One August evening at the 2003 World Athletics Championships at the Stade de France in northern Paris, Indian women’s long jump champion Anju Bobby George was measuring her runway, and placing the marker. Anju glanced up at Mike Powell, the world record holder seated in the coaches’ area of the stands with her husband-cum-coach Robert Bobby George. Powell, who had been guiding her in the build-up to the championships, nodded. Anju started with a modest jump of 6.61m. It was in her fifth attempt that she recorded 6.70m, which fetched her bronze. It is India’s only medal at the world championships to date. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, she finished fifth in the final after setting a national record of 6.83m. But next year, at the 2005 World Athletics Final in Monaco, she won gold clearing 6.75m, to cap one of the finest sequences of performances by an Indian athlete. The athlete from Kerala, a national selector, believes a good coaching system is vital to end India’s medal drought at the Worlds and Olympics.
You managed to stay at the world level for many years…
That was because my coach (her husband) regularly incorporated new jumping techniques in the training system. It helped me stay in peak condition during major competitions on the European circuit.
What role did Powell play in the build up to 2003 Paris Worlds?
He played a vital role, like fine tuning my fundamental technique. Some basic details like head position during take-off and holding the breath in the last four strides before take-off— improving small details made the difference in excelling at the world stage.
Why do Indian athletes who win many medals at the Asian Games not able to do that in the World Championships?
This is because top athletes are just focused to excel at the Asian Games. The number of participating nations at Asian level is 40-odd while at the Worlds or Olympics there are more than 200 countries competing for a medal. To excel at a bigger stage, an athlete should be mentally and physically prepared to achieve the goal.
Murali Sreeshankar, the 20-year-old national record holder (8.20m) is seen as an Olympic hopeful. Your assessment.
His performance (7.62m) at the Doha world championships wasn’t encouraging. It shows his training isn’t on expected lines. If his goal is a podium finish at the Worlds or Olympics, he must constantly compete at the elite level like the Diamond League. Rubbing shoulders with the best will give him more confidence as well as improve his performances. A big leap of 8.20m in the domestic meet last October and then decline is not a good sign for his Olympic preparation.
It has been more than a decade since you won a world medal. When will the wait end?
We need a good system. There should be a training programme to match the talent and temperament of individual athletes. More importantly, the coach and athlete should have the same goals. I believe there is no dearth of funds these days, but for any new system to be productive, it might take time.
What training system did you follow to excel in major competitions?
Since the focus was major international competitions, domestic events took a back seat. We participated in national events, but didn’t push hard, or maintained an average performance. At the same time, efforts were made to peak at the right time in big international competitions, say from May to August/September when they were held in Europe. These days the majority of the top athletes do well at the national level, but slip in major international meets.
You have started an academy (near Bengaluru). What are the criteria to select trainees?
Raw talent or someone who has just started running or jumping. We don’t scout talent from among the group of athletes who have three-four years’ experience. It’s easier to shape raw talent as per your system.
Many potential juniors aren’t able to graduate to the senior level…
One of the major reasons is too much, too soon. Another reason is young athletes start doing specialised training, or the coaches make them do specific training, from a young age, which is detrimental in the long run. Of course, many take the short cut (dope) to win medals and then suddenly vanish from competition.
What’s your concept of training or coaching?
Multi-discipline training for young athletes—sprints, jumps and hurdles. It should be fun and play. Serious or specialised training should start after the age of 16 or 17 depending on individual talent and temperament.
At many forums there is consensus that India has a lot of talent.
I too believe there is lot of talent, but there has to be an equally good coaching pattern to nurture athletes with potential.
What do you mean by good coaching pattern?
The coaches should regularly update themselves to have an in-depth knowledge of the discipline as the technique and training is constantly changing from one major global event to another. If the coaches aren’t aware of the new technique or system, the athlete’s development could be slow despite hard training. Coaches also should get ample exposure like the athletes to have a better understanding of what is happening at world level.
Oct 09, 2019 08:44 IST