A badminton coaching programme spread across the state is taking the grassroots approach to tap and nurture budding talent
Ifind badminton easy to play — the backhand is my favourite shot — and I want to get better at it,” says Ruthi Lalhmangaihi, a nine-year-old with an impish smile on her face and hope in her heart. “I want to compete in more tournaments. I reached the final of one last year. I lost in three games but I’m happy I got that far.”
Ruthi is taking a break from her training routine at Aizawl’s Saron Badminton Club, one of 25 centres where a grassroots initiative supported by the Tata Trusts is working to tap and nurture talent in a sport that ranks among the most popular in Mizoram. There’s more to it than that for Ruthi. “I have plenty of pals here and I love being with them,” she adds.
There are 815 children from the 7-13 age bracket in the badminton programme, which is spread over all eight districts of the state. The Trusts are one part of a collaborative effort that also includes the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Foundation (PGBF), the Mizoram Badminton Association (MBA) and the Mizoram State Sports Council (MSSP).
The programme, which began in May 2018 and is filled to the brim with participants, is the first phase of what will eventually be a three-tier pyramid structure. In the next stage are ‘regional development centres’ — six of these are slated to be set up in 2019 — where the best of the lot from the grassroots initiative will be absorbed.
The cherry on the top, literally as well, will be a state-of-the-art high-altitude training centre. Land to house the centre has been provided by the state government (in Sihphir district) and the designing of it is expected to be along the lines of a full-fledged sports academy.
The way it is envisioned, the centre will be a residential facility, with a sports laboratory, a library, a swimming pool and a football ground. To be self-sustaining, the centre will concentrate on badminton but by no means will it be restricted to a single sport.
There’s a three-year timeline for the centre to come up but, meanwhile, the talent it has been fashioned to hone is in the pipeline. The grassroots programme is where the action is currently and there is no dearth of commitment from the partners involved.
The biggest name here is Mr Gopichand’s foundation, one of the best in the business of moulding sporting standouts for a country way too short on them. The foundation plays the role of technical partner in the project and its expertise is expected to go a long way in helping the initiative achieve its objectives.
The genesis of the badminton programme can be traced to the zeal of a regional bureaucrat — Kannan Gopinathan, the deputy commissioner of Aizawl — to put a structured coaching setup in place for the sport across the state. Mr Gopinathan sought and secured the backing of the Trusts for the programme and he roped in Mr Gopichand, a personal friend, to lend assistance.
The reason badminton got picked as the sport to pursue was patent. “Every locality in Mizoram has at least one badminton court; it’s the most played game in the state after football,” says project coordinator Lalropuia, who is with the North East Initiative Development Agency (NEIDA), the Tata Trusts associate organisation in charge of implementing the initiative.
NEIDA’s task has been rendered relatively straightforward thanks to the steadfastness of the partners involved, particularly MBA, MSSP and other arms of the state administration. There are wrinkles, though. “The main problem is finding the right coaches,” adds Mr Lalropuia. “We have a total of 27 coaches who have been selected and trained by PGBF but, given their sparse numbers in the districts, this hasn’t been easy.”
Having to share facilities is another issue. Most of the courts where the coaching happens are in community centres that are open to everyone. As elsewhere, adults and their priorities tend to take precedence over children and that means the time the trainees get to spend on court is restricted.
The lack of unlimited minutes for playing has not dampened the enthusiasm of the kids who have flocked to the coaching programme. “We had no need to publicise this initiative to any great extent,” says Mr Lalropuia. “In fact, it was oversubscribed and we had to put a ceiling on the number of children who wanted to participate.”
The eagerness to join the programme had something to do with the parents of the kids as well, worried as they were of their offspring spending too many hours glued to one kind of screen or the other. “The majority of kids in the age group we cater to are very fond of mobile phones and television,” says coach Ralte Chalhmingliana, stern of face but with plenty of patience for his wards.
“Their parents want them to learn badminton, for sure, but they also want to instil discipline in them, and they want to keep them away from TV and the internet as far as possible,” says Mr Chalhmingliana, who gave up football, his childhood love, for badminton following an injury. “Discipline and the behavioural change that brings are the stepping stones to better on-court performance.”
Mr Chalhmingliana has high expectations that stars can emerge from the badminton programme in the not-too-distant future. “Not all of them will be champions, of course, but we are seeing lots of improvement despite this being a new programme. Our students have been reaching the quarters, semis and finals of local tournaments. No winners as yet but we are hopeful of producing one soon.”
Financial and operational independence is, as always, a cherished Tata Trusts goal for the programme. The long-range idea is to make the badminton initiative self-sustaining through the funds collected as fees from trainees and from the resources that will be generated by the high-altitude training centre.
Vanlallawmzuali Bawitlung, all of 13 and filled with that blend of doubts and dreams characteristic of her age, is not looking so far. “I want to continue with this coaching programme as long as I can,” she says. “I’ve participated in three tournaments and I reached the final in one of them; I couldn’t go far in the other two. I know I have to work harder to be a good badminton player, but studies are most important for me. I want to be an Indian Administrative Services officer when I grow up.”
For 11-year-old Dolreign Vanlalthalawra, an ‘advanced learner’ in the initiative, initial reluctance has given way to fondness. “I didn’t want to join this coaching at first — I did it because my father was insistent — but I’ve grown to like this new lesson I’m learning,” he says with a serious look. “I have a lot of fun here but sometimes the intensity of the training gets me tired. I will stay in the programme; I want to be a champion. There are many here better than me as of now, but I’ll beat them someday.”
Dolreign doesn’t get much time these days to watch TV or get on his mobile phone. Asked if he missed all that, his answer is austere and cryptic — “No.”