Sayali Gokhale- Exploring the world of Badminton coaching

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 during various points in time in my career. From holding the racket to becoming a national champion and everything in between, I learnt all from men. Looking back, I realise I was taught how to play women’s singles by men and not by women and I think 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 a national or an international player from scratch?

Being a coach

Being a coach is difficult. 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 coach’s said this, “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 trends 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.

Can women possess all these qualities; can we be effective enough?

I think it is time for women to answer this question and make a bigger contribution to the sport. I am sure there are women coaches all over India but there are really very few who have dedicated 24 hours a day to coaching.

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 in the national circuit and was respected for her work ethic.

With Sayali and Sagar Chopda. We have been friends since the age of nine. Its been a great journey.

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.”

Family Support and Sacrifices

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.”

With her husband Sagar Chopda at her last competitive national tournament

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 that 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 the very supportive Chopda family!

 Role models

 Just like myself, Sayali too never had a female coach.

Was it difficult having no role-models?

“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.”

The discipline of a coach

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 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. How did she face her fears?

“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 – current coach of Saina Nehwal) and Prakash Sir have been very understanding. All my trainees have been wonderful. I have felt accepted from day one. That has really helped.”

 Now is the best time to pick up Badminton professionally

Every generation has their own challenges and problems. While we were starting our careers it 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.”

 The important role that Parent’s play

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.

“If there is a course on Parent- Management I want to enrol 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 just be a lot more. Kids need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.”

 Bringing it all together

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 wish her the best and hope this inspires more women to play a bigger part in making champions. It’s time!

With her students at a junior national tournament.

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