Interview of Shyamal Vallabhjee - Trainer of Sania, Bhupathi and Bopanna
Shayamal Vallabhjee majored with honors in Exercise Science and Sports Science and in considered amongst South Africa’s finest strength and mental trainers. He spent 2 years (2006-2008) as the strength and conditioning coach for the South African Davis Cup Team. Now the exercise specialist for the Indian Davis Cup Team, Shyamal works exclusively with Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Qureshi on the ATP and WTA Tour. We caught up with him while he was in Mumbai doing some off-season training with Sania and Mahesh to chat about all things tennis.
Question – You started off with South African cricket and now you are part of the Indian tennis scene. Can you tell us about your journey from South African cricket to Indian tennis?
Shayamal Vallabhjee(SV) – You know it all happened pretty much by chance. I used to be with the South African cricket team, working in that structure. It just so happened by chance that the South African Davis Cup team needed somebody and they heard about me through, I don’t know, whatever channel and they contacted me. So I was with the South African Davis Cup team for 2 years. That’s when Mahesh and others approached me. And that’s how I got involved. I first joined Mahesh alone, solo, back in 2007 and in 2008, I was with the Indian Davis Cup team. And its just been that journey ever since.
Q- Are you more passionate about cricket or tennis?
SV-I grew up playing cricket, you know. I’ve played for my state, and I’ve played for South African schools. So I definitely love the game of cricket without a doubt. Having said that, tennis has grown a lot on me a lot in the last four years and being around the boys. At this point in time, I would say I care more about tennis purely because I have a vested interest in the boys and following it and I’m wishing the best for them. I’ve been out of cricket for almost 5 years now. As much as I love the game, in terms of passion, its definitely with tennis and these boys.
Q – Indians typically don’t tend to be physically as strong as their European and American counterparts. Do you think they have to work that much harder to succeed in international sports stage?
SV-Coming from South Africa, they have always been a nation that has not been supremely talented but has been extremely hard working. We pride ourselves on the back. We pride ourselves for putting everything on the line, training extremely hard, we train in a unit and only the strongest survive. It’s an ingrained culture. It started in our school structure. If you take any school team from u-13 or u-14, you find they all are built really really tough. It’s a lot like animals in the wild, only the strongest survive. Its that sort of mentality. Because we don’t really have a lot of funding in terms of science and research for sports. We don’t really have a lot of backing in terms of sponsors. Our only real asset is our fitness and our determination and guts.
Whereas having spent the last 5 years in the Indian context, it is completely vice versa. You have an abundance of sponsorship, you have an abundance of talent. The only real stumbling block in terms of Indian sports is, without a doubt, physical stamina and fitness. I think it’s an ingrained culture from a very very early age. Its an Indian sort of thing where when the kids are really young, you don’t really want to push them. You don’t really want them to be physically active and that somehow goes through the ranks.
I think it all starts with a mind shift change of pushing our kids early on into fitness. Kind of by rewarding them. Everybody wants to play a sport. Everybody wants to hit a ball. What we do is we create a reward structure. If you do your fitness, only then you’re allowed to play. If you don’t do enough fitness, you are not allowed to hit. What you find in India, they tend to super-compensate in the sense that we hit for three hours so we don’t really need to do fitness. But its a completely different stamina thing. Its a completely different way to train and its actually not contributing to your fitness at a level that it should.
Q – Do you see that changing in the last few years that you have been here?
SV-Yes, I definitely see it changing but extremely minutely. We still need to bring in a lot more science and technology. We still need to bring in a lot more structure into our schools. I think your sports ministers decision to incorporate sports as part of the school curriculum is a brilliant decision. But you will see the fruits of that decision only after 15 to 20 years because that’s when the new crop will come through. Up until then, what is our makeshift? What are we doing to do now? I think fitness needs to be part of the selection criteria.
Unfortunately, that is very difficult. You are a cricketing nation. A nation where some of the cricketers are not very fit. You look at your best cricketers in the world Yuvraj Singh, Dhoni they may be strong but in terms of physical fitness tests, that any other athlete would pass, will they pass it? That is the question – and if they don’t, what are the repercussions. Are we prepared to drop them from the squad. It’s about setting a precedent. Only once we set a precedent I honestly believe that a nation can actually change.
Q – Sania has had a few surgeries before. How difficult is it for someone like her to come back to peak physical fitness after the knee surgery that she underwent?
SV-Sania is suffering from a few niggles. Obviously, she had a shoulder injury and now, she’s had a few knee surgeries. It’s definitely very difficult. Especially at this stage in her career with the surgery being just a few weeks ago , we’re at a crossroads. Do we push her in terms of physically, do we maintain her health, do we get her ready to be on court. So we are actually at a crossroads. We’re kind of managing. We’re pushing within the limits that we can but we wouldn’t really train her or push her like I would do for any other athlete.
Q – What are your thoughts on Mahesh and Rohan coming together to play doubles in 2012?
SV-India are fortunate enough to have 3 great players in the top 10. Leander and Mahesh have obviously shown what they can do. Rohan has come up from behind and actually established well in the ATP rankings. He’s definitely a force to be reckoned with and now he is a name that everyone is familiar with across India and across the world in terms of the tennis scene.
Their partnership is definitely be an interesting one. I definitely think they complement each other. Mahesh is very solid, he makes his returns and is good with the volleys.
Rohan is a power player so he can drive through deep. Its just about finding the right tactic, finding the right play. The question is they are both ad-court players so who is going to play the deuce is the big question. We’re training both of them. So we’re are going to find out what the best combination is going forward. But I think that will probably be our greatest challenge, who plays what side. Besides that, I think they have more than enough experience and more than enough friendship off court with regards to gelling on court to take the partnership forward.
Q – Tell us something about your new book – ‘Lessons from the Wild’.
SV-’Lessons from the Wild’ is a motivational book that I profiled. What I tried to do is take lessons from sport like team work, persistence and courage and I tried to find out a different way to bring out that lesson. So I decided to take wild animals, inconspicuous animals from the wild, look at their migratory patterns, their habitual patterns. Look at things they do that are completely unique, this kind off best exemplify these patterns.
Its a motivational book with many stories that best highlight everything. Stories of love, stories of teamwork. For example, I used the story of the snow geese as an example of teamwork. According to which, there is a small medium sized bird that lives in the top of Mexico and breeds in the Arctic circle which is 3000 miles away. And the only way they can make that journey is if a flock of 5 million birds fly together because with the wings flapping together, that makes them 70% lighter as a pack.
So its that sort of stories that I used to bring out the lessons. That lesson is teamwork and how important it is to work as a team. There are similar kind of stories on everything. I have stories on the dolphins, the penguins and the lions as well.
Q – Did you spend a lot of time in the wild doing research on the book?
SV-Yes I did. Obviously coming from South Africa, we’re very close to nature. We do a lot of safaris, study a lot about animals. I’ve always been someone who is close to animals. I’ve always enjoyed reading it, watching it, going out on safaris a lot. And the more I read about it, I think, that it’s a good way to bring in awareness to everyone. It is a good way to bring out these lessons.
At the end of the day, everybody knows persistence, everyone knows determination. But the thing is that I needed to find a story that can ingrain that message into someone’s head. Even if they don’t remember persistence or determination, if they remember the story, they’re more likely to remember the lesson.
Q – Whats next on the agenda for you?
SV-Next on the agenda… I don’t know. I’m trying to stay in India and trying a lot to establish myself now. I’m trying not to spend too much time on the road but establish myself in India in the market. I do a lot of work in emotional intelligence and training athletes and training businessmen on that front there. My writing is picking up so I wish to do that.
I think India is at the right time now where I feel I can make a difference in terms of sport – not just to your top tennis players but across the nation in terms of getting programs in at the grassroots level. So that’s my next goal is to write programs and associate with the right people .
Q – Some basic tips for the club level tennis player to improve their fitness.
SV-Short sharp shuttles are very important. Doing agility drills are very important. Keep the body supple, keep it strong. Legs are extremely important in tennis so do your lunges, do your squats. Keep your back flexible because you going to be needing to bend a lot. And if you want to take your tennis to another level, then I would suggest including some hand-eye coordination drills.