Behind every sporting champion there is an unsung hero; let’s meet some of them

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Published: November 5, 2017 4:02 AM

The cricketing season was reaching its last lap in England in August 1990. India was playing the home team at Old Trafford in Manchester.

sachin tendulkar coach, coaches of different sportspersons, coaches of different sports celebritiesGS Sandhu, the head coach of the Indian women’s boxing team.

The cricketing season was reaching its last lap in England in August 1990. India was playing the home team at Old Trafford in Manchester. A 17-year-old boy from the suburbs of Mumbai was sent in to bat against a fiery bowling opposition led by an in-form Angus Fraser. By the time curtains were drawn on the final day of the Test match, the boy—the youngest of the lot—was standing tallest among them all. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar’s knock of 119 that day showed his resilience, perseverance and his indomitable will to perform.

Back home in Mumbai, 58-year-old Ramakant Achrekar was a contented man, if not an extremely happy one, looking at the child prodigy destroying the bowling attack. A couple of years back, when he had first seen Tendulkar at Shivaji Park in the city, there was nothing extraordinary about the lad, except perhaps his John McEnroe-inspired hairstyle. But when Achrekar saw Tendulkar bat, he knew he was looking at a match-winner. Years later, in his autobiography, Ramakant Achrekar: Master Blaster’s Master, he wrote, “The day I saw Sachin bat, I knew he was special. He was not only middling every ball, but also timing it perfectly. He hit quite a few balls in the air, but that did not bother me because he had a lot of power.”

Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar with coach Ramakant Achrekar.

The raw diamond was now in the hands of an able crossworker. And Achrekar made sure that it went on to become the crown jewel of cricketing folklore.

Achrekar himself was very fortunate to see Tendulkar achieve the heights of fame that he did. Not all coaches are that lucky. Take, for instance, Constantine ‘Cus’ D’Amato, a boxing manager of Italian-American origin, who coached Mike Tyson, but never lived to see his adopted son and protégé lift the heavyweight title in 1986. He breathed his last barely months before Tyson stood in the middle of the ring with his hands up in the air. Interestingly, when he had first seen a young Tyson, he had proclaimed, “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world.” And just like Achrekar, he made sure that the championship belt reached Tyson’s waist.

So what is that mysterious quality that the likes of Achrekar and D’Amato possess? How can they take one look at a teenager and predict that he/she will go on to become a world champion? The answer? Experience and an uncanny comprehension of the game.

Coaches have always played the most important role in the lives of sports personalities. They even become their parents, honing the sportsperson’s skills and game. They are usually the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes, giving their blood and sweat to propel the sportspersons towards championship glory. But we rarely celebrate their lives and work. The stardom and fame of players more often than not overshadows the toil and rigour of these crossworkers who make them champions in the first place.

Guru mantra

Thirty-year-old Subrata Paul, goalkeeper of the Indian football team, has played and trained under a number of coaches since he started playing in the early Nineties. And till date, he reveres all of them with great respect. “After my parents, my gurus (coaches) are everything for me. Whatever I have learnt in this game, it’s all because of my gurus. I treat them with as much respect as my parents,” Paul says.

When you work with someone at such close quarters, ego hassles aren’t uncommon. But Paul says there’s never been any in his case. “I have never had issues with any of my coaches. Whatever they have taught me, I have taken as a lesson. You would usually hear players falling out with their coaches, but in my case, that has never happened,” he says.

Paul’s current coach is former Indian goalkeeper Debasish Mukherjee, who has been with him since 2004, and who has moulded Paul’s career significantly. “Sir has always been there for me. He himself played for the country… he has helped me become what I am today, both on and off the pitch. Even during my bad phases, he stood beside me. His contribution has been immense,” Paul says.

It’s very important, especially for younger players, to have a good coach, feels sports commentator Boria Majumdar. “To mature into a successful sportsperson and till the time you crack the code… the role of a coach is massive,” he says.

Badminton star PV Sindhu (right) with coach Pullela Gopichand.

Badminton star and Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu, who is being coached by Pullela Gopichand, is a great example of this. Gopichand’s academy, in fact, is testimony to how young talent should be nurtured. “Look at Gopichand. To nurture the kind of talent he has, one after another, is a reason he is celebrated today,” says Majumdar, adding, “He comes to his academy everyday at 4.15 in the morning. This (training) continues till noon… he returns home and then comes back again. He’s not what a Saina (Nehwal) or Sindhu is, but he is still getting the name,” Majumdar says.

Just like Gopichand, there’s a need for us to celebrate other such coaches too, feels Majumdar. “Name the person who has trained Sakshi Malik, Deepa Malik or, for that matter, mentored Devendra Jhajharia? We don’t know them,” Majumdar points out.

Backroom boys

Twenty-seven-year-old Robin Singh, a forward with the Indian football team, is one of the few talents to have made it to top-flight football in the country in the recent past. Born in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, a state known for having produced cricketers like Suresh Raina, Singh, too, was training to be a cricketer as a 12-year-old when Anadi Barua stepped in.

Once a player with the national football team, a spell of jaundice forced Barua to hang up his boots as a player in 1993. He started his career as a coach in 1995 after he returned from Brazil with a diploma in football from Fifa. “I started with schools in Delhi… I have taught in schools across NCR such as Salwan, Raisina, etc,” 55-year-old Barua says.

Soon after, he was coaching the Delhi Under-16 team. Recognition at the national level paved the way for his entry into the club football fraternity in New Delhi. “After the Under-16 tournament, I entered into club football in New Delhi. I worked with players who came from economically weaker sections in the ‘walled city’ (area in and around Jama Masjid),” Barua says.

And it was here that he first met Singh. “It was 1997-98 when I first met him. He was about 12 years old and used to play cricket with the Dogra Cricket Academy. But his father approached me and asked me to train his son in football,” Barua says, adding, “When he first came, he had good speed and played as a winger. But he had no skills as such. I groomed him for about five years.”

From there on, Singh never looked back. In 2010, in fact, East Bengal of the I-League decided to shell out `50 lakh for the forward. Despite a dry spell on the international stage in terms of scoring, Singh’s overall contribution to the side has seen him become a mainstay alongside captain Sunil Chhetri in the forward line-up.

Then there is GS Sandhu, who has been associated with boxing as a coach since 1993 and has mentored the likes of star Indian boxer Vijender Singh, an Olympics bronze medallist. Boxing is one sport where young players come from not very affluent backgrounds, so the role of a coach becomes all the more important. “Some of these boxers come from nowhere… When they go to international competitions such as the Olympics, what do they do? They are lost in all the glitz, glamour, pressure… There, the one person who can anchor or mentor you is your coach,” Majumdar says.

The role of a coach is more of a ‘backroom’ boy, feels Sandhu. “It’s the boxer who is out there in the ring. The coach is behind the scenes. Coaches can only come to the limelight if they are present during an interview or press conference… and when players acknowledge their contribution,” Sandhu says, adding, “Most of the times, the media wants to focus on the players. And that’s something natural… not only in India, but all over the world.”

Sandhu is now the head coach of the Indian women’s boxing team. “When you’re coaching women, it’s different. With men, you can be extremely strict or even rude to a certain extent. That is how you bring out the best in them. But with women, you don’t interrupt them while they are training and talk in the softest of tones,” Sandhu says.

There is no difference, however, in the respect he gets from sportspersons. “The boys were super, but the girls are no less. They give me a lot of respect. They are positive, sincere and very hard working. That’s all I want from my students.”

Turning around careers

It was the year 2003 and Sporting Lisbon was playing Manchester United to commemorate the inauguration of the Alvalade XXI Stadium in Portugal. United manager Alex Ferguson was at the touchline as usual, albeit a bit less anxious as the match was a friendly one. But United’s reputation was still at stake. An 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo was in Lisbon’s colours.

In the first half, he cut inside John O’Shea and made his run past him. He followed this up with a performance that greatly impressed the Scot. Eight days later, he was in the red devils’ line-up playing against Bolton Wanderers. Ferguson had placed his bets on this unknown kid from Portugal. The rest, as they say, is history.

Numerous such anecdotes pepper the lives of sports personalities. And the ones that remain forever in their minds are those who change their careers. A conversation, a tip, a stare or an insult, all fuel the engines of these players. For 38-year-old Shanmugam Venkatesh, earlier a player with the national football team and now its assistant coach, one such instance changed his outlook towards the game.

It was 2002 and India was playing Turkmenistan in the Asian Games in Bhutan. In the first half, India were losing 2-0 and Stephen Constantine, the current coach of the Indian national football team, was banished to the gallery after he was asked to leave from the touchline. What happened afterwards changed Venkatesh, playing for India in the match, for good. “He (Constantine) came running in, grabbed me by my collar and said, ‘This is your last camp’,” recalls Venkatesh. A baffled Venkatesh couldn’t quite fathom what he had heard. “I was talking to Bhaichung (Bhutia, captaining India in the match) about this being my last camp under Stephen sir before the second half,” he says.

When the second half began, India turned the tables to come back from behind and script a 3-2 victory. Venkatesh assisted with two goals in that game. “After the game, Stephen sir came and hugged me and congratulated me on my performance. I was determined to leave, but his gesture said it all,” Venkatesh says. “I can’t forget that moment because he could have easily held on to his ego issues and let me leave, but he didn’t. That’s what mattered.”

Fifty-five-year-old Constantine has undoubtedly been instrumental in changing the face of Indian football. And it’s these efforts that have made an indelible impression on the players he has worked with. Goalie Subrata Paul, too, holds him in high regards. “While I was playing at the Tata Football Academy, he was with the Under-19 team. He always said, ‘Every training session is your last training session. Whenever you step on the field, think it’s the last time you’re stepping foot on it’,” Paul says.

The statement left such a deep imprint on Paul that it became his guiding philosophy. “Today, when I go to train, I give everything. I might not be there tomorrow, but I should have no regrets. So every time I get down on the football pitch, I remember what he said and try to perform accordingly,” Paul says.

Perfect fit

For any coach, the biggest reward is to see the sportsperson they have trained reach the pinnacle of success. No amount of money or fame can compensate for that. That’s the last thing, in fact, that’s on their minds when they step into their coaching shoes. “For me, what matters is how well my students play. Our profession is one of sacrifice and we enter into it knowing what we are giving up,” says Barua.

Sandhu agrees. “The only thing that should matter to a coach is how professional they are. I, too, have given up on my family, but then that’s the choice that you make being a coach.”

What also matters to a coach is how their relationship with the athlete stands the test of time. “I still have older players coming to me and touching my feet. That’s my real reward. It shows that our relation has not changed despite me not being their coach any more,” Sandhu says.

For player-turned-coach Venkatesh, it was a little difficult initially to change sides. He is no longer inside the rectangular box of play. He doesn’t even get to touch the ball during the 90 minutes of play. “Earlier, I was a player. My job was to just train and play. Now, I have to manage all the players and make sure the team works as a unit. It’s different,” he says, adding, “It was a little difficult initially because Stephen sir is a very strict coach. I have to be on my toes. But that is all part of the learning process. I enjoy working with him.”

So is there a perfect recipe to become a successful coach? Sandhu, who has been coaching for almost 25 years now, believes commitment and discipline are two qualities that make for a perfect coach. “If I am not coming to the training ground on time, how can I expect my students to do so? I need to practice what I preach,” he says.

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