The Field Interview

P Gopichand interview: Great infrastructure doesn’t produce great results, great coaches do

One of India’s most successful coaches insists that ‘People first, programmes next and infrastructure last’ is the only way to achieve sporting excellence.

After India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra spoke about the need for expert planners, The Field spoke to coach Pullela Gopichand in the second part of the series of interviews with people who care about Indian sport. Gopichand, one of India’s most successful coaches, spoke about his vision for building a culture for sports and what India needs to do to produce more champions.


If a country has to become a sporting nation, where do we start?

A culture of sport is what is important. Medals are not really the bench mark to decide whether you are a sporting nation. Participation in sport across all age groups and gender should be the criteria for calling ourselves a sporting nation. For me, to see a lot of young kids play sport in the true spirit of sport is what is important. A by-product of it can be the medals that we win, which could add to the pride of the nation. But if you look at sports as a mechanism of communities coming together, health and sportsman spirit, that is the larger issue that sports needs to address. And that to me is the picture for calling us a sporting nation.

It is the sheer number of people participating in sports per day is what is the benchmark.

But success and medals are going to be the ultimate parameters. Do you think this will fetch us more medals?

Not necessarily. For example, if you are a 100m sprinter. We don’t have cases of anybody without a particular gene type winning the race. Long distance has a similar pattern. I am not saying that there cannot be an aberration to that but that is the norm. So if we go by genetics or if we go by environments, we may not be producing a sprinting 100m champion in the next few years. But that doesn’t mean that the whole country should not train for 100m. For me, medals should not be the main objective. If, in the bargain, we provide for excellence it is very good. But for me, each individual competing against himself and trying to do better is what sports is all about.

It is not the referral benchmark but the personal benchmark that is important. Everybody should reach their highest potential and that is possible through sport. Since you asked for an ideal scenario, for me the ideal scenario will be XYZ not competing against somebody but pushing to get to his/her best.

So in a class, only one can be first but all can get 100% marks. So for me, from the national perspective, this is important. With gene therapy, doping, gene mapping etc, I think excellence may not be for everybody. But sports for everybody should be a benchmark for nation building.

If quality of life, happiness and health were the benchmarks we were setting out to achieve and then we were looking at sports excellence it would be great.

This is an ideal social scenario. But sports is also about showcasing soft power and that is why nations spend so much. What do you think is lacking in Indian system?

India is very unique. We need a system that is very India-specific, which is very dynamic and has a method of interaction with various stakeholders. For me, the most important point is that there are many cogs in these wheels which we need to align to each other in the same direction. And we need a body which actually aligns all of them. There are many states, federations, individuals, NGOs etc who are trying to contribute in their own way to do something in sports. But there is a need to give them one single direction.

I think for the first time, thanks to the Prime Minister, there is a thought process that we need something and there is a generic talk as to what is needed. When it comes to building a system, we are still little immature right now but I think the talk is in the right direction. This is the beginning.

So what could be the benchmarks for this success?

Finland, Norway, Denmark have the largest participative ratio in sports. And they are the happiest nations in the world. Whereas UK, USA may have won many medals but the nations are not the best in terms of happiness index or health index.

So I think the scientific and unbiased way of creating a system is to decide the right targets. We need to select a few sports according to their genetics and past records and you have to be very cut throat about it. You have to ensure that you cut whatever dead wood there is and that the best are getting the best facilities. It is a very clear cut approach and in that approach we will cut off various sports, cut off many individuals and go in with a simple plan of getting medals as the single largest goal.

Now if you want to build this kind of a system, what is the way forward?

I don’t know about others. But for me to build a system, I would like them to play what comes naturally to them. If you see the traditional sports India plays, kho-kho, kabaddi, hockey etc etc, the common thread is that it doesn’t need big infrastructure. They just need sticks and balls to play with or bare hands to play with, whether its hockey or mallakhamb.

Our country’s need was these sports. Now whether you want to take other countries sport, build an infrastructure and excel in that sport is the call you will have to take. If you want to build a sports culture this is what is important. Big cities, more people and less infrastructure is a problem. So we need less infrastructure and more people to play sport.

So when you build infrastructure you have to keep these things in mind. It’s a complex issue. I don’t say I know all the answers but there is a need for a discussion, debate to happen.

International performance is what catalyses a sport. And for that you need medals in big events.

We need not be as obsessed with medals. We can have excellence as an obsession. So a top-down and a bottom-up approach are both needed. So you have to nurture players without being unreasonable about it. If there is some talent that is exceptional then we should get the best facilities that are available in the world.

But always clearly focusing on bottom-up approach where we broaden the base. We look at cheaper alternatives, more local, innate opportunities and look at our native sports. Yes, internationally sports has a huge role at building international pride. But we need to take a conscious view on the amount of money we will earmark for this and the amount for that.

I would really look to create a system that bring benefits beyond medals into the social system and that has to be a measured system.

But we only talk about this. In reality, nothing happens. What has gone wrong?

One of the fundamentals is culture of sport. We are long way away [from imbibing that culture]. The best models in the world are coach led, athlete-centric and system driven. Now, we are at most administrator, government, individual athlete-led. We are not anywhere close to this model. We need to get the act together.

For me, when we look at sport and the challenges, I think, always it should be people first, programme next and infrastructure last. Many times we reverse that sequence and feel that lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. But I think good coaches can be creative and get results even when there is no infrastructure. But great infrastructure without coaches will not lead us anywhere.

The tons of stadiums that have been built across the country for national games, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games are testimony to the fact that great infrastructure doesn’t produce great results. Great coaches produce results.

So how do you get people to take pride in becoming a coach? How do you get a system which ensures that the people who work are complemented? Today, the coaching system is the most un-evolved system in the country. Coaches are recognised on the basis of what there athletes achieve where as a coach working at a grass-root level might do a great job but never get recognised by the system.

Even in schools, a class one teacher hands over the child to the next class but the handing over process in coaching doesn’t happen. So how do you actually make the distinction and make grass-root coaches heroes, reward them, award them, and make them confident to hand over? It needs a lot of thought to understand the issue. But currently, we are not even addressing it.

That we don’t respect coaches is a cultural issue at the moment. Gurus were the most respected people across our history. But of late we have lost it and we have to get that back.

Second thing is the existing power centres in sports look at it as their fiefdom. Now how do you make sports science as the background for running sport and not any other parameter? So we need to objectively breaking down parameters. But I see a lot of change that is happening now.

Despite so many academies mushrooming, why do you feel we don’t have enough expert coaches?

Let’s take the example of badminton. From the numbers of coaches that we have, Sports Authority of India [SAI] employs about 900 coaches. We produce about 18 badminton coaches in a year from National Institute of Sport [NIS]. And if Bangalore has 3000 badminton courts, we will need at least 3000 coaches. So we need to revamp this system.

When you look at a coach, what are you looking for? His knowledge. But if he is not driven, if he doesn’t feel pride in his job why will he try to improve? Why will he try to get better if there is no progression for him? Why will he come into the field if there is no reward or recognition in the first place? So we need to create this entire ecosystem. I think, for instance, there are five lakh trained coaches in UK.

But just training is not everything. Someone who is trained in 1990 and still coaching that way is not a trained coach according to me.

Are we too focused on short term goals?

When you have bureaucracy posted for short period of time. When you have governments with limited mandate, coaches will have limited mandate, this will happen. There is a need for sport and sporting bodies to be lot more permanent. Lot more regulation, lot more permanent. Continuity without regulation and regulation without continuity wont work.

Rio Olympics target was 12 medals, if we want to win medals consistently what are the short term steps that have to be taken and is 2024 is feasible target?

We cannot ignore what is happening, we should look at 2020. In 2020, there is nobody new who is going to come up. 2018 is Asian Games. 2024, relatively better. 2028 and 2032 are a realistic change opportunity. Any change will need at least 10 years time. But for that the implementation of the thought process is important.

What went wrong between 2012 and 2016? Was it because of the change in approach to a more athlete-centric system?

If we look back at our Olympic success in the past, it was individual driven. Be it [Rajyavardhan] Rathore in 2004 or Abhinav [Bindra] in 2008. For some reason it became the benchmark. 2010, CWG ensured that it was system driven. So 2012 was a spill over. TOPs scheme was also made on the Abhinav, Rathore model.

Everyone who looks at sport has looked at it from a shooting [sport] perspective or successful athletes perspective. So 6-10 athletes became stars and they became the talking and listening points. So they spoke about their success and it became an individual system. If you don’t give in (to their demands), someone else will. So the government also said that we will do that. And the whole thing got a little messed up.

An athlete-led, athlete-centric model is not a great model for success. But we actually had previous success so we thought this will give us more success. We need to realise that what got us here, won’t get us there. It has its value, individual athletes should have their say. But not everybody can decide for themselves. Even if they have to, regulations have to be there, systems have to be there.

I am not saying that a system that has sub-standard people will produce results. The one criticism of system driven approach is it can lead to sub-standard people getting more power and that has to be avoided.

From your playing days to today... has anything changed?

The top players are taken care of very well. 100% change. Government and SAI, for whatever we might say, do a phenomenal job. I cannot say that about the system. The bottom is lot more unstructured. I really think we need a lot more thought going into it.

We are too focused on the top. Today, I can say it but I couldn’t have spoken this two to three years back. So when I talk today, I talk today because I have the results to back things up. So today when I speak of sports culture I also speak about that because I believe we have achieved the milestones as far as excellence is concerned and I am at least ready to talk about the sports culture. Where as if I were to talk about this 15 years ago, people would say kya baat kar raha hai [what are you saying]. First show us that you can win. Since you can’t win, you are talking about sports culture. I have done that and so now, I am talking.

Part I: Abhinav Bindra on the need to hire experts rather than making one committee after another
Part III: Viren Rasquinha on the challenges of getting funding for Indian athletes
Part IV: Director General of Sports Authority of India Injeti Srinivas on why we have a system that just doesn’t work

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