Sayali Gokhale - Exploring the world of Badminton coaching

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Sayali Gokhale - Exploring the world of Badminton coaching

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Aditi Mutatkar

11/15/2016

I owe my Badminton career to some wonderful people - all men. I started playing the sport because my father loved it. Santosh Kshatriya, Vasant Gore, Hemant Hardikar, Prakash Padukone, Vimal Kumar -  all men who coached me at various points of time during my career.

From holding the racket to becoming a national champion and everything in between, I learnt it all from men. Looking back, I realize I was taught how to play women’s singles by men and not by women and I think that it is something that requires attention.

Why is it that in such a long history of Indian Badminton, where we have 2 women world champions, there has not been a bigger contribution by women in coaching? Why has a woman coach still not produced an international or even a national player from scratch?

Being a coach

Being a coach is difficult. The success of a coach is measured differently than that of a player. I have seen the best of players struggle to become effective coaches and I have seen lesser skilled players become much more effective. One of my coaches told me, “You require passion that is enough to carry both you and your player through in the worst phases. You need to have the balance to know when to push them and went to hold back. You need to study everything in the sport right from the latest fitness trend to the weaknesses of the players on the circuit. Being a player is an 8-hour job, but you need to be a coach 24 hours a day.” Being an ‘effective coach' is one of the toughest jobs in sport. 

I think it is time for a woman to make a bigger contribution to the sport. I am sure there are women coaches all over India but there are very few who have dedicated 24 hours a day to the role. Sayali Gokhale, a friend, is a two-time national champion and has represented India in various important international tournaments. Her strength on the court was her consistency, strokes and resilience. She was always a tough opponent to beat on the national circuit and was respected for her work ethic.

Sayali left the sport in early 2016 and started coaching May of the same year. “When Prakash Sir (Prakash Padukone) asked me if I would consider coaching in his academy in Bangalore it was tough to let go of the opportunity. I had inhibitions, though. The academy is home to India’s best junior players and a lot of them were boys. I wasn’t sure about how would they perceive me as their coach,” Sayali recalls. Men singles is different from women singles in so many ways. The basics are still the same but there are a lot of different nuances. So what led her to let go of her inhibitions?

“I think the credit goes to my husband (Sagar Chopda, also a Junior Doubles’ National Champion himself). He convinced me that training the best junior kids in one of the most prestigious academies was a learning opportunity I could not let go. So I decided to give it a chance.” But making this decision was not easy for Sayali. To be a coach in Bangalore meant living alone in a one-bedroom apartment, living away from her family and from her husband. I asked her if it was difficult especially now that she was married and had more responsibilities. 

“Oh! Yes. I am making some sacrifices but as a player, you are used to that. I have to tell you that I have the coolest in-laws. When I told them about being a coach in Bangalore. They supported me a 100%.  There was no fuss and that has helped me tremendously to focus on the job in hand.”

With her husband after her final competitive tournament ©

Lack of role models

Just like myself, Sayali too never had a female coach.  "When I asked her if it was difficult having no women coaches as role models while growing up she answered, "Yes and No. I think I have learned a lot from all my coaches since I was nine. Every coach had a different style and strength. I am trying to emulate all the best practices from each one of them and find my own style of coaching. Having some more women coaches on the circuit will definitely help for sure. I hope Saina and Sindhu are thinking about coaching in the future. We need many more of us.”

After having personally known Sayali it is difficult for me to imagine her shouting on top of her voice and being tough on others. She has a very soft-spoken personality, or so I used to think. “Oh you need to see me on court now; you will be in for a shock. It is funny, just recently my husband was playing on the adjacent court while I was coaching. After the session, he told me if he had me as a coach he would be very afraid. I have learnt to be more vocal and strict, it is a part of the job. I am still learning.”

The first day on any new job is the scariest and the most difficult. So I asked her how did she face her fears, to which she replied, “I had called a meeting with all the players in the academy. I told them upfront that I am new to the job and would need their support and feedback. Just like them, I was learning too. In that sense, I have been very lucky. Both Vimal Sir (Vimal Kumar – Saina Nehwal's coach) and Prakash Sir have been very understanding. All my trainees have been wonderful. I have felt accepted from day one. That has really helped.”

Best time to play Badminton professionally

Every generation has their own challenges and problems. While we were starting our careers there was less professional guidance on strength and fitness training and lack of sponsors. What according to her has changed for the present generation? “I think this crop of players really have the best facilities they can ask for. There are physical trainers to take care of their off-court needs. The top players in the academy are taken care of financially by the Olympic Gold Quest and are really well-managed. It’s all up to the players now. India can become a Badminton powerhouse if players show the will,” Sayali said.

Every parent has a lot of expectations both from their children and more so from the coaches. I had to know how challenging is it managing parents. So when I asked her about how involved parents were in their children's sporting adventures, she candidly replied, “If there is a course on Parent-Management I want to enroll in it. Parents today are really involved in every aspect of their kid’s life. I have seen parents involved right from their kid’s warm-up till their stretching in every session, every day. In a way it is great. But their end-to-end involvement also puts too much pressure on the kids which could be a problem. In tournaments sometimes I am joined by the parents to coach them. I have to sometimes coach them more than the kids. I think parents need to let the kids be kids. Youngsters need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Sayali maintains that she is still very new and has a lot to learn. She also feels intimidated sometimes when she has to sit across coaches who have been at the job much longer than her in tournaments. I know Sayali will find her place and her respect. This could be the beginning of a new era for women coaches in Badminton and I feel a sense of pride and relief that Sayali Gokhale is leading the way. I hope this inspires more women to play a bigger part in creating champions. It’s time!

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