Explained: Why WFI president is against individual foreign coaches for Indian wrestlers

Bajrang Punia with coach Shako Bentinidis during the Asian Wrestling Championships in New Delhi in February 2020. Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has come down against the practice of individual foreign coaches working with Indian wrestlers. Although four members of the Indian contingent - including both medal winners Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya -- competing at the Tokyo Olympics have been training with individual coaches, Singh, speaking to ESPN, said he was against the concept.

"There is no problem working with foreign coaches. We have worked with foreign coaches in the past too. But back then, the coach was responsible for all the athletes. That was the parampara (tradition) that we had in Indian wrestling. It is my individual opinion that if we bring in a foreign coach, he should be someone who looks after two or three athletes rather than just one athlete. Today we can't have one coach for each athlete. Now that we have more wrestlers, there needs to be more coaches. Ideally, we should have two coaches for the cadets, another two for the juniors and at least three for the seniors. They should also have to take charge of multiple weight divisions," Singh said.

Singh, however, added that an exception could be made for individual cases, especially for big tournaments. "All our results have come from Indian coaches. Even (2020 Olympic medallists) Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya's first coaches were Indian. But if there is a need for foreign coaches before a big tournament, we will consider it. But ideally we would want the foreign coaches to be responsible for multiple athletes," he said.

What is the rationale behind Singh's statement?

The phenomenon of Indian wrestlers having private international coaches is a relatively recent one -- Bajrang was perhaps the first when he began working with Shako Bentinidis in 2017. Singh's statement has to be seen in the context of WFI looking to exert more control over Indian wrestlers even as an increasing proportion of them have started working with individual coaches over the past Olympic cycle. This is also another front in the feud between the federation and the private bodies that support wrestlers and which are responsible for signing these coaches.

While all Indian wrestlers have grown up with a basic coach, they would generally work with the national coach once they were selected to the national camp. In recent times, though, multiple Indian wrestlers have been training separately with their coaches and following a distinct training programme even during the national camp. The WFI has been critical of this individualised training, even accusing the private coaches of mismanaging wrestlers -- a charge not entirely borne out by the facts.

Why were wrestlers working with private international coaches?

The main advantage of working with a designated full-time coach is that it has worked. Since he began working with former Georgian wrestler Bentinidis, Bajrang has enjoyed the most successful period of his international career -- winning two World Championship medals, an Asian Games gold medal and an Olympic bronze. Vinesh Phogat became the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Asian Games gold medal and then a Worlds bronze under Hungarian Woller Akos. Dahiya, too, had been training with Russian Kamal Malikov for over a year prior to winning a Worlds silver.

It isn't just the well-established wrestlers who have been working with international coaches. Divya Kakran, 22, had been working with Vladimir Mestvirishvili for nearly two years when she won a gold at the 2020 Asian Championships. Interestingly, Mestvirishvili, a former chief coach of the Georgian national team, was the first foreign coach to have been signed by WFI. It was his arrival nearly two decades ago that two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar had credited with improving the standards of Indian wrestling at the turn of the millennium.

What are the likely effects if private coaches are discouraged?

If athletes will no longer be able to work with private coaches, the national camp will regain its relevance. However, it remains to be seen whether the coaches who work within the national camp will be able to provide the kind of training that is needed to succeed at the international level. While Singh is confident they can, the fact is that most Indian wrestlers looking to improve their game have chosen to work with individual coaches.

With most of the foreign coaches' contracts up for renewal following the conclusion of the 2020 Olympic cycle, it also remains to be seen whether the same coaches will be willing to work with multiple athletes as the federation envisions.

What is WFI's plan to bring in foreign coaches?

While the federation has brought in foreign coaches in the past, most appointments have been limited owing to the time it takes for the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to approve appointments -- something that isn't a factor when a coach is brought on in a private capacity as is the case so far. Even Bentinidis -- the only foreign coach currently on the WFI's payroll -- was first brought in by a private body.

However, the fact is that with the new Olympic cycle underway, the federation hasn't yet even begun the process of scouting for foreign coaches. Even the process of retaining existing coaches hasn't been seamless -- two of the last three foreign coaches to have been brought in to work with the Indian team have left prior to the completion of their contract. The process of starting any new signings is also unlikely to occur until after the World Championships in October and even if it occurs as soon as that, it will be unlikely to be completed until 2022, with just two years to go to the Paris Olympics.