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Why 'robots' can help sustainable development of Indian Table Tennis at grassroots levels

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Table Tennis is on the rise in India


Why 'robots' can help sustainable development of Indian Table Tennis at grassroots levels

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sounak mullick


Indian Table Tennis players have been spotted playing against 'robot' at their domestic space to keep their shape during the lockdown and it has helped them a lot. Gnansekaran Sathiyan, during an exclusive chat with SportsCafe, stressed on how robots can be used effectively at junior levels.

Table Tennis - not among the elite ones like cricket, football, hockey, or even badminton in India, but it has surely broken the shackles and stamped authority in the past few years, even though an equal footing with the others in the list may be a distant reality. A game cannot reach heights without great players, which was missing from the racquet sports until the last few years, while Sharath Kamal was the lone wolf - making the headlines quite often. Now, the scene has changed. Go on and ask people about Table Tennis in India, albeit they’ll not turn a deaf ear, at least they are aware of paddlers’ miraculous feats in recent years, but do not expect them to blabber about the game with immense knowledge - we are still far from those days.

On a whole, the game has got recognition, the credit for which goes to the bunch of talents that have risen up to the occasion against all odds. If Gnansekaran Sathiyan’s constant wrath of higher-ranked players points at the upward trajectory of Indian players, the medal wins at the 2018 Asian Games justifies that Indians are no pushovers at the top level. This has created hope, to say the least, and what better stage to put your country on the world maps than the Olympics, even though expecting a medal would be foolish. As things stand, the Tokyo Olympics has been pushed back by a year, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, with preparations largely stalled in India.

We are quite aware of the situation on our hands, with sports activities massively affected by the pandemic situation while the athletes are stranded at home. The lack of practice, an attempt to kill boredom, and keep themselves in shape during the lockdown, the athletes have taken to extreme methods which include sparring with a dummy, swimming inside an irrigation tank, and shooting through electronic targets. The paddlers on the other hand, only the elite ones, took resort to train with ‘robots’. This was nothing new to be precise, as robots have been in fashion, even though you cannot spot in every academy you come across. Unlike other make-shift arrangements I’ve mentioned, a robot can actually help a player improve his technique, skills and reflexes.

"The robot concept has been prevalent before but this robot was very advanced as it could put 120 balls per minute. That''s like 2 balls a second which is insane. It could vary the speed, trajectory, and put the ball in any direction. You can set up a lot of exercises. Like a backhand, forehand these kinds of exercises can be set. Up to 100 exercises can be set. A combination of exercises can be set. It is very close to a human,” Gnansekaran Sathiya told IANS.

"It can replicate a lot of ideas and it can put a short and a long topspin in the same exercise. So I think it's one of the most advanced robots in the world and of course, it can never be compared to a human. A human can see your body and then give the ball accordingly but I feel this robot is as close to a human as it can be," added the world no. 30.

The Butterfly Amicus Prime robot at Gnansekaran Sathiyan's residence in Chennai © SportsCafe

For instance, Sathiyan was sparring with the Butterfly Amicus Prime robot at his Chennai residence, heavily recommended by his coach. Meanwhile, veteran Sharath Kamal has also ordered one for him with the resumption of training camps pushed further. In spite of the advantages we can draw from using the robot, financial constraints have not allowed them to thrive in clubs and academies. 

But, using them at the grassroots level can actually help the players improve their skills, techniques, and reflexes immensely. With the sport getting a push and money being pumped into the system, we can expect academies to introduce robots at intermediate levels. Gnansekaran Sathiyan, during an exclusive chat with SportsCafe, throws light on how robots can be used at various levels to bring about an improvement in the overall game, even though he points out that there’s no replacement to sparring with humans.

“Many of the academies are actually using robots, even though they are not as advanced which I have, so it is nothing new. Yes, for players at a very young level, the robots are going to be very useful, because to improve the speed, technique, but it is also important to play with humans. Just playing with the robot, you cannot understand the human spin. Moreover, all the academies cannot afford a robot at this point. So, using robots as an option can be very useful and I think many academies should approach to try and improve the speed, technique, and reflexes, using a robot in the presence of a coach,” said Gnansekaran Sathiyan. 

“It was helpful to me because I could improve my skills at this point of time, how it could put different balls. It is not the ultimate way to train, otherwise the Chinese would have had robots everywhere. But, having robots will be of great help in the mediocre and intermediate level and in the top-level also, I feel we should have a robot at the national training centre, then we can use it a couple of days to sharpen our skills. It can be used at various levels as per the need, but switching completely to robots would not be of any help,” added the Arjuna Award winner.

To be honest, India still has a long way to go and as cliched it might sound, grassroots development will largely define where India stands in the next few years. India have been producing top-notch players in the past decade, but time has come to adopt advanced methods of training and extract the best possible talents from the circuit at the same time. It might not be correct to say that robots are the solution for a great future, but we can definitely have a better fleet than the predecessors that can take the nation to heights never achieved before.

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