Express and a participant in the inaugural edition of the High Performance Coach Development Program (HPCP), casts a seasoned eye on the changing landscape of coaching over the past two decades in Indian sports. The veteran sports journalist highlights the past and present of the Indian sports system and the potential that can be unlocked with new knowledge and exposure. He also shares how his exposure to the technical aspects of high-performance sports and coaching in the HPCP has informed his perspective and writing on sports in India.

The sessions opened my eyes to ideas and philosophies that I wasn’t exposed to earlier One of the longest-running jokes in Indian hockey, at least for people of a certain vintage, is the coaching ‘philosophy’ of one of the country’s finest players. In charge of the senior men’s team in the early 2000s, the coach had just one thing to say: Josh se khelna! (Play with intensity!) Stepping onto the pitch before a match? Josh se khelo! Taken early lead? Josh se khelo! Training at half-time? Josh se… As a rookie sports reporter, that was my initiation to the Indian coaching system. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a system. And so, I could understand why foreign coaches slowly became a norm in Indian hockey – a sport I have closely covered for the last two decades. Barring one or two, there weren’t any coaches in Indian hockey.

Indeed, there were a few players who pretended they knew what they were doing but in reality, it was nowhere close to what was happening in the rest of the hockey world. Indian players gorged on chai-samosas at halftime in domestic games, lacked game sense, competition management was poor, were averse to modern concepts in hockey and were fit to last just one half of the game. However, hockey wasn’t an outlier in this department — coaching across sports in India until a decade and a half ago felt like this for an outsider like me looking in. The situation has changed today.

There are young, dynamic coaches who are up-to-date with the latest techniques and are hungry to succeed, while the veterans in the field are open more than ever to new ideas, are embracing technology and keeping the athletes at the heart of it all.

But we can all agree there’s still a long way to go – the athletes-to-coaches ratio in India, across sports, is nowhere close to what it should be. I was at a wrestling academy in Chhara, Haryana, where there was just one coach for around 50-60 trainees. It was the same scene at a shooting academy in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, where around 25 shooters were being trained by one person.

Against this backdrop, the High-Performance Coaching course assumes huge significance. With experts as teachers, the programme is an ideal platform for an aspiring coach to learn the tricks of the trade and, for a veteran coach, it’s an opportunity to up-skill. When I was approached to be a part of this course – and I am grateful for the opportunity – I was apprehensive initially as I wasn’t sure I’d fit in, given I had zero experience in coaching. At the same time, I saw it as an opportunity to understand what goes on behind the scenes, which would eventually help me write in a more nuanced manner. And that’s exactly how it went.

The sessions opened my eyes to ideas and philosophies that I wasn’t exposed to earlier. One such idea was discussed in one of the earliest sessions where we were taught about the maturation age and biological development of an athlete. Before this, I had never considered the fact that a person’s birth month can potentially determine their selection as well as their physical and mental development. In the following session, I learnt another new concept: mesocycles. In particular, I found the session on coaching strategies and planning to be the most fascinating because a lot of issues that are relevant in the Indian context, such as short-termism from athletes and management, were discussed at length in this session. The session also underlined the importance of creating an environment that is free of fear, and the ways to manage the expectations of athletes. The need to have emotional intelligence, so critical in today’s world, was also an important lesson learnt. It was also thoughtful to have two speakers for some sessions, like the one on injury prevention and S&C.

I enjoyed the faculty's insights on shooting – given that there were a considerable number of shooting coaches in our batch – and also several other examples from basketball, football and other sports. It was enlightening to know the ways we can predict and prevent injuries, understand the kind of injuries that can occur in different sports – the impact on the jaw of a shooter, concussion in taekwondo, etc. – as well as the need to manage an athlete’s workload and take care of their nutrition as well as sleep. In other words, I can say that I learnt something new in every session and it showed how much coaching goes beyond the techniques that are taught on the field and tactics devised in the team rooms.

There’s a huge element of sociological, physiological and psychological factors which determine the performance of an athlete. And it is the coach’s responsibility to ensure all these factors are accounted for while developing his/her philosophy. For India to become a sporting superpower, the first step will be to have enough coaches who understand the demands of the modern-day sport. And the time to do that is now!

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