Creating a national champion from Scratch - a coach's perspective
How does one create a national chess champion from scratch? What is the way in which one can train a student so that he can become the best in a country as competitive and filled with talent like India. We have Sreejith GS, a very successful coach from Kerala, who speaks about it in this article. He has been working with Goutham Krishna for quite some years now and the boy became the national under-12 champion in 2022 and scored his maiden IM norm at the Maharashtra GM international 2022. Find the secret sauce here!
The journey from coach to mentor
Over the course of centuries, the role of a teacher, guru, coach, or mentor has been prominent in the lives of students. A good mentor is like a guiding lamp that drives away the darkness while the student treads their way through life towards success. Be it in chess or any other sports field, when we talk about the glories of a player, the name of their coach or mentor is automatically attached to them. These are the people who work behind the scenes, lift all the heavyweights, and guide their students to the end of the race without expecting much in return. This article is dedicated to one such coach who played a phenomenal role in creating a national champion. We are talking about Sreejith GS, the coach of the very talented 12-year-old boy, H. Goutham Krishna.
A very strong chess player himself, Sreejith (ELO: 2051), runs a chess academy in Trivandrum by the name of Masters Chess Academy. Sreejith first met Goutham in May 2018. The latter wanted to prepare for a championship and was rated around 1156. What follows next showcases the perfect way to coach a student. It also shows how to transcend from being a coach to a mentor. When asked about Goutham, Sreejith says, "Right from day one of the training, I had this feeling that he was naturally talented. The sessions with him were always enjoyable as well as arguable. His natural response is that whenever you give him any position, he comes up with a move within 1 or 2 minutes. But what is most intriguing about him is that whenever I show him any grandmaster move in a game, he immediately asks me what is wrong with my move. Then I must pinpoint to him exactly what was wrong with his. He always thinks outside the box, and that is a very important quality for a player to have if they want to grow."
“Goutham is a quickie and a passionate learner.” While interviewing Sreejith, one thing that he emphasized was accepting that every person is different. Every student has a different way of thinking, learning, and grasping things. One thing that can work wonders for one player might not work for another. Thus, it is very important for a coach to be flexible with their teaching method. Sreejith thought that playing a lot of bullets could destroy one’s long-format games, so he advised Goutham otherwise, but on learning about Nihal Sarin and the way he improved, he thought, "If he plays chess continuously with that much love while enjoying it, why should I stop him? Let him do it if he enjoys it." More so, the fire to never stop learning is key to being a good coach. The coach himself should be ready to learn and grow with the player. Not limiting themselves by their beliefs, pre-convinced notions, and knowledge is what a coach should always do.
Sreejith says, "With Goutham, I always have to be prepared. He always asks questions like, "What is wrong with this move?" Usually, students accept whatever I tell them, but what I understand when I am working with talents is that if a student asks questions, that means he wants to understand it in a much better way. So, I always must keep myself updated, learn about the games, come up with new tactics, and more. I always have to prepare for him."
While every teacher or coach has a different approach to tutoring a student, one thing that makes Sreejith different from others is the "art of letting go". After years of hard work, sweat, and dedication, a beautiful bond is built between the coach and the student. While comfort can provide temporary relief, it is never good in the long run. A stagnant body of water cannot sustain life; it rots quickly. Many people are stuck with the idea of having a single coach because change is scary, but that is where the true calibre of a good coach shows. The coach should never be afraid to take harsh decisions sometimes, even if that decision is uncomfortable for everyone. It takes a lot of heart to let go of someone you have honed from scratch. The idea is too scary for people to act on. And that is exactly what separates Sreejith from others. When asked if he thinks Goutham should train with different coaches since he has already surprised Sreejith’s ELO, without any hesitation, he said yes. He feels that ideally, the role of a coach should be like that of a giver. Let the student soak up all the knowledge that the coach has to offer, take the best, and move on. "I always advised Goutham’s parents that maybe it was time to move on. If the student has surpassed the trainer’s level. If the trainer has given his best, then it should be like that. Goutham is like a younger brother to me, so it's bittersweet, but as a trainer, I can do my best and give the best advice, but if you want to grow, you have to train with top lever trainers at some point." The pain in his eyes and the smile on his face tell a different story, but the conviction with which he said this shows the power of a good coach.
Always lifting the heavier weight and taking harsher decisions is the greatest quality of a good mentor. A quote from the famous American poet Robert Frost perfectly sums it up. "There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fills you with so much quail shot that you can't move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies." And that is what Sreejith is, a solid foundation for a budding chess champion.
Follow the work of Sreejith through the Facebook page of Masters Chess Academy