What does luck have to do with it? It was the question PV Sindhu and her strength and conditioning coach Srikanth Varma pondered when they were determined to turn the badminton star into a performance juggernaut.
“I never enjoy anything in life. I don’t think I’ll make it to the Olympics in France,” Varma says stoically, explaining how even his dreams revolve around keeping the 27-year-old fit and fighting through to Paris, her third Games. “Sometimes after she wins a title, I tell her ‘Enjoy 2-3 days,'” he says, because happiness is on every doctor’s prescription for success. She’ll say, ‘No, it’s okay. I’m just happy.’ And come to training the next day,” he explains of someone he calls a God-gifted athlete, who still puts in an insane work rate to respect that genetic advantage.
The duo are working towards a particularly busy month, which will see them peak three times – winning the Singapore Open, the Commonwealth Games in the next two weeks and then a brief turnaround to the World Championships.
Sindhu’s results have been up and down since winning the 2019 world title, and the Olympic bronze, a disappointment to the world-class athlete, has clearly sparked a thirst for Paris’ gold. “Age (27) is just a number. As Sindhu is, she can even play up to 40 – if she wants to.”
Varma’s job—his obsession, even a research project—was to make sure lethal things like injury don’t get in the way of Sindhu’s pursuit of greatness. All of her peers – Carolina Marin, Nozomi Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi and Chen Yufei – have long been out of action due to injury, but the Indian remains a persistent contender.
“Even foreign experts ask me how we keep her injury free. But it’s a secret,” he says.
Broken arrow, shooting gun
Varma regrets his own stupid career in the sport – he ran 800 meters and was never given good advice to understand why he faded in the last 30-40 meters and why his injuries spelled a definitive end to his dreams. “The failure I faced broke me down. I decided that I would become the best strength and conditioning coach in the world and switched to sports education,” he says. Varma is proud to be able to observe an athlete for just a few minutes and figuring out which smallest muscle needs to be strengthened.
He came from a poor family and believes he has wasted eight precious years of his life on mediocrity solely for lack of scientific guidance. It got him digging — and wide, as he spoke at length with shot put coaches, leading a Vizag thrower to the national podium. “Usually only North Indians won. But I kept working on ways to improve the strength of athletes on the South side,” he says.
He would travel to Spain, learn strength techniques at tennis academies, work with Indian boxers, tennis players and the Andhra Ranji Trophy team to build a decade of experience solely in improving strength and diligently preventing injury.
He was in Russia with Praveen Raju of Suchitra Academy when he was invited to work with Sindhu – auditioning for a month for the 2017 World Championships. He was apprehensive of working with an established Olympic medalist but had great confidence in his own techniques . “I was scared because I was just a low-level trainer. I didn’t know if she would listen to me. But she never questioned me.”
Varma had met many parents who had grieved him because their daughters had built up muscle mass and asked ridiculous questions, such as whether their height would be hindered if Samson’s upper body grew. ‘Sindhu never asked me why her shoulders became voluminous. In fact, I would tell her after starting a new strength training workout that she will suffer for two days, but it will be worth it.”
Three weeks before the All England, he put Sindhu into an off-season regime of intense strain to keep her full for the long season with big events ahead. Until this Friday, before leaving for the Commonwealth Games on Sunday, Varma Sindhu had worked to narcotic exhaustion. “I asked her if she wanted a break after the Singapore Open. She said no.”
Varma’s first adaptation to Sindhu was her footwork and stride. “We have identified a mechanism to reach every corner of the court. Worked different muscles to dominate everywhere.” He would watch every game from 2017-19 to hyperfocus on the smallest muscle groups. To teach the tall woman with long legs to unlearn and relearn the low lunge and then the high throw took many resistance band variations. Her hips, glutes and ankle were trained in mobility to move in any direction in the blink of an eye.
It is daily questionnaires on delayed muscle soreness (Doms) – how painful one feels from a session – the same question every day that has helped Varma understand Sindhu’s training thresholds. “I wish I had answers to why my muscles ached when I failed as an athlete,” he says, delighted to be the one to see a top athlete shine along the sun’s edge.
“She was always the toughest, strongest athlete I know. I just added explosive power and my recovery protocols ensured she was never injured from overuse,” he says, emphasizing that they are not YouTube or Google copies of workouts, but a custom blast of her specific muscles during the training to help them explode into competition. On peak days, she runs 12k. “I tell her ‘if you stick with it and try your best, you’ll keep it up in the tournament.'” Varma’s recovery protocols include water immersion, tire stretches, warm water, jacuzzi, air compression therapies, trigger points, underwater walking, ice baths and sleep. “But it’s her natural hormones. She’s built to be a great athlete,” he says. His job is to keep the momentum going. Tireless.
No wonder he looks up to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for their ruthlessness. “For the first 2-3 years Sindhu was confused about ‘why he makes me work so hard’. But I had her father’s permission to push hard. However, she never complained. And now I ask her to work for two hours , she will do four hours.” Her mental maturity has improved and she can even track her own recovery if he gives her a point-by-point schedule.
Oddly enough, it’s not the long matches that pose a challenge for Sindhu, whose recovery game is top-notch. “Energy retention isn’t a problem for her body, even in long tournaments like the CWG. We are in the process of closing close matches and what she has to do there. Coach Park (Tae Sang) will have a list and order that this and this is not working and needs improvement. However, my job is to actually make it happen,” he says. Even Juggernauts – who are looking for CWG gold and then the Worlds – need their jugglers preparing for the joust.