Pullela Gopichand on ‘Shuttler’s Flick’: I did not want my autobiography to be dull and preachy

Ahead of the release of his autobiography, Shuttler’s Flick, badminton coach and former player Pullela Gopichand reveals how he channeled his pain to develop a winning strategy and hit back stronger

Ahead of the release of his autobiography, Shuttler’s Flick, badminton coach and former player Pullela Gopichand reveals how he channeled his pain to develop a winning strategy and hit back stronger

“I’m a work in progress,” says badminton coach and former player Pullela Gopichand in an interview
The Hindu before starting his autobiography
Shuttler’s Flick: Every match counts (Published by Simon & Schuster). The book, which he co-authored with Priya Kumar, will be launched in Hyderabad on November 12.

The seed for the book was sown in 2016 when Gopichand served as the official coach of the Indian Olympic badminton team. PV Sindhu won her first Olympic silver in Rio: “I’d rather concentrate on the task at hand than document my successes. However, people around me felt it was the right time to tell my story,” he recalls.

Author and motivational speaker Priya Kumar was recommended by a friend and among those who knew Gopichand well there was a consensus that an autobiography should be produced that could also serve as a guide for future champions.
Shuttler’s movie mixes Gopichand’s story with Priya Kumar’s observations on his journey and lists pointers for aspiring players, parents and coaches. Much of the work took place in 2018 and 2019 when Priya Kumar met Gopichand’s family members, friends and colleagues at Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy.

Gopichand quotes a friend who urged him to tell his story: “He said, ‘Thoughts make a book,’ and I should write. I didn’t want it to be a self-help preaching book. Priya was exceptional at breaking down aspects of the training and life lessons and listing them as takeaways.”

After the first draft was completed, the co-authors shared it with friends and even those who weren’t avid supporters of the sport to get an outside perspective. Gopichand reflects, “I like that the book isn’t too difficult to read. Each chapter serves as a mini-story featuring food stalls. We are in a phase where parents come to us with multiple questions about sports. We wanted the book to address these aspects. The book evolved as we worked on it.”

tight circle

Priya Kumar

Gopichand didn’t have to go too far to piece the story together as some of his close friends and colleagues are now part of the badminton academy: “Growing up I had a limited circle of friends. Outside of badminton I knew very little,” he says, “Son Azam of Hamid Hussain (his first coach) who was my doubles partner when I was growing up and Prabhakar who was my doubles partner when I was 18 are at the academy. I also reached out to Sudheer Babu (former player turned actor) and others.”

The book begins with an account of Gopichand’s greatest victory – the All England Open Badminton Championships in 2001 – and then recounts his recovery from a debilitating knee injury in the 1990s that required risky arthroscopic surgery to treat an acute anterior cruciate ligament tear. Gopichand had been written off. No one believed he was fit enough to play the sport, let alone win national and international championships.

“It was a painful time,” he admits. “There was no precedent for someone who had undergone such reconstruction surgery and returned to playing badminton.” The slow journey from wheelchair to badminton court took tremendous courage: “Badminton was my only source of happiness. So I had to find my way back.”

He compares it to today’s scenario, where players might move away after a few months of injury or a losing streak: “In the 1980s and 90s, little else distracted us. When I was losing badly, I would retreat into a shell and channel the pain to devise a method to come back stronger with a win. I don’t know if the players let the pain rest enough today. You can get distracted with Netflix or YouTube.”

That is, he does not judge about changing the scenario. While players today have better access to formal training facilities, there are other strains: “I’ve seen players checking Instagram before and after a game. I won’t say it’s wrong because even the best players in the world do it sometimes. It’s a different way of living.”

Train them young

Shuttler's Flick book cover

Shuttler’s Flick book cover

Gopichand played other sports in his youth before finding his groove in badminton. The experience helped build agility. Parents come to the academy to enroll young children in the sport, with international tournaments in mind. How does a coach decipher if a kid is made for badminton? “Canadians used to do a DNA test and muscle test to determine if a child was fit for a sport. This proved disadvantageous and the practice was discontinued. At school, children learn mathematics, physics, chemistry and other subjects. Not everyone is expected to be an Albert Einstein or a Srinivasa Ramanujam. But kids who sign up for a sport are told from day one that they should aim to be world champions. That’s way too much pressure. Encourage them to exercise, enjoy the process, stay healthy and happy, be disciplined, and learn lessons from winning and losing. Genes play an important role in making an athlete. We look at generic body type and after a few months assess a player’s mobility, hand-eye coordination, whether they can spot and score empty spaces on the pitch, and whether the player can withstand the rigors of travel, and so on recover from repeated losses against the same players.

The overexposure and parental tendency to get calculative about the lucrative nature of a sport puts a damper on it. “People like that tend to quit the sport halfway through,” says Gopichand. Looking back on his growing up years, he says, “It took a certain amount of stupidity to fully commit to a sport and think, ‘
haan ​​my khel raha hoon’ . Only a small percentage can ultimately win major tournaments. The lack of that knowledge helped in a way. On the plus side, I think today’s generation is more confident in achieving something than the previous generation.”

winning moments

HYDERABAD, TELANGANA, 08/07/2018 : India's head coach Pullela Gopichand at his academy in Hyderabad.  Photo: KVS Giri

HYDERABAD, TELANGANA, 08/07/2018 : India’s head coach Pullela Gopichand at his academy in Hyderabad. Photo: KVS Giri

Shuttler’s movie , as expected, has anecdotes from some of Gopichand’s brightest disciples – Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Parupalli Kashyap and Srikanth Kidambi, among others. They tell of disciplined training and moments of victory. Gopichand claims what happens on the big game day is a manifestation of years of training; There are times when he backs off to allow players a relaxed mindset: “There’s nothing new I tell you on the big day. Everyone wants to win, but all that matters is how many prepared to win.”

At 47, Gopichand adheres to a disciplined lifestyle. He wakes up at 4 a.m., reaches the academy around 5 a.m. and often doesn’t finish work until the evening. The routine suits him, he explains: “Otherwise I tend to get lazy. A deviation in eating and sleeping affects me greatly. The past two years of minimal travel during the pandemic have served me well. I never get bored of eating simple meals or sleeping at the right time every day. But my job as a coach requires me to travel and that’s fine,” he says, laughing.

Shuttler’s movie also describes the unabashed support of his parents, Pullela Subhash Chandra and Pullela Subbaravamma, and later his wife and Olympic badminton player PVV Lakshmi. Gopichand says the strong support system has allowed him to give his undivided attention to the sport. While the book doesn’t reveal much about his wife, who prefers to keep a low profile, Gopichand says, “We were so busy after we got married that we went on vacation just seven or eight years later. I left the house at 4:15 am and didn’t return until 7:00 pm. Lakshmi has stood by me like a rock, just like my parents. During her pregnancy and as a young mother of two children, she did everything she could. As an Olympian, she understands what it means to be a player and a coach.”

A biopic film starring Sudheer Babu to portray Gopichand is also in the pipeline: “There has been a delay due to the pandemic. The project is running and talks are underway,” says Gopichand in parting.

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