“I did not even know Sindhu well”: Prakash Padukone on the quest for an Olympic three-peat

Prakash Padukone and PV Sindhu
Prakash Padukone and PV Sindhu (PC: PV Sindhu/X)

Prakash Padukone hardly ever speaks to the media. He prefers to work backstage and is happy staying away from the limelight. Having said that, his students like PV Sindhu and Lakshya Sen have time and again thanked him for the difference he has made to their games and their Olympic preparations leading into Paris.

How has it been for Padukone to work with them? How did it all happen with Sindhu, and what are the areas of concern? What are the plans leading into the world’s greatest sports spectacle?

Padukone opened up in this candid conversation which lasted close to an hour. Excerpts.

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Boria: I have never seen you courtside. And may I say, it was fascinating to see you backcourt guiding Sindhu and Lakshya. How has the experience been for you so far?

Padukone: You are absolutely right when you say this, because I have never travelled outside of India with the players and it is a new experience for me as well. Having said that I have to say it has been a huge learning. To see them first hand on court and see what they do, how they deal with victory and defeat, how they recover for the next game, how they deal with situations, has given me a lot of very critical information, which I will use going forward. It is one thing to see videos and try to help them, but a very different thing to be courtside real time and make a difference. My job courtside is simple. I am there to ensure my players play the right shots at the right time. At the elite, high-performance level, each one has their range of strokes. But not everyone uses the right stroke at the right time. They may create an opening, but then give the point away by not playing the right stroke. Strategy and playing the correct stroke is what I aim to help with from back court.

Boria: Interesting you say that. For a long time, you were involved with the grassroots programme at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy. But then, how did you and Sindhu get together and how has the partnership evolved over the last 6-7 months?

Padukone: The truth is I did not even know Sindhu well. I had met her at a few functions but that was about it. I had never spoken to her. It was when I read in the papers that she was going through a low and was not herself that I decided to reach out. I asked Viren Rasquinha to put me in touch with her. I was clear – at best, she will say no and that she doesn’t need my help. I was perfectly fine if she said so and would understand as well. But I did not want a situation where I did not reach out, and later feel I should have done so. That’s how we got in touch, and when we did, it seemed Sindhu was also waiting to speak to me. Glad I made the first move and things started moving. For the first few weeks, she was playing tournaments and all I could do was speak to her on the phone. Just tried to give her confidence because she was on a low.

She has the shots and the game, and all we needed to do was work on her mentally. Thereafter, when she came to Bengaluru, we did some tests and realised that she needed to lose some body fat. For a whole month, we kept measuring her body weight twice every day, and the nutritionist worked on her full time. She shed two kilos and it was the fat and not the muscle mass. We used sports science to understand where she needed to be physically, and worked on it as a collective. She did her absolute best, and soon was in  decent physical shape. But she also needed match practice. For the first few weeks between January and February, we had time to work on her in the academy and get her game back to where she should be. I am not saying she is back to her best. But from what I have seen, I have every reason to be optimistic and hopeful.

Boria: We have seen her fight well against Chen Yufei most recently. With Sindhu having made the Olympic cut, how do you see the next few months? The top four seemed to have opened up a gap with the rest and there is some serious catching up to do.

Padukone: There is no doubt that she still has some distance to go before she is at her best. Having said that, we have a detailed plan in place. After the Asia Championships in April and the Thomas and Uber Cup, we will have three full months to get ready for the Olympics. Though the plans aren’t yet final, it could well be that we go outside of India and train and travel straight to France from there. We have identified a few areas where she needs to put in more work and the endeavour will be to make her self-reliant. That’s what I want to see in her. She shouldn’t have to look at the coach back court at the end of every point. She should be in a position to know which shot to play when and not keep checking with the coach. In her subconscious mind, the shot should automatically come. The same shot that I would have asked her to play if I was to instruct her. That’s where we need to get to. That she knows what to play and when to play, and what I would have wanted without asking me or checking with me every time. You need to be at your best at the Olympic Games and we will make sure that she is physically and mentally there.

PV Sindhu
PV Sindhu (Image: BAI Media)

Boria: She will be chasing her third consecutive Olympic medal. There is little debate there will be pressure on her. More than anything, a lot will play out in the mind. Your thoughts?

Padukone: Absolutely. But five World Championship medals and two Olympic medals don’t come if you can’t handle pressure. So that’s not something I am worried about. She needs to be mentally confident of her ability. She needs to believe she can do it and beat the best. If she is in a good space mentally, it will automatically translate into her doing the right things on court. It is fairly simple. If she is mentally fresh, she will automatically move better, think better, identify the right shots and you will see her much more agile. My entire endeavour will be to see she is in the best mental space in the next few months.

Boria: Elite, high-performance sport is no longer just about the player or the coach. It is about the team. The trainer, physio, nutritionist, mental conditioning coach and the entire support system. You have multiple times harped on the collective. Are you satisfied with Team Sindhu, and is everything in place?

Padukone: That was the first thing we did. When she first came to me, she was not eating the best, not doing the right things for her body and we needed to make a few important changes. While the coach worked on her strokes, the nutritionist worked on her diet. Her physio made sure she was physically back at her best. It is certainly not me alone. It is the team. And I think my role is being over-hyped. If she wins a medal at the Olympics, may be you can give me a little credit, but for the time being let’s be clear – it is the team that is doing the job and not just me alone.

Boria: Moving on to Lakshya, he too has turned the corner. After several first-round exits, to see him make back-to-back semifinals in the French Open and All England to confirm his Olympic berth has been great to see. Your thoughts on Lakshya?

Padukone: Unlike Sindhu, where the issue is more mental, for Lakshya it is more physical. He needs to stay injury-free and be physically at his best all through. At the moment, he is losing steam in the decider. It happened in the French Open and the All England. He clearly has the game and has all the shots. But he needs to be at his physical best to execute the shots at crunch moments. In the Olympics, you will not get a single easy match. You need to be prepared for physically challenging matches and can’t say all my matches were long. There is just no room for any excuse. Lakshya is surely getting back to where he should be, but like for Sindhu, we have clear plans for him in the lead up to the Olympics. I am very optimistic and confident we will be able to get him in his best shape for Paris.

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