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How a grassroots coach is shaping shooting stars

By, Mumbai
Oct 21, 2022 11:26 AM IST

Back then, no one, not even Kusale, could have guessed that those observation skills and the ability to pick up the nuances of the sport would one day make Patil the only grassroots coach in the country who can boast of giving India two senior world champions, one junior world champion, an Asian Games gold medallist and multiple internationals.

As a young man, Ajit Patil , now 49, aspired to be a cricketer and spent most of his time training . His only connection with the sport of shooting was that he was the nephew of Kolhapur’s Jaisingh Kusale, a renowned shooter and vice president of National Rifle Association of India , and knew how to hold a gun and fire.

How a grassroots coach is shaping shooting stars PREMIUM
How a grassroots coach is shaping shooting stars

All that changed in 1995 when Kusale asked the then 22-year-old to assist him in coaching shooters. Patil’s main job at that point was to act as a messenger who would relay instructions to the shooters, observe their training sessions and then go back to Kusale to discuss his findings and plan ahead.

Back then, no one, not even Kusale, could have guessed that those observation skills and the ability to pick up the nuances of the sport would one day make Patil the only grassroots coach in the country who can boast of giving India two senior world champions, one junior world champion, an Asian Games gold medallist and multiple internationals.

Patil’s latest product, the 18-year-old Rudrankksh Patil, clinched the 10m Air Rifle gold at the ISSF World Shooting Championships in Cairo last week to become the country’s second 10m Air Rifle world champion.

The first was Abhinav Bindra.

The triumph was especially sweet for the coach who took a big gamble when he quit his government job and moved to Thane to focus on coaching Rudrankksh Patil.

“The job, which I got after a prolonged legal battle, had finally given me financial stability. But it was not giving me enough time to coach, which has now become my overpowering passion. So, I quit the job and decided to work full-time with Rudrankksh. Now, my decision feels vindicated,” said Patil, who was in Kolhapur visiting with family when his pupil won the gold in Cairo.

But the journey from being Kusale’s assistant to becoming a sought-after coach was hardly straightforward.

Kusale managed to get Patil a contractual job as a clerk in the newly launched Krida Prabodhini (sports academy) scheme in 1999 ; he himself was appointed Principal of the Kolhapur centre. But his demise a year later meant that Patil began to double up as a coach to the boys selected from underprivileged backgrounds after office hours and began honing their skills at the Dudhali Shooting Range, which was nothing more than a tin shed with eight manual shooting lanes.

Patil scoured through Kusale’s collection of books on shooting to improve his technical knowledge while also observing other renowned coaches when he travelled to tournaments with his students. His focus, while coaching, was to emphasize the basics and help students believe in themselves.

“I was nobody then. It was Navnath Fartade’s junior world championships gold in 2006 that suddenly cast the spotlight on the Kolhapur centre and I was officially appointed the coach with a monthly remuneration of 6000,” said Patil, reminiscing about his coaching journey.

To supplement that income, Patil’s wife and mother started a bakery which did well for a few years. During that time, he managed to focus on the Krida Prabodhini trainees and produced almost a dozen internationals including Fulchand Bangar, Sandeep Tarte, and Radhika Barale . Even the 2017 world champion in prone, Tejaswini Sawant, and pistol shooter Rahi Sarnobat learned the basics of shooting at the Dudhali Range.

But the bakery shut down a few years later and Patil took up a permanent job with the state government in 2016 following a successful legal battle by the contractual administrative staff of Krida Prabodhini. He was first moved to Satara and though he came back to Kolhapur within a year, coaching had to take a back seat .

As luck would have it, Rudrankksh Patil was part of the preparatory camp for the School Nationals in 2016 and approached Patil for individual sessions soon after.

“I used to visit Thane for weeklong sessions from 2017 but moved permanently at the end of 2019 to focus on Rudrankksh,” said Patil, who has now also got a few young shooters from Kolhapur to stay with him in Thane and train at a school in Kopri, where they have built an 8-lane range with two personal electronic targets and six manual ones .

Rudrankksh Patil calls the coach his human diary – Patil travels with him for even his physical training and mental training sessions, keeps meticulous notes of every aspect of his game and life, and also doubles up as his mentor and guide. The bond between them is so strong that the shooter’s parents even took care of all of the coach’s expenses during the nationwide lockdown during the Covid Pandemic.

“The most important point is that sir is very keen on learning new things and also encourages me to learn from different coaches,” said Rudrankksh Patil.

The duo learned a lot from Bindra’s German coach Heinz Reinkemeier about gun setting and other technical adjustments when they last visited him in March 2021. They, along with another shooter Gaurav Desale, are scheduled to train with the German coach for 10 days again this month before heading for another competition.

Patil, who has never taken an official coaching course, says he is also indebted to American coach David Lyman, whom Kusale convinced to conduct a camp soon after the launch of the Krida Prabodhini, from whom he learned how to create a detailed training program.

Deepali Deshpande, Olympian, former high performance coach of the India senior team who now works individually with shooters including Anjum Moudgil and Shriyanka Sadangi, believes that the manner in which Patil builds the foundational skills of his students is interesting.

“Ajit Patil may not have been a shooter,” said Deshpande. “But he has been coaching for a long time now and he is very good at teaching the basics to his students. Shooting is a skills game and once the basics are sorted, then shooters can be on their own for most of the time.

Deshpande added: “I think his biggest strength is the bond of trust he can build with his students as they know he will do his best for them. He will also be the first to tell them that they need to go to another coach to learn certain things.”

Ask him about his coaching philosophy and Patil insists that apart from the technical aspects, the belief in one’s ability, focus, and unfettered dedication to the sport are the most important qualities for a shooter.

“Our range is Kolhapur was just a tin shed. Even here (in Thane), we don’t have a world-class range. But I try to impress upon my students that it’s not the infrastructure but their own ability that matters in competition,” Patil said while pointing out that Fartade won the junior world title with a borrowed gun back in 2006.

Patil is quick to acknowledge that there are many more technically sound coaches in the world than him and adds that travelling with Rudrankksh has allowed him to pick their brains .

“There is a lot to learn from these foreign coaches about the technical adjustments that can be made by shooters to customise things according to their body structure and rhythm of shooting. When I was coaching at Krida Prabodhini, we could not afford to do any such experiments, but now I am learning all these things and hopefully can pass them on to those beginning their shooting career,” he added.

The writer has been a sports journalist for over 20 overs

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