Vinesh Phogat can win Olympics but needs to avoid lower-leg attacks: Andrew Cook

Nitin Sharma
India women’s national wrestling coach Andrew Cook (blue jacket) watches a bout at the ongoing nationals in Jalandhar, Punjab on Friday. Express

Andrew Cook, the Indian women’s wrestling team's foreign coach, is a busy man at the senior nationals in Jalandhar. The 41-year-old American has to supervise the training and bouts of his charges, including Vinesh Phogat, while keeping an eye on the men's competition. In an exclusive interview with The Indian Express, Cook talks about his initial experience with Indian grapplers, his philosophy of coaching, thoughts on the World Championships and other wrestlers qualifying for 2020 Olympics, and the road map to Tokyo.

When you joined here, were there any differences in terms of wrestlers or coaching apart from the obvious cultural differences you experienced?

When I first came to India, I saw some things which really gelled with my coaching philosophy. It was based on what we call eight rules to wrestle, the rules being position, motion, angle, level change, penetration, drive in left, back step and back arch. In all, that’s your attack and defence and whenever you lose a match, you watch it again to fix one of these eight rules. It simplifies our sport.

This system is not present in India and that makes it hardest for the wrestlers. If we make them understand these points, coaches like me don’t need to be always there. Wrestlers can observe on their own. The movie 'Dangal' was also of a lot of help to understand the culture and the cultural differences. Indians work very hard and if they do two hours of practice, they will spend more time in training. The only problem I faced was squatting in the toilet. I was recovering from a knee surgery and it was the toughest task for me initially (laughs).

Vinesh won the bronze medal at the World Championships apart from booking a quota for 2020 Olympics. How do you rate her performances?

It has been a interesting year for Vinesh. She was having small injuries and I was a bit worried after seeing the kind of draw she had at the World Championships. But she showed what she is capable of. Wrestling-wise, she is one of best, if not the best in the world. It was matter of holding her body together at the world championships and she was able to do that. Vinesh can win the Olympics title but she has to bring more fight. She has to wrestle with heavier hands and avoid lower-leg attacks.

India only secured one quota at the World Championships. How do you see India’s chances in the other weight categories and qualification for Tokyo?

You can call me the most optimistic coach in the world. I see all the other five wrestlers making it to the Olympics. Going into the world championships, I thought 76 Kg will be the toughest. But then the way Kiran Bishnoi fought there showed that she has in it to excel at the world stage. And I have no doubt that she can qualify in that class. Talking of 50 Kg, Seema Bisla has been seeded second in the world and she has done all the hard work and understands what she needs to do. The same goes for Divya and other wrestlers. They have to stick with the game plan but sometimes they have not worked on creating chances to score. It’s more about technical things and creating more situations where we can engineer one take down and finish the match in the first half. Indians think of going for a six-minute war but in USA, we aimed at finishing the match within the first three minutes. If we don’t do it, we give the opponent an opportunity to relax and work on her one or two techniques to make a comeback in the match.

In India, the wrestlers train as a team during the coaching camps and also with their personal coaches. As a foreign coach, how difficult is it for you in preparation for the 2020 Olympics?

I guess that’s normal. In USA too, such things happens. There, we had 10-day camps and wrestlers will come and go for a event. But here, I think I need to be with the group during events. At the training camp, there is hardly any adrenaline and I call it a false world. The real world is competing on the mat in a pressure situations and coaches need to sit in the corner and watch what happens in terms of strategy and mistakes so that we are ready with the adjustments for the next game and competition.

Sometimes they leave me behind. I understand I am the foreign coach and the federation has to send and rotate Indian coaches. This way, it is very difficult to stick to the game plan and it gets nearly impossible if they don't come back to train soon. I am open to personal coaches and we all have to come on board. If I don’t see wrestlers for two months, how can we work on strategies and game plans and get more consistent?

We have seen Indian wrestlers struggling with leg attacks apart from facing difficulty in maintaining the lead against tough opponents? How do you see Indian wrestlers improving on this aspect?

It all starts with leg attacks. We lose position because we are the first to reach out. It’s very common in India and happens in boys too. We have focused hard on breaking this habit of initial reach. Let the opponent reach and open the scoring window. The main scoring window is between elbow and hip and if I open the window with first reach, then it’s very difficult for me to defend. And it makes our leg attack and leg defence weak. Such things take at least four years to install in juniors. Maintaining the lead is another aspect which we need to work upon. Right now, the Indians try to defend the lead. They put their hand up, put their skates on and run. We have to try to stop the opponent in a way which threatens them.

Recently, we have scored wins against countries like Russia and Japan sometimes and I am sure we will improve further and learn from our mistakes. We have to understand that like in USA, where most wrestlers come from folk style of wrestling, most Indian wrestlers come through mud wrestling or akhadas. And we have to make them adjust their game to play on the mat. Akhadas are like the club system in USA and the main strength of Indian wrestling.