The story of foreign coaches in Indian badminton has often been a saga of unspoken deference and cold, chaotic non-communication. But present doubles coach Mathias Boe has struck a stern rhythm since he officially took the job late last year.
During his playing days, Boe was known for his pursuit of perfection through attention to detail and punishing training sessions more akin to a top squash professional. Now, the Olympic medallist-turned-coach has found the vocabulary to enforce his regimen on two young charges – doubles sensation Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and earnest partner Chirag Shetty.
“I’m used to being in a training hall as a player. I put myself in their shoes and coach them as I would’ve coached myself if I was two different persons,” says the Danish maverick who won Olympic silver in 2012, was a World Championship runner-up in 2013, and a Thomas Cup champion in 2016.
Between 2011-18, Boe had 1 gold, 3 silver and 4 bronze medals across the top 4 badminton majors – including the Sudirman Cup – before retiring in April 2020.
“I’m a tough coach but I put it all out there. And if they are not pushing hard enough, or putting in the extra effort, then they need someone close to them to tell them the harsh words. I’m not someone who’ll keep patting them on the back. I’ll tell them ‘this is not good and you need to do this to get better’. Initially they thought it’s a little bit strict, but now they understand,” Boe continues.
Learning on the job
He’s far from a schoolmaster demanding compliance though. “I draw on tactics from my own career. But ultimately, they need to execute them. So I do ask them, ‘Do you see it the same way?’ For if there’s the slightest doubt in their minds, the plans won’t work,” he states.
It’s taken Boe a few months to settle into the Indian set-up where unlike Denmark, the head of sport (administration – Sports Authority of India, Badminton Association of India) don’t sit in an office, just a shout away like at the National centre in Copenhagen. “But I’ve got used to the way of doing things learning from head coach (Pullela) Gopichand,” he says.
Satwik-Chirag, already qualified for the Olympics, are not exactly favourites for a medal going by rankings. But aside of hopes pinned on singles World Championship medallists, the Indian duo is seen as exciting prospects capable of kicking up a storm in the draw. Also given head coach Gopichand’s massive share of time devoted to propping up their physicality, in a sort of bootcamp he’s taken Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu through prior to the last two Olympics, Satwik-Chirag are being honed for a breakthrough Olympics.
Just as well that they have a recently-retired coach who boasts of wins against the top Indonesians, Japanese and Taipese they’ll come up against to help them tactically. Boe, though, asks to keep it real. The coach and wards had just four weeks before the European swing earlier in the year. But they have already settled into the rhythm. “We wanted to see where we stand, and not be scared of new things. And what we were trying to implement is working well. It’s straightforward what our strengths are, and with these strategies, Indians can be extremely dangerous even against the top pairs. But if we are not focussed 100 per cent, we’ll struggle,” Boe says.
The Sports Authority of India (SAI) when extending Boe’s contract from the initial three months to the end of Olympics had noted: “During interaction with the players, they said the coach had added value in assessment of opponents and their tactical approach.”
When he was partnering Carsten Mogesen, their 4-5 head-to- head record against the top-ranked Indonesians Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon was down to their ability to rotate and attack from reversed positions to boggle the pacy flat-hitting ‘Minions’. This strategy would require wheels on the Indian feet alongwith whirring arms.
The pandemic though has added another sheaf of suspense. “Most players around the world will be more insecure than usual about ‘where do I stand compared to…’ considering the cancellations of lead-up events. We’ll focus only on what we can control,” Boe says.
Doom & gloom
In his debut outing as a coach, Boe had reckoned that his extremely regimented lifestyle of planning the day to the last minute could work seamlessly. Elite athletes abhor lack of certitude. That was until the deadliest of pandemics struck, binning the very idea of planning a schedule.
That his wards were to be first-time Olympians doubled the challenge. “We tend to be disciplined as players. But this virus has been difficult for everyone. Not so much about sporting things, but the scene is so bad that it’s overshadowed everything. My job was to draw up training timelines. Work on Plan B if Plan A didn’t work. But here, nothing is going as well as we hoped. It’s almost come down to survival for human species. For almost a year and a half, we’ll be training which is mentally hard when all that players want to do is compete. We had planned for seven weeks for Malaysia and Singapore. Now it’s 17 weeks of straight training to the Olympics.”
A few fundamentals though remain. “Playing matches gives players most joy. But whoever is the most mentally prepared and relaxed, and has the confidence in the training they’ve put in, will do well,” the Dane says.
The stalking fear of the virus while staying in India has Boe’s family worried back home. “I do think it’s scary and it’s sad the number of people suffering here in India. It’s not an easy situation. For us, summers are when people are going on holidays but it’s boiled down to merely surviving. So, it’s far from a normal two-month lead-up to the Olympics, but I hope for the young athletes’ sake that they have an enjoyable Olympics even as we pray India heals,” he says.
Struck with Covid-19 in January and getting away with relatively mild symptoms, Boe gets a tad out of breath when he works out. Though he’s watched Satwiksairaj (infected last year) regain his spirits and strength on court, he’s not quite rushing to the embassy to get his vaccine. “I think the IOC has said they’ll give vaccines to coaches and athletes. So, I’ll wait for their Pfizer. If not, maybe after the Olympics. It’s not fair for me as a foreigner to come here to India and get a vaccine that should go to an Indian,” he says. Making peace with imperfections has been another pandemic lesson.
Mathias Boe is an Olympic and World Championship silver medallist who made the London Olympics finals, finishing behind Chinese greats Cai Yun – Fu Haifeng. He played in an era of domineering doubles pairs. The left-hander, who played most of his career with Carsten Mogesen, possesses an impressive skill set in dealing with challenging situations that can steer Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Reddy at their first Olympics.
* Boe played 766 matches in his career, winning 543 at 71% – the third highest success rate in doubles amongst men after greats Lee Yong Dae and Hendra Setiawan, according to Badminton Statistics (BaSt).
* He featured in the most season-ending Super Series Finals – nine, the most for any male in one category.
* The 39-year-old won 8 of 12 (@67%) matches with games that went into 20-20 in the year 2011. Badminton Statistics data says Satwik-Chirag have a particularly low conversion (43%) in extra-point games.
* Boe has featured in 130 three-game matches in his career, the most for a men’s doubles player (Ba St).
* Having retired only in April 2020, Boe has a strong playing experience against current players. He and Mogesen more than held their own against the top-ranked pairings of the day.
* While he has worked on Chirag’s low defence technique prior to being appointed as coach, it is tactically that Boe is shaping the Indian duo. He will help add a positional dimension to the Indians’ lethal attack that relies on Satwik’s big booming game.