“Why are you late? You either come at 4.30 or at 6.30. You can’t come in between.”

Shailaja Gohad broke our conversation to address one of her pupils, who had turned up 10 minutes late for his table tennis coaching batch. Throughout our one-hour chat, she always had one eye on her pupils, and did not hesitate to snap at anyone who was erring.

“Why is there so much noise here? There is no reason to make so much noise!” she yelled, when some of her younger pupils thought her interview with a journalist was a good time to catch up with each other.

Gohad Miss, as she is referred to by her pupils, comes across as a gentle, soft-spoken lady to those who don’t know her or don’t train under her. But her strictness has assumed a legendary status among her pupils.

No one probably knows this better than current national champion Madhurika Patkar, who was one of Gohad’s first ever pupils and has trained with her for over 20 years. “Miss is very strict,” said Patkar, 30, who joined Gohad’s Boosters Academy when she was seven. “Actually, now she is not even 10% as strict as she was when I was a kid,” she added, laughing.

Legendary strictness

Narrating incidents of Gohad’s legendary strictness, Patkar said, “When I was small, I used to watch a lot of TV. Once, when I went for practice, Miss somehow found out and just asked me, ‘Did you watch TV before coming?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She then asked, ‘For how many hours?’ I said, ‘Two.’ She then sent me back home and didn’t allow me to play. Once, I forgot to carry my socks to the academy. Again, she sent me back home.”

Apart from punctuality, discipline and dedication also rank high on the list of qualities Gohad Miss expects in each of her pupils. If you don’t fall in line, expect a tongue lashing. This might give the impression that Gohad is an unreasonable, over-bearing authoritarian coach. But the truth is far from it, according to her pupils. Patkar said that it is because of Gohad’s strictness that she has reached the level where she is. “Miss is very strict and everyone is scared of her, but she is very caring too,” said Patkar. “She is emotionally attached to each and every player of hers.”

Current national champion Madhurika Patkar is one of Shailaja Gohad's star pupils (IANS)
Current national champion Madhurika Patkar is one of Shailaja Gohad's star pupils (IANS)

Gohad, 50, has been coaching table tennis for the last 25 years, which is half her life. She has coached thousands of students, including Patkar and Pooja Sahasrabudhe, who won two gold medals at the 2016 South Asian Games. Both Patkar and Sahasrabudhe are currently plying their trade in the newly launched Ultimate Table Tennis franchise-based league.

Gohad is no former national champion herself. She started playing when she was in Grade 6 and then gave up the sport after getting married. She graduated with an MSc in Textiles and even taught the subject at the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai, before a family friend reignited her passion in the game.

“A family friend came and asked me if I will play with her,” Gohad said. “I had not picked up a racket in years, but once I started playing again, I could not stop. I gave up my job and decided to open an academy. Thankfully, my family was extremely supportive of my decision.”

Since then, Gohad has not looked back. After starting with only three tables at a school in the city of Thane in 1995, Gohad’s Boosters Academy now has an air-conditioned hall with 10 tables, not affiliated with any school or institution.

The Boosters Academy is located in a tiny alley next to a school in Thane. It is not even listed on Google Maps. A solitary signboard in the alley directs you towards the academy, and the approach road is flanked by a horse stable and a scrap yard. But once you find it and enter the hall, you can’t help but be impressed with the facilities.

The signboard leading to the Boosters Academy (Image: Jaideep Vaidya)
The signboard leading to the Boosters Academy (Image: Jaideep Vaidya)

“This is probably the only air-conditioned table tennis academy in India, definitely in Maharashtra,” Gohad said, proudly. “And I haven’t received any funds from any outside authority,” she added. Gohad runs multiple batches – basic, pre-advanced and advanced. She admits students as young as four years old and even coaches adults.

While she has other trainers – her own senior pupils – to assist her, she is there every single day. Her day begins at 6 am and ends around midnight. Her students say they are sure she even dreams about table tennis.

Gohad hasn’t taken a single vacation ever since she started coaching, she said. “How can I? Throughout the year, we are either training or travelling for tournaments. During the summer break, we organise camps. My students make the sacrifice and don’t go for vacations, so I definitely have no right to take a break.”

From just three tables to 10, the Boosters Academy has grown a lot in the last 22 years (Image: Jaideep Vaidya)
From just three tables to 10, the Boosters Academy has grown a lot in the last 22 years (Image: Jaideep Vaidya)

Gohad does not allow the parents of her pupils to interfere in her coaching. Nor does she allow her pupils to be influenced by the millions of table tennis videos available on the internet. “I can make out if the kids have seen something on YouTube and are trying to employ it here at the academy,” she said. “And there is nothing wrong in that. Rather than telling them not to watch YouTube videos, I ask them to watch the right videos. If you tell kids not to do something, they are definitely going to do it. So you rather direct them to the right thing.”

Academics as important as playing

Apart from table tennis coaching, Gohad ensures her pupils don’t fall behind in their academics as well. “I have told all my students that they need to get a minimum of 70% in their exams if they want to play here,” she said. At times, Gohad herself tutors her pupils when travelling for tournaments. “Academics are as important as becoming a good player,” she said. “I don’t allow any compromises on that. If need be, I myself take their studies, especially if we are travelling for tournaments close to examinations.”

She even conducts her own tests. “Three or four years ago, Miss had actually conducted tests of her students on her own because parents were complaining that their kids were not studying,” said Patkar. “So, she decided to take weekly or monthly tests of her students.”

Table tennis is still far behind sports such as cricket, football, tennis and badminton in India. However, the scene is changing, according to Gohad. Ultimate Table Tennis has the potential to revolutionise the sport, she said. Government support is also there, but if anything must change, it is society’s perception of sports, she added.

“In our country, sports is not given priority even today,” Gohad said. “I once had a student who had played the nationals and had a bright future in the game. However, once she graduated, her parents forced her to take up a job and quit playing the sport. When things like this happen, you can’t say the government is not supporting the sport. The government is supporting sport, but it’s our society which needs to change.”