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Sportstar Podcast: Massimo Costantini 3.0 – India’s national table tennis coach lays out his Paris 2024 plan, dealing with superstars and more

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Massimo Costantini’s return for a third stint as the India head coach augurs well for the national table tennis team. It was without a permanent head coach for five years but got the veteran Italian on board just in time for its maiden stint in team events at the Olympic Games.

The Italian speaks to Amol Karhadkar about his return to Indian table tennis, his immediate to-do list and his plans for the future in this week’s episode of the Sportstar Podcast.

Here’s the full transcript:

Amol: Hello and welcome to a special episode of Sportstar Podcast. I have with me the man Friday for Indian table tennis.

Sharath Kamal may have been around for almost two decades now but Massimo Costantini will complete a decade and a half and he has come back to India as the head coach of India’s table tennis team for his third stint. Welcome back to India, Max.

Costantini: Thank you, thank you very much. Thank you for this nice welcome. Yes, third time. It looks that I’m quite stubborn and yes, I’m stubborn on making results. Absolutely true.

Listen to the full podcast here:

Amol: It’s not that he will be third time lucky. Indian table tennis, in so many ways, is lucky to have him around for the third time but, Max, how do you see this stint as compared to where you stopped in 2018? You actually had the option to stay on. You chose not to. Indian TT was on a high back then.

At the Asian Games, India had acquired two medals for the first time. Cut to now, almost all the same individuals, when it comes to the core of players, but too much seems to have changed, right?

Costantini: Dramatically, dramatically. From 2018, there was some unexpected circumstances at that time but on the other hand, I’ve been working with ITTF for more than five years and I was always involved somehow with the training camp, mentorship programs, advising players, coaches including India, of course. I never lost contact with the top Indian players. The relationships went beyond 2018, from that great performance, feeling chemistry that we had at that time.

That was some sort of thing that continued during my absence. But yes, in the meantime, it changed a lot of things. The system of playing, the circuit, the professional way that now with WTT got into the ITTF.

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So, I needed to learn something. I needed to learn many things from rules and regulations but also on the other hand, I also needed to note that players also have changed. They have changed their feeling, perspective, the way they work and plan their own activities.

There is a lot of work to do. I’m not saying to go back to the old system but my goal is to be next to China, Japan, Korea. My model is [to emulate] China, Japan, Korea and their system to manage the team in a very, very successful way and we have seen in the past years.

I have ideas. I will discuss internally with TTFI and the players. Some of them have personal coaches. This is a new figure in the panorama of the daily work. It will also be different in these aspects. It is too early to say something and we have Olympics around the corner.

Amol: We’ll come to Olympics but you mentioned about getting India closer to the stature of the other three Asian powerhouses. How do you actually make it happen considering you know that how Indian table tennis has been coping with too many external factors in the recent past? How do you actually make it happen as a system?

Costantini: I don’t know. I’m not completely involved but probably, the reason is that missing the head coach, the one that can supervise, guide, plan, organize, stay behind, protect and help the players, coaches and their academies.

It’s something that creates some sort of actual situation. So, nobody’s fault. It’s just a fact. I’m trying to see what kind of work we can do together because we have an important commitment from now on.

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Individual commitment, team’s commitment. But I’m confident that I can restore that strong and good collaboration with the structure, with TTFI, with SAI, of course and TOPS that’s also another part of the important support for the players and the coaches themselves. So a lot of work to do, but I’m very motivated to take this big task.

Amol: Max, when it comes to Olympics, can you just give a sense to ordinary Indian table tennis fans or for that matter, sports fans, the importance of qualifying for the Olympics as a team for both the genders and the expectations that the fans should have in Paris?

Costantini: Well, I would say that India already got very good results by qualifying both teams. And this is something that India should be proud of. Making top 16 for Olympics, it’s not easy. They made through a very particular mechanism – a mix of individual results and team results that made both teams in the 16th position. So, this is already a big result.

We should not take anything for granted. And without these results, maybe today we don’t have two players guaranteed for the singles and we don’t have the third player also competing for the team. So, let’s start from the good things that we already have which is the qualification.

As I used to say, you need to get used to winning at a certain level. India is appearing in the team event for the first titme. Now, whatever will come, we have to welcome positively.

There are 16 teams, single elimination knockout system. And if we win the first match, we get in top eight which will be another achievement. If we lose, we are there anyway with the history that India played the Olympic games.

So, we need to create that habit to be there. I would like to see India in the teams every four years and not just once in a while. This should be something that happens constantly and consistently. And then from there, starting to think better and how to prepare better.

It all depends on the ranking how they will do the seeding. We are talking about the middle of the third week of July, I believe. And in the meantime, we have to try to improve and increase the individual world ranking.

That’s why I have asked for three competitions back-to-back – Nigeria, Tunisia and Thailand. And it is a test for me, first of all, to see them and to coach them directly after six years. We need to restore a certain communication. I would take this step by step because you cannot predict anything in advance. You could not predict that Sharath did super well in Singapore Smash and similarly, when Manika also did super well in the Saudi Smash.

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Table tennis is so unpredictable that the only thing predictable is the good preparation we can have. A good mindset for the players, for the entire team, and whoever is involved in this process for the next two months.

Amol: You mentioned Sharath. Beyond Sharath, let’s talk about the six individuals who have been selected. I know you have had no role to play in the selection but what do you think has helped Sharath reinvent himself and Manika actually to keep consistently going a notch higher with every passing year?

Costantini: Well, they have their own inner motivation, definitely. Sharath was definitely super motivated to do well. And this is something that I can count. I can count when it needs.

I used to say that if you have done once, you can do thousands. We should not think that that came from heaven. It all depends on the players and the level of the motivation.

Yes, sometimes, also the combination of the opponents. Manika got very good results against Wang Manyu she lost to the same player the previous week. Table tennis is like this.

We have to accept how it is and the ups and downs that we have to face time to time. What we have to do really is to face each and every event with proper awareness. We are ready. We have done what was necessary to do and we are ready to compete. I am ready to lose, but I also am ready to win. That is the best mindset that the player can have. No pressure to lose, no pressure to win.

Amol: Max, in the last five-and-a-half years in Indian table tennis, who has actually surprised you the most in a positive way among the players that you were watching so closely? Some of them were at developmental stage when you last were here. Who has been the sweetest surprise as such?

Costantini: Well, not actually a big surprise. If we see, Manika slowly, slowly went up and then just a few weeks back, had this good spark. Sreeja is also doing really good. Overall, all players did quite well. Now, not because I’m here, of course, but I’m wondering if we have a better plan, organization, focus, guidance, whatever, and I’m trying to provide them all these kinds of things. I think, a bigger surprise will come in the future.

I see good improvement from Manav (Thakkar). Also, good performance up and down with Harmeet (Desai). Sathiyan also did well in the very last Feeder, winning the title.

Ayhika (Mukherjee) also beat the number one. Okay, there is the point of playing style that is an asset for India and everyone is afraid of playing against India. I take what we have positively but I think big surprises will come in future.

Amol: Not really a disappointment as such but any concern with a particular player, someone who has actually not performed to your expectations or has stagnated over the last five years?

Costantini: Well, I cannot say that it was under my expectation. I was outside. I was watching like a fan more than like a coach. So, I was a little upset when someone lost to some weak players and I was very happy to cheer for India every time. I was in a situation where I was a little distant but as a fan, we have to accept.

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If we want to support players, we have to accept the moment of difficulties and we have to be happy in the moment of positive results. A good fan normally tries to act like this – easy to criticize when this guy is not getting results – but we are human. We have to understand. We have to help in the moment of difficulties, lack of confidence, investigate why, get him back and become stronger and resilient. It’s easy to label results good or bad, but then you need to analyse what’s coming. As a fan, I support and trust players anyway.

Amol: One last bit before I come back to the systemic issues. You don’t have anything to do with the Olympic selections but now, you have to look after every player who is involved in the system, particularly with regard to Sathiyan. Have you had a discussion with him?

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Costantini: We will have a training camp in the beginning of June for the preparation of Sathiyan and Ayhika, the alternate players. I have to prepare them like I prepare the others. I have to prepare doubles like the others because, until the day of starting, anything can happen. Alternate players are there as a new rule in the case of a player getting injured. We, as an organisation and as a team like India, cannot improvise. We cannot go with three; if one gets injured, then we can play with the other two, no. This is not professional. I will prepare all the players in the same way. I would consider Sathiyan and Ayhika as part of the team and I hope they will contribute actively because it doesn’t end with the Olympics. It may go ahead and we will have many opportunities. I’m already thinking (about) 2028. My goal is definitely not Paris, but it is the goal of many players, fans, and organisations. I have to have a better, bigger picture of this. I should not stop for small details.

Amol: Max, like you also said, India has been without a head coach for more than five years now. Finally, you are here again. How do you ensure that someone like Mamta (Prabhu) and Subhajit (Saha) who were actually taking care of the team for more than the last few months, will be involved? How do you keep them involved—not just them, but the whole coaching setup? What is the need of the hour to ensure that coaches are involved, rewarded, and developed?

Costantini: The secret is simple: knowledge, personality, and communication skills. I want to see them in action, performing these three simple things, and see where they lack and try to provide them with proper guidance. It is one of my jobs, this time, in India – to also improve coaches at any level. This is very interesting work.

For the players, (we) need to analyse their strengths and weaknesses; where can I use their strengths to make them better, and where can I see their weaknesses and discard them? I will ask them to have an open mind and think about table tennis as per the latest methodologies, the system of training, and tactics. A lot of things changed in the last six years, and I studied a lot. This is the thing that I want to see from them.

They have been there for the last few years, after the COVID, and I see potential anywhere, but I have to check these three things: knowledge, personality, and communication skills.

Amol: Based on your previous experiences, what is the key to ensuring that the same set of coaches are nurtured in the Indian system? Because nobody has assured rewards or assured contracts. Everyone does it as and when required, which doesn’t really help the system, right?

Costantini: I am confident because this time, we have good support and cooperation from SAI as it is also one of their objectives to have a stronger and more effective group of coaches in any squad. They clearly asked me to take care of this. I will definitely try to have with me, a limited number of Indian professional coaches. Now, we are working to see what is best, based in Bangalore. They can stay with me all the time, we can work every day, I can test every day, and then send them to some competition and see what we can do. We are working. I’ve been here for one week, and so many things have been coming. For whatever time I am here in India—two years, four years—I would like to leave an even stronger legacy for the coaches.

Amol: The other bit is about domestic circuits. You had proposed the ranking system during your last stint, and now it has been partially implemented; there is some improvement from what it was. Do you see room to improve it (the national rankings) further?

Costantini: Strength in domestic competition is something that should be there. Eventually, we need an open confrontation from the players. Every country has this. Even China has its selections through internal or national championships. We have to give more importance to domestics. I would like to see, for example, once a year, some sort of top 12 or top 16 (players) competing amongst them and having more matches to play. I have some ideas; this is one of them. We need them to have a better confrontation because it’s from the inside (domestics) that you can aspire for international (success). It is never the other way around. It’s not that first comes international and then domestic. Domestic (table tennis) is a springboard not only to be selected but also to aspire for something.

Amol: Max, do you think it is time that India starts taking the doubles (table tennis category) more seriously? It started happening in the last couple of years. But do you think specialized training for doubles is the need of the hour, considering there are more opportunities to excel, even in the international arena?

Costantini: Doubles are now part of professional circles. They have prize money. You can get qualified for the finals of WTT. This is a part that can definitely be increased and improved. Now, we have to see the kinds of possibilities (we have). We have many players with different playing styles and already established combinations.

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We have to work with the doubles. I’m not saying, like individuals but having particular attention on mixed doubles which can also give the Olympics medals, without forgetting the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. As a national team, whatever doubles (we) are involved in, I think I have to put attention on those and prepare well.

Amol: You said that you had unfinished business. Can you just give us a summary of your wish list or your targets?

Costantini: Well, that’s very simple. In the first tenure, there were good results at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, in the second Commonwealth Games, and the Asian Games while in the third, you have the answer.

Amol: Fair enough. In the first stint, Indian table tennis was in a sort of nascent stage. In your second stint, Indian table tennis actually arrived on the big stage. Now, do you think, for the first time, you will have to deal with inflated egos? How do you plan to ensure that the priority remains the same for everyone?

Costantini: The plan is simple: to strengthen the team first of all, the structure of the team, while also keeping in mind the individual needs. I don’t want to cut this because it’s not possible to cut it but I want to help them to get better guidance.

Now, if I see other countries, they all have personal coaches and sometimes, also personal staff but they are a part of the national team. When you see China’s Wang Manyu, Sun Yingsha and Wang Yidi, there is the head coach sitting because the head coach has the responsibility. He is accountable for results, not the personal coach who is at the back. But the head coach, maybe, should take the lead. It’s a slow process.

So, in this way, we can create a stronger team and not be divided – one going east, one going west, north, and south and then having the team a little bit anywhere. We need a common goal. Now we have players at, I would say, almost the same level. On a Chinese or Japanese team, you don’t see random players going alone in one competition with their own coaches. (Players) should be a part of the program to strengthen the teams, maybe to increase the number of probables in the national team, or maybe to create different tiers of a team—the main team and the second team. But then, when we go to the competition, the group is united, where each and everyone helps the other team members. We have to strengthen the team, and I think it’s possible to achieve that.

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