Image Credits: Fisto staff
Whenever everyone talks about Indian athletics, they tend to refer to the talent coming through the ranks. What people seem to ignore is it provides a rich production lien of coaching talent too.
Mohamed Azarudeen is one of those less heralded names, who is coach to a growing crew of rising young stars, particularly in the field of middle and long-distance running, making biggest impression right now too.
The first thing you notice about Mohamed Azarudeen, the India’s young athletics coach is that, despite his age, he does not try to project himself as a man beyond his years.
At the age of 25, he became youngest in India to achieve the ‘IAAF Level 2 Coach’ and travelled to Jakarta to complete his ‘IAAF Level 1 Lecturer’ earlier this year.
The Nilgris based coach used to be a talented 800m-runner himself, but unwittingly, his career was cut short by injury before he could turn into elite.
To get an idea of what he is like as a coach, one has to go back to his days where the seeds were sown.
“It has been a long journey from where I started to where I am today. I still remember the very early school days (Mountain Home School & Junior College, Coonoor) where I used to take longer to prepare for a run than physically running. But I have had help; in the beginning my school coach Jayachandran encouraged me mentally to take up the sport. I still remember that we personally requested him to coach our school athletics team,” Azarudeen recounted, in an exclusive interaction with Fisto Sports.
Growing up in Coonoor, on the outskirts of Nilgris. Azarudeen started his career majorly running in the 400m. He won medals in the state level before switching to 800m. In 2010, Azarudeen finished fourth in 200m semi-final at Nadu State level Open athletics meet and won a silver medal in 4 × 400 metres relay which happens to be his first medal in the state level.
Azarudeen was quickly making a name for himself in the state ranks which earned his first individual silver medal in 2011, and gold in 2012.
He admits that the initial transition from school to college was difficult as he has had to manage both academics and sports on the right track.
“I was training really hard to get back into the track and worked my way up to the college (PSG College of Arts & Science, Coimbatore) level as I changed my discipline from 200m to 800m. It was hard initially,” he said.
He took a year break to get back into the running scene again; in his second year – he participated in the Inter-university and clinched silver medal.
In the following year, just when he thought that he was steadily back on the saddle, his running career was cut short by (IT Band) syndrome injury, which took him out of the game for more than two years.
“I was starving to win. My family never saw me competed in race,” he recalled.
Speaking about his injury, Azarudeen used “hard” to describe the process of recovery.
“Those two years (2015 and 2016) was the worst, where I had to stay away from athletics. There were moments when I did not know whether I would ever return to track.”
Unfortunately for Azarudeen, he suffered injury which kept reoccurring.
“Things weren’t working out well for me, people started to doubt my ability. They only praise you as long as you’re winning the medals. There was an urge inside me that wants to prove my doubters wrong. But at the time, I couldn’t do anything, but during the time, I have learned a lot – as the old cliche goes – every athlete will learn something new during the injury period.”
That start of a new adventure; a new phase of life
Like a lot of things, by default. Coaching beckoned – and the then-teenager Azarudeen seized the opportunity with both hands.
“There will always be a second chance. But at the time, I wasn’t thinking of becoming a potential coach, but looking back now it was a natural progression for me.”
“In the late 2015, I went up to the MRC ground by default and met Jinson Johnson, who came there for a training session. We talked and became friends. It was a great day, the beginning of so many years of friendship.”
“At the time Jinson was alone; and K M Binu, the quarter-miler coach was in Turkey. I was offered to take up the position of assistant coach of Jinson for the 2016 Olympic preparation. I don’t think I’d know how – I just seem to have fallen into things. I absolutely loved it.”
“It was an opportunity for me to go and test myself, it was the same but different. We started in the month of December. As a new to the coaching field, it was truly an eye-opening experience for me to be surrounded by so many people who share the same love and passion for athletics. I loved every second of it.”
“So that’s how I started but I wouldn’t call that as a coaching, rather grasping nuances of the training methodology and its ideas.”
Later 2017, it occurred to him that just like how an athlete strives to reach the top, coaches have their own too. Experience with the Jinson Johnson hugely helped him get a foothold in the game and gave him a humble grounding.
Sree Kiran: the success story; turn out to be fruitful
There wasn’t an instant route into start the Aspire Athletic Academy, so he began in Coonoor, close to where he grew up. “There was no fancy recruitment process as I have always liked to scout talents,” he says.
“One day I decided to attend a sports fest meet in St. Joseph school, Coonoor, that’s where I spotted talented young runner that is Sree Kiran.”
Under his guidance, Sree Kiran made a series of impressive performance; Azarudeen says: “Many of my peers, friends and relatives thought I was at home doing nothing, whereas in real, I was training Kiran separately.”
“Kiran worked really hard for the initial 11 months. During the times, he won many medals in the state meet and other local meets. But I believed that he can show his true potential at the nationals as well.”
In November, 2017, Sree Kiran, representing his first Junior Nationals, put up a strong show with a great timing but settled only for silver. For a decade, no middle-distance has never had won a medal for Tamil Nadu in the Junior nationals. Sree Kiran was the first to achieve the feat after Francis Sagayaraj by clocking 1:46 sec in 800m.
After several showing promise at a range of events including silver in Khelo India School Games and gold at the state youth championships, bagging silver in the Federation Cup, then came a day – April, 21, 2018, a life changing moment for Azarudeen; it was the day he believed that he can become a coach too, when Sree Kiran, who was in imperious form, claimed impressive gold at the 2018 Youth Olympics Games’ Asian Area Athletics qualification meet in Bangkok. His winning time of 1:50:93 helped him book a spot for the Youth Olympics.
That time, Azarudeen felt he still wasn’t a certified coach, “no one in the society would consider me as a coach unless I have something certified enough.”
Testing the limits
Azarudeen explains that an added challenge of coaching is not only testing the limits but also the need to have a proper qualification. “That time, I was not a certified coach. No one in the society would take me as a coach If I say I read books and become a coach; you need to have something certified, I felt that I need to get the coaching license.”
“For me as a young coach, it was a case of get out there and grow up quickly, you have to grasp the opportunity when you come into this environment because it’s tough sport.”
Azarudeen coaching really took a fruitful turn after completing level 1 with first mark in 2018 October batch. Having got the better mark in the level 1, with the help of AFI, he was offered lecturer level 1 course, which was held in Jakarta, where he secured second highest mark and right now he is a IAAF Level 2 Coach.
Recently, he was appointed from World Athletics Federations after that, I qualified for the level 2, I scored the highest mark.
Right now, Azarudeen is appointed by World Athletics, the world governing body of sport of Athletics, as one of the lecturer for the World Athletics CECS Level 1 Course, part of long-term athletics development plan in the country, so it’s fair to say that things have turned out well for the Nilgris native.
Mastering the nuances of coaching, that too with a successful formula is not an easy feat to accomplish in a short amount of time. He has had to be patient. But having started out working with nothing and progressed all the way up the ladder to being the lecturer of the world governing body and starting the Aspire Athletic Academy is no small feat.
As mentioned, building a credible reputation is certainly what any budding top coach wants to achieve, but with Azarudeen, I get the impression that it’s a sheer love for the sport and its nuances that motivates him on top of that.
“I wanted to study and learn the nuances of athletics. I always open to the new idea; I was observing how things were done. And reading some of the books by legendary middle-distance runners like Perter Coe, Peter Snell and Arthur Lydiard. All three were revolutionary and in favour of high-altitude and I look up to the way they manage and the way their athletes run; their coaching heavily influenced my own coaching philosophy. I cannot follow the same training method but I can recreate something related to it. I think all three of them has given their all to this sport and has all the talent in the world to inspire and make the sport better.
“This is a different environment for me now. I am here to learn again. Just because you know athletics, it doesn’t mean you can just step out and coach. I had to do my apprenticeship again, learning, listening, observing. I go over and watch the training, you can’t get better experience than that.”
‘Rather than telling, I am a listening coach’
Apart from Sree Kiran, just some of those who have progressed from unknown to bigger things include: Sree Kiran, Mujamil Ameer, Jeeva Saran, Sajesh Joseph, Vikas, Sudir and Gowthami.
An indication of Azar’s ability is highlighted by the fact that his crop of athletes aims to keep making strides in improving their marks in the sport.
Azarudeen believes in cooperative approach meaning he prefers listening to his athletes rather telling. His methodology revolves around athlete centric.
“I always wanted to know my athletes inside and out. You don’t coach athletes, you coach people who happen to be athletes. If you don’t know this person well and don’t care about what they care about outside the track, it’s very difficult for them to trust you and believe in you when they think you only care about the numbers.”
Attempting to impart his own ideas might not be an easily accomplished task all the time, but it’s clear that he is trying to implement them because he believes in them – and because he feels they will ultimately benefit the athlete in the longer-run.
Nurturing right mindset and discipline
When asked: “I’ve heard you say that one of your coaching goals is to have each of your athletes recording a P.B. every year?”, he replies, “Yes, I feel that I have done my job if that happens. The satisfaction gained from running a P.B. is enormous. Occasionally there will be something that interferes with an athlete running a P.B. so then you look for reasons and try to remedy those.”
“At times we tend to think that running is all about the mind and legs, however we forget about the heart. I have noticed that when the human heart and spirit are all as one, an athlete would be unstoppable, no weather is too horrid, no terrain is too rough, no time is impossible. Nothing is impossible if you have the right mindset and discipline to achieve it. That is why, I always tell my athlete; this is your target for the year, not for the competition.
To put in some perspective, for Azarudeen, training an athlete is almost as equate to making a cake; very difficult in the making, but eating is easy. Once you done well in the training, the competition will be resulted in good.
On the benefits of high-altitude training
When it comes to high-altitude training and coaching athlete, Azarudeen no stone unturned. As well as analysing. coaching drills, he also looks to learn from psychology and sociology to enable him to cope in challenging situations.
There’s a famous saying that: “I don’t think that you can be competitive in middle and long distance running without using altitude training”. What are your thoughts on running in altitude the right length to gain a benefit?
“When you run in altitude where the oxygen level is low, athlete gets the advantage of being better than the sea level. Breathing, lungs capacity, heart rate, and your hemoglobin increase in high altitude training. I also think you can achieve good ‘altitude effect’ from a thousand metres up because right from the start there is a decrease in maximal oxygen up-take.”
“What I can’t say is whether they would not have achieved fantastic results if they had not lived at high altitude. But my belief or ‘gut feeling’ is that long term stays at high altitude can produce excellent results and a series of short terms stays at high altitude can also have good effects. However, don’t ask me which is best because a proper study would be needed rather than just listening to what athletes say.”
Further, the 25-year-old opined in favor of the mud track, by saying, “In my opinion, clay track is better than synthetic because the layer being used was Tar road and then they will lay the rubber, which will cause more injuries in the hard surfaces. But Clay has its advantages, don’t cause much injuries as synthetic does. When you move from running in mud/clay track to synthetic, it will decrease your time for about 2 seconds. You can also take examples from European athletes, who during the off-season train in Kenya, where the injury chances are very low.”
“You can use synthetic track for 2 or 3 months to get used to the speed, if you use it on the regular basis lead up the injuries, muscle tightens, knee injury, ankle strain, and etc.”
‘Injury prevention is one of my biggest focuses’
During his running career, Azarudden has had suffered from injuries. As a coach he takes major steps to avoid such injuries to his athletes.
“Injury prevention is one of my biggest focuses with the group and something we are constantly working on to ensure we get better at.”
He is appreciated for being a fine motivator, highlighting his positive relationship with the athletes and training sessions.
“Firstly, I like to observe all the athletes at each training session and see how they are handling the session. I like to talk to them before each session and let them know the goals for each session. Understanding this allows them to work at the correct intensity. If I feel watching them that the desired outcome of the session is not being achieved due to fatigue or some other factor then we will have a discussion about whether we should modify the session or in some instances abandon the session. This can be difficult for highly motivated athletes to do and that is where trust in the coach is so important.”
Asked who is his sporting idol in middle-distance running, Azarudeen did not think much and straightway mentioned David Rudisha.
“David Rudisha without a doubt. He was so smooth over the 2-lap event and has won two gold in the last two Olympics editions with world record. When he first broke the record, I remember him going through the first 200 in 23.30sec, 400m in 49.28sec, 600m in 14.30sec and finishing in 1:40.91sec.… Crazy! His dominance over the event was incredible. And currently, I also like Nijel Amos and find Donavan Brazier as an excellent athlete in terms of finishing. Amel Tuka of Bosnia is also good athlete.
Believe in the Process
As Mohamed Azarudeen talks about his journey so far, his drive, determination and passion for the sport is clear.
India’s legendary middle-distance runner Sri Ram Singh said that there were a lot of difference in athletics in their times and current times. Sri Ram Singh said that, “I didn't wish to blame the coaches but strongly feels that today's generation does not work as hard as a Milkha Singh, PT Usha” – what’s your take on that?
I feel it's unfair to compare two completely different time periods, where nowadays most of the athletes go through many pressure on a daily basis from funding to job. Every new day, a new athlete and coaches has been emerging from every nook and corner of the nation, but at the same time, need some time to produce a world class athlete. Rome was not built in a day and neither was the results.
Athletics is awakening in India
Talking about grassroots development, Azarudeen emphasizes the important of structurally run development, “I realise that the biggest deficit in our country is the lack of structure in the development of our athletes when it comes to younger generations. But besides those, we have just a few schools for academies for athletics. The average age to start to train is 9-12 and usually they don’t and can’t achieved all the phases of the learning process.
We should create a development system at a young age, and start to categorise the athletes according to their age (U-8, U-10, U-12, U-15, U-17) so they can compete against other athletes their own age. That will help them to grow and be formed at different stages and so they won’t be lacking the technical part and athleticism when they get to the high level.
I think we need to go to the root of the problem, meaning the formation and developing process the athletes go through at all levels, specially at a young age, what will allow them to grow in the long and short term. But times are changing and with the help of Khelo India and other scheme the sport is awakening in India, trying to take its rightful place.
Future goal: Taking Indian athletics to new heights
His passion resonates in his answers, but more evidently the fatiguing days and the hard work without the headlines behind the scenes.
“It has been very challenging but that’s exactly what I need at this stage of my career. I have a lot more responsibility here which has really accelerated my development.”
“We are working together to provide an avenue for the young athletes in particular – to take Indian athletics to a new level.”
Although his sights are firmly fixed on the here and now, Azarudeen certainly has big aspirations for the future and prepare teams for the 2024 Olympic Games could become a reality in the future. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Azarudeen, who cruelly missed out on a athletics career as a teenager, is now helping youngsters improve their craft – the trajectory of his career ought to offer hope to anyone who has been cast aside by the sport as an aspiring young athlete that there are other possibilities.
So, what about the future for Azarudeen? “I still want to educate myself. You need to have both a theoretical and a practical foundation, and this course allows me to develop those things. I know and I have trust that, little by little, the structure of Indian athletics in the country will improve. In terms of coaching, it will be not a magic, but in the longer run, I think the coaches from India will prove at the world level. For me, the future is quite uncertain however I am very excited to find out what is to come,” he concludes.