Firstpost Masterclass: 'Badminton is high-speed chess in motion,' Pullela Gopichand deconstructs the sport

What is the correct stance in badminton? How should you align your body to add power to your smash? How to construct a rally? Chief national coach Pullela Gopichand dwells on these and more in latest Firstpost Masterclass.

Shantanu Srivastava July 13, 2020 14:27:23 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: 'Badminton is high-speed chess in motion,' Pullela Gopichand deconstructs the sport

Editor's noteProfessional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

Twenty-nine years back, Pullela Gopichand couldn't crack the entrance exams for an Engineering degree. That 'failure' though, changed the course of Indian badminton forever.  The same year, Gopi won the junior national championships and also made his international debut. Sure enough, he never looked back, although an ACL injury in his left knee in 1994 did threaten to derail his career. After a brief hiatus, Gopi returned to the national circuit in full force and never lost a single match from 1996 to 2002. In fact, he never dropped a game from 1997 till his retirement five years later.

At the international level, Gopi's crowning glory arrived at the fag end of his career in the form of an All England title in 2001. He is still only the second Indian to win the prestigious event, after Prakash Padukone who achieved the feat in 1980. Post-retirement, Gopichand's academy has produced and nurtured the cream of India's modern badminton flagbearers, including, but not limited to Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu.

In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, the Dronacharya Awardee national badminton coach discusses the nuances of his sport with his trademark soft-spoken wisdom.

Tell us something about your early years and childhood.

I come from a typical Telegu family. My father came from Nizamabad, which is in Telangana. He worked at a bank and was frequently transferred. For the first three years of my life, I lived in Odisha, Chennai, and coastal Andhra. Then we came to Hyderabad when I was 10 years old. It was only by chance that I ended up playing badminton. Luckily for us, we stayed at a place that was close to the stadium, and that helped start my badminton journey.

To start off, every tournament that I played was the turning point in my career, because had I not played well in those events, I probably would have gone the academic route. One big moment in my career came after I passed my Class 12 exams. I had studied Physics, Chemistry, and Maths, and was poised to appear for engineering exams. Luckily, that didn't happen and I got one full year to play badminton. That was the year 1991, and it turned my career around. There was this junior national championship that I won and also represented India. I got a job too. I would say had I not played well that year and not won the juniors title, I would have probably gone back to engineering. So in a way, the entire 1991 was the big turning point in my career.

How do you define technique in badminton? Does a perfect technique exist, and if it does, can it be achieved?

I think the sport is evolving all the time. Badminton as such is very technical and skill-based. But having said that, there is no one perfect way to execute. For example, there is a perfect cover drive or a perfect bowling action, but this sport offers you a lot more freedom to explore perfection. There's a lot more freedom to move around than many other sports. In sports such as golf, for example, you can define perfection because there is not a great scope of change.

If you look at how top shuttlers play, they can modify the technique depending on court conditions and other factors. The point-per-rally format has also made us a lot more adaptable to change. So, you will always have classical players who are technically good, but they may not be effective, and vice-versa.

The technique, in badminton, also depends on body types and playing styles. There is no reference point to suggest that one particular style of execution is perfect. I would say players such as Prakash sir (Prakash Padukone) had perfected the technique, but the likes of Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, and Kento Momota come with different techniques, depending on what their strengths are. So, to standardise perfection is not right in a sport like badminton. For me, effectiveness and adaptability would be the keywords. If these two areas are taken care of, the person can be called technically sound.

Let's talk about the equipment. How do you select the racquet? Are you looking at a certain size, the tension in the strings, or just feel?

Personally, I just shut my eyes and if the racquet feels good, it is fine. I have, over time, seen many racquets and it is obviously good to acknowledge science. A lot of scientific research goes behind the racquets these days, but ultimately, it should feel good in your hands once you close your eyes.

Can you break down the stance? Exactly how much should one bend?

I think years ago, the stance was different because the strokes were played a lot more on the upper side, as in people would play a lot of tosses and hit towards the back of the court. However, as of now, defence is an important aspect of the modern game. So the lower you are, the better. Having said that, people who know when to bend and when to get up on the knees can mature into high-level players. To go down deep when the opponent is hitting is important. Then, to actually be up and ready to move with a slight bend when you think the shuttle is going to go up is crucial too.

Does the grip change when you want to add power or vice-versa?

Yes. Basically, it is important to have a loose grip. It can be a forehand grip, backhand grip, pen-handle grip, or a smash grip depending upon the need, but at a neutral point, your grip should be supple enough to ensure the racquet rests loosely in your hand.

How important is shot selection, considering that at times, you are in a position to play a number of shots from one position?

I think it is extremely important to know which shots to play when, but in a match scenario, players' natural intelligence takes over. There is no time to think and decide. You can have a pre-match or a post-match analysis, but during the play, there is no time to actually think. The body just flows with the game.

From a players' perspective, to practice different strokes is important. It is important to know how to play different strokes from one specific part of the court. If you have practiced enough, when the time comes, the strokes flow, and your natural intelligence takes over.

Smash is a go-too attacking option in badminton that has proved to be quite productive too. What is the ideal body alignment when you are lining up to hit a smash?

It is difficult to explain, but let me try! If you are a right-hander, your right foot moves ahead with a bend. There's a kinetic change that happens whose purpose is to ensure that every amount of power transforms into the smash. When you are in a position to use the entire kinetic chain to ensure the final point of contact gets the maximum impact, you will be able to hit a powerful smash. To have all the forces aligned and in line with the point of contact is important. That's when you are able to pump maximum power into a smash.

Let's say you are trying a deception and you want to slow down your smash. At what precise moment do wrists come into play?

It is different for different players, but as a player, you must look to alter the angle of your racquet. A slight change of angle of the racquet head can reduce the speed and deceive the opponent. It also ensures that the racquet head is moving in one direction and the shuttle goes in the other direction.

Firstpost Masterclass Badminton is highspeed chess in motion Pullela Gopichand deconstructs the sport

"Wristy deception depends on how much you alter the angle of racquet head at the point of impact." AP

This can also be called a slice. This deception, that is done by wrists, is used differently by different players and depends on their individual techniques, but the idea largely remains the same.

Modern game has players such as Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi who retrieve almost everything. But largely, do you see defence in vogue these days?

I think years ago, we had players who were predominantly attacking, or defensive, or rally players. But in the last few years, the sport has become all-round to a large extent. We still have players who run and retrieve, which, I would say, forms the base of the sport, but the game is 60 percent attack and 40 percent defence these days.

Very rarely will you find a player in modern badminton who is 100 percent attacking or defensive. This has happened because of the evolution of the sport. The game demands you to have different styles to succeed at the highest level. Given the way conditions are today – the stadiums being big, the shuttle being slow – I think it is fundamental to be able to run and retrieve. All top players, be it in singles or doubles, will have to have a good defence. More than anything else, a good defence is the very fundamental of modern sport, despite the game tilting more and more on the aggressive side.

We keep hearing the phrase that a particular player is good at constructing a rally. What exactly are you trying to achieve when you look to 'construct' a rally?

I think, for me, constructing a rally is all about intelligence. When two players step into the court, one of them figures out the trick to score points faster than the other. The challenge for the other player is to break his opponent's rhythm and gain the upper hand. Then, the onus shifts on the other opponent to find the answer.

As per me, to construct a rally would be to lure the opponent on one side of the court and hit on the other side. You should plan your rally in such a way that you watch all of your opponent's best strokes during the exchange while keeping your best weapons hidden till the end. Then, you ensure that you use your best strokes at the right time. That is very much a mind game and constructing a rally, a match, or a clutch of matches is an art. It is very much like chess; in fact, constructing a rally or constructing a match is actually chess at a higher pace.

It also happens that sometimes, players are not beaten just once. Sometimes, some of these matches beat some players for life. Sometimes you dent the confidence of a player so much that even if he/she is good enough to beat you, his/her mind doesn't think that you can be beaten. When I say you plan matches, or construct rallies, these 'constructions' are not for that moment alone. They may last your career. If you do it well, the opponent will think, 'The last time we played, he did this, or when we were 18-all, he did this.' It is very important that you're alert to all of this.

During a rally, is it advisable to think one or two strokes ahead, or do you just react?

I think before starting a rally, there could be certain thoughts that say, 'I'll play two smashes here, two smashes there, and then finish with a body smash.' As a soft suggestion to the mind, you can think that maybe you will play a certain shot in a certain way because it may have worked for you when you last played at this venue. But when the rally begins, it happens instantly. You just flow and your instincts take over. There' no time to think.

What makes net play so tricky and deceptive? Is it just that one is cramped for room, or something else?

You have the last-minute, subtle changes in direction and very little movement at the net. That makes net play so difficult to master and so classy to watch. As a player, the more relaxed you are, the more aware you are, the better are your chances of making the right choice of strokes.

How important is visualisaton in badminton?

It is a very important part of the game. We benefit a lot by playing the shot in the mind before you are actually executing it. From a stroke perspective, it makes a lot of sense. From the overall match perspective, if you're able to visualise something good and clear, I think it would be good. But to expect that things will go the way you have played them in the mind, that may put a lot of expectations on the mind. It would be prudent to visualise and forget, rather than keep validating it at the point of it happening. It is an individual journey, and cannot be exactly prescribed. So to come back to your question, yes, visualistion is important, but it is also important to visualise and forget rather than visualise and hold.

Athletes talk a lot about entering a zone where their mind is focussed just on the task ahead, and nothing else matters to them. How do you define that state?

When you think a lot, the mind comes in the way of your performance. When you flow, it is called the zone. The flow would be when the mind and the brain do not think at all. They say that the body knows what it has to do. I think with repeated practice, body's inherent intelligence knows what to do. We should not let the mind come in way of what the body wants to do.

Firstpost Masterclass Badminton is highspeed chess in motion Pullela Gopichand deconstructs the sport

"Zone is a state where body just flows and your mind doesn't come in the way of what your body wants to do."

To stimulate that state, it is important to stick to the rituals that you do. So, we sleep at a certain time and in a certain way, we eat a certain food, we practice in a certain manner...all of these things become automatic, and the mind is not thinking. So your preparations help you make a ritual out of your routines, mind you, it is not superstition. It helps your mind sleep and not think of things. The process becomes automatic, and when you step in the court, you will flow and not think too much.

Modern badminton is a lot about strength, and not purely about skills. As a coach, how much emphasis do you lay on strength training?

It is extremely important, no doubt. If you go into a match and you don't lose it because you ran out of steam, you can go a little easy on gym sessions and work more on your skills. Almost all modern players will find it extremely difficult to compete if their training doesn't include an element of gym session.

Badminton, as a sport is highly skillful, but also highly demanding. Unless you have supreme fitness, your ability to execute the strokes and show off your skills may not be enough. For me, it is very important that all athletes spend a lot of time in building strength and endurance. The sport uses almost all muscles of your body, and it is important they are well worked-out and strong to withstand the demands of the game. If you're good, you can convert those gains on the court and you can get more time to spend on your skill aspects.

The sport, as you know, has become a lot more physical. You can have the best of skills but not adequate fitness, your skills will be of no use.

In your playing days, did you personally study your opponents or you left it to your coach?

When I was playing, I didn't have any coaches travelling with me for the better part of my career. Also, we couldn't interact with coaches in the breaks, so the interaction with the coaches was not as much as it is now. I would prepare for a player, but the preparations were never in-depth. I would rather prepare myself for the match, and not for the opponent.

You had a bad knee injury during your playing career, but you managed a successful return. How important is it to be mentally strong?

When I look back 25 years, which is when I got injured, people were clueless about an ACL injury. Before me, I don't remember an Indian athlete coming back from such an injury. I was very fortunate that I had a doctor and very supportive parents. I think for an athlete, love for the sport is important, but patience is also a key factor that determines your growth. A lot of times we talk about hard work, discipline, and sacrifice in sports, but patience and letting go are important too. That's what I realised in that phase of my career.

What are the attributes that you look at in a youngster who is just starting out in the sport?

To start off, I see if the person is enjoying the sport and the various ups and downs it brings. Body type and physicality are important aspects of the sport too. In badminton, speed and power are very important, so at various stages in a player's career, he/she may need various skills or attributes to move to the next stage.

At the starting point, you'd need enthusiasm and the willingness to move along with people. The next level is where the skills come up. Then, somewhere down the line, the physicality, endurance, speed and such factors become important. Then comes your emotional quotient: How are you able to solve problems and get out of tricky situations.

Then, how gritty you are and your ability to continue doing the same thing over a number of years without getting bored comes up. At every stage in your career, there are different challenges, and as a coach, I am looking for different aspects at different points of time.

Any piece of advice you'd like to give to the athletes who want to take up this sport?

As a discipline, badminton is one of the most physically literate sports around. It tests your strength and stamina. It needs you to run, jump, move sideways, forward, and back, it needs you to have the power to hit the hard smashes. So all these things incorporated in a single sport make badminton a great all-round sport to pursue. Having said that, if you think you'll be a champion that is the only reason to play, that'll be tough. The sport is a lot of fun. Take one step at a time. Enjoy the sport and the discipline and hardwork it entails. The learnings that sport gives are of great importance; if you become a champion along the way, that's just a bonus, nothing more.

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