At Team Tennis, each member of Sachdeva’s 20-strong coaching team has a Registro Profesional de Tenis certification from Spain. Taking our bucket seats in the tiny stand overlooking the tennis courts at Delhi’s Siri Fort Sports Complex, the strikingly articulate Sachdeva points to the neat footwork of a 12-year-old volleying in front of us. “We always start with the feet. You can have the best hands, but only your movement can take you to the ball,” he says. In between, Sachdeva keeps checking his phone — Sasi Kumar Mukund and Riya Bhatia, two of his students, are away playing in International Tennis Federation events in Uzbekistan and Egypt, respectively.
Tarun Sardesai Golf in Kolar, Karnataka. Courtesy: Tarun Sardesai Golf
His Spanish way of teaching the game is in sync with the punishing nature of modern tennis. “Skill-wise, we are up with the rest of the world. Physically, we are far behind,” he says. “All the players who walk in here have to work accordingly.” To correct technical deficiencies, Sachdeva uses Dartfish, a video and data analysis software used by some of the finest tennis coaches.
Only a few years ago, most tennis coaches were self-taught and the coaching restricted to bludgeoning groundstrokes and humdrum exercise drills. The use of technology was absent and most kids went home content to have taken a few games off an older player while playing a casual set. The demands have clearly changed.
Geeta Lal (name changed), for example, never misses practice. And she’s not even playing. She occupies a seat in the stands thrice a week, paying close attention to what her son is up to. “He is 11 and very talented. But I come here so that I can push him more,” she says. In Sachdeva’s words: “A player is the vision of a parent.”
Such active participation, inevitably born of hyper-competitiveness, however, can so easily get extreme. Dhruv Singh, a former Ranji Trophy player and founder of Gurugram’s Croire (French for “believe”) Cricket Club, explains how parents can be overambitious and impatient. “There are times when the parent is more passionate than the kid. When they send their child for a match, they get really disappointed if he doesn’t play,” he says. “You must learn to sit out as well.”
This kind of eagerness is not ideal, feel many coaches. Karan Singh says the best results are possible only when the child is left to his or her coach.
The parental zeal perhaps also owes to the fact that private sports coaching comes at a steep price. While the Indian Track Club charges a fairly reasonable Rs 1,000 for a basic session, fees at FCBEscola can go up to Rs 80,000 a year. At Vakharia’s golf academy, which offers a residential programme that also includes academics, the cost runs into a few lakhs annually. This doesn’t include travelling for tournaments — a junior player plays 15 competitions every year on average.
Ajay Pal Singh, whose six-year-old daughter recently started out at FCBEscola, says it is vital to support your kid’s passion. But he adds, somewhat sternly, “With the amount I am paying, she better take this seriously.” The fee structures at Arsenal Soccer Schools and NBA’s academy in India, both run by Mumbai-based India on Track are reportedly similar to FCBEscola’s. (Despite repeated attempts, India on Track did not respond to queries for this story.)
The fear of rapid commercialisation overriding sporting interests is understandable. At several “elite” football academies in Delhi, kids arrive for practice in swanky cars accompanied by nannies who carry their kitbags — the best facilities in an emerging sporting nation are still largely reserved for a privileged few. Kids here wear the latest Nike boots, challenge each other to FIFA on the PlayStation, celebrate goals with Paul Pogba “dabs” and possess an extensive collection of original player jerseys.
“We are offering world-class infrastructure and training here. To give this access to our youth at a large scale, sustainability in business is very important, and this is at a fraction of the cost of what it would be in Europe,” argues Dhruv Arora, business head at Conscient Football, the grassroots initiative that brought FCBEscola to India.
While the need for more money in sport is essential, Karan Singh opines that it is difficult to coach in a commercial environment. “That way, you cannot bring out the real culture of sport.” Om Chhibber, founder of the popular EVES Football Club, says that money is not such a bad thing. “If someone is charging you for good equipment and coaching, it isn’t really a problem. Coaching, after all, isn’t easy.”
To their credit, though, most academies, including Croire, Team Tennis and FCBEscola, as well as Singh’s Indian Track Club, have quotas for underprivileged kids, often letting the brilliant ones train for free.
To further this quest for professionalism in kids’ coaching, there are two things urgently needed: old-school coaches shedding their archaic ways and the emergence of smart young coaches. “We need to be open to new ideas. If a young guy wants to do something different, the old guard must allow him,” emphasises Karan Singh. It may not be affordable for all, but there is little doubting that an invigorating new culture is picking up, steered by values and expertise previous generations thought were impossible.