Zoom calls, online tourneys, suryanamaskar competitions: The life of coaches during a pandemic

At Pullela Gopichand's academy, there are two remote training sessions a day. In addition, Gopichand himself frequently talks to players and sends them videos. Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

With inputs from Debayan Sen, Jonathan Selvaraj, Susan Ninan and Debdatta Sengupta

Suryanamaskar challenges, bad-ass-move videos, and a constant dishing out of advice and warnings - the things that coaches must do while in lockdown. The suspension of all sport due to the COVID-19 pandemic means that while athletes are allowed to oscillate between despondency and optimism, zero training and light training, those who watch over them must remain extra vigilant. Because the finely-tuned, carefully-calibrated specimens under their care, around whom worlds revolve, have been told that their movements are limited, their competition plans shredded, the full range of their training curtailed. To the elite athlete, the role of the coach today is more urgent - as overseer, enforcer, therapist, parent - but multiplied many times over.

Whatever happens to sport at large - the Olympics postponed by a year, football seasons in limbo - for high-performance coaches, there's no week off or disconnecting from the grid because attention cannot waver from the athlete. Or else.

ESPN spoke to Indian coaches across a wide range of sports and found they had created their own ready reckoners to stay on top of their games while sport lies trapped in a vacuum.

Talk, talk, talk

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian athletes have been split into three types - those whose seasons are over, those who have gone back home, and those unintentionally locked down in camps, like the hockey team and a handful of athletes and boxers, along with their coaches.

Like BFI's high performance director Santiago Nieva, who is in Patiala, having quarantined himself after returning from India's successful Asian Championship campaign in Jordan. With most of the boxers home, Nivea says, "The last thing the boxers want is to see my face everyday. They've had enough of me for some time."

Each of the boxing coaches has been assigned five boxers and their job, Nieva says, "is to keep an eye out on the work that these guys are doing at home," with the boxers sending their coaches videos as proof.

For the 50-odd badminton trainees at Bengaluru's Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, a phone call from chief coach and co-founder Vimal Kumar is expected. The sessions they enjoy the most, on-court, says Vimal, "those three or four hours from their daily routine, is now gone. They can't sit idle and be scared of corona."

Before the lockdown, Vimal was working out how to conduct sessions "keeping players one metre apart and get them to train, but it's not a great idea at this point obviously."

With the ISL season over (the I-League is still awaiting a final decision), FC Goa's technical director Derrick Pereira has turned his attention to the reserves and underage players, with the first-team players now in their off-season. The Goa coaches have had to adjust their drills from outdoor activities to individual training routines focusing on strength and conditioning and pass it on to the young footballers via videos.

"Our communication with each other at the coaching level is that we have a call or over WhatsApp. We decide on the day what needs to be done. We don't know when this situation will become normal again, and there's no certainty of the 2019-20 season starting again either."

Like Perreira, Ram Mehar Singh, coach of the Patna Pirates team in the PKL and Services, had his season end after the February Nationals. Now, he finds himself on the phone with not just the Indian players but also Pirates' Iranian import Hadi Oshtorak, whose country has suffered more than 2,700 deaths due to the coronavirus.

"We keep discussing sport-related things and I keep telling Hadi to focus on his health and diet for now, and worry about everything else later."

The Pirates players are reminded to refrain from group practice, and "to stay at home as much as possible - do exercises, kicking practices at home or a safe place nearby, but individually."

Keep moving the body

The athlete at rest is a required state between the throes of a full-blooded regular season. During a pandemic, when locked up at home, the athlete is a tight, coiled, nervous bundle of energy with no outlet. Coaches know that routines must be run with no compromises, so what if communication is long-distance?

COVID-19 or not, at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, there are two sessions every day. A strength and conditioning coach takes a class on Zoom between 4 and 5 PM, while leading players like Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal manage their programmes through their own personal trainers. "Apart from that," Gopichand says, "I talk to players, send them training videos. Last week we did sessions for six days a week."

For the track and field athletes, either at NIS Patiala or at the SAI in Bengaluru, there is no chance to meet their coaches. AFI high performance director Volker Herrmann says despite restricted training, the handful of physiotherapists have also locked down into the hostels to work with the athletes there. Sessions are conducted in small groups, with social distancing observed: "We can't compare it in any way to normal training routines," Herrmann says.

Sessions have had to be rejigged focusing on both "physical development and mental well-being." Cross training, flexibility, yoga is emphasised, Herrmann says, "to minimise the negative effects of this lockdown when it comes to the physical development as much as possible." In high performance sport, "athletes aren't used to working from the confines of their rooms. It's hard."

At the Prakash Padukone academy, the morning yoga session on Skype, which had been part of their programme, has been amped up. Suryanamaskars after warm-ups can be made competitive, Vimal says.

"Players can't go out, run, or go to the gym so we have to look at ways to compensate in building strength and endurance. Skipping and running on the spot are some of the things they've been doing at home. It's boring but they have to find a way to stay motivated."

Find a way to show what you can do

In shooting, where the focus is on stillness over movement, regular practice is a non-negotiable. So what if they can't go to a proper range?

Jigging up rudimentary ranges was what national junior rifle coach Deepali Deshpande herself did, stuffing a steel tiffin box with cloth and mounting it on a wall. The 10m shooters with bigger houses, are expected, no, required, Deshpande says, to measure the distance, set up their targets and practice.

"It's (a) getting back to the drawing board kind of period now. For everyone though, holding practice (maintaining stance) is recommended and there are different variants of it so they can always try them out."

Shooters are also required to stay fit. "We insist," says Deshpande, "that they maintain a routine now, because if it's lost it could be tough to get back in shape." Core workouts and theraband exercises are the staple.

Nothing stirs an elite athlete like a contest or a challenge, though. So an online rifle match was organised last Sunday by legendary shooting coach Heinz Reinkemeier. Participants from around the world were asked to shoot 60 shots in 75 minutes and send a photo of their results from the monitor screens. The Indians, says Deshpande, jumped straight into it.

"Our shooter Arjun Babuta ended up shooting the highest scores and won the competition."

Vimal, meanwhile, has tossed a body-burner at his trainees to aim for the end of the three-week lockdown: "I've told them that when we're back together for yoga sessions at the academy, they should all be able to do 100 suryanamaskars in an hour." At the moment he reckons, some of them can do 50 or 60. "A really good number to touch," he murmurs, "would be 108 in an hour."

Don't lose sight of the big picture

For many in the coaching community, keeping an eye on the big picture or the possibilities of what lies in the tomorrows, is important. Gopichand believes players will "tide over" these tough months because of what he calls, "the beauty of muscle memory." Badminton players, he points out, have handled breaks between one and three months and while this gap in the calendar may last longer than in the past, all they need is to be wary of bad habits: "I'm sure they'll be back just as good as they were before this or stronger."

Women's wrestling coach Andrew Cook believes the break will be helpful for his athletes. "Their bodies are quite beat up right now," he says. "All they need to do is let their bodies heal up."

He is back home in the USA now, from where for the last few days, "I'll try and post videos of technique or someone pulling off a badass move. I'd like some more response but I get that their mind isn't there."

Yet, once the Olympics was postponed, he found a spark had been lit with one of his wrestlers who sent Cook a message.

"She's like 'coach I got my life back. I've got another chance.'" Within 40 minutes, she had sent him a video of herself, "doing pushups and band work. At least it shows that she's going to give her best when we get back."

As he looks upon these times, Vimal realises that his day now has telescoped into simple activities. "I really have all the time to call up each of my players and talk to them. That and meals on time, that's all there is to a day now."

It's not half bad. Kabaddi's Ram Meher offers a perspective that he keeps reminding his athletes of, as part of his duties. Whenever he can, the players are reminded that nothing is as important as their lives and the lives of those around them.

"Everything comes later, including sport, be it cricket or kabaddi." It is life and lives that matter the most. "If that isn't there" he asks, "how will sport ever be?"