Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian badminton player, who reached a career-high world ranking of No 32 in men’s doubles. Having retired from the highest level of the sport, he is now the Coaching Director at Synergy Badminton Academy, California. You can read the other pieces in his column, Shuttle Zone here.
The 2024 Paris Olympic Games may be just under a year away, but the scramble for qualification has already begun.
It started on May 1, and goes on till the ranking lists are published on April 30 next year. Because of the Race to Paris, the 2023 season adds an extra layer of scrutiny when it comes to planning for tournaments.
That is why, in the five back-to-back weeks of BWF World Tour competitions, there were a number of shuttlers from across nations competing in at least four – if not all. That is something that would rarely happen in a non-Olympic qualification year.
The high-physical demands of the sport make the aspect of planning important. And an Olympic qualification season like this, makes workload management crucial.
To add more complications, there is the Asian Games this year, and starting on Monday, the Badminton World Championships.
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The Race to Paris rankings – which are followed for Olympic qualification – are different than the regular world rankings. Essentially, for a Paris quota, the ranking points earned from the qualification period (May 1, 2023 to April 28, 2024) are calculated and placed in a leaderboard.
There are a total of 35 quota places each in men’s and women’s singles, which includes one host country spot and two universality places (to ensure there is representation from all five BWF recognised continents).
In doubles, a total of 16 pairs each will compete in men’s, women’s and mixed doubles. In any event, there cannot be more than two athletes competing from the same country.
In India’s case, HS Prannoy and Lakshya Sen are leading the charge, currently ranked second and sixth respectively in the Race to Paris leaderboard. PV Sindhu, India’s highest ranked women’s singles player is fifth in the Race as it stands.
In doubles, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty – who are ranked No 2 in the world – are currently placed eight in the Race to Paris standings. Meanwhile Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly in women’s doubles are currently placed 27th, but overall are just one spot short of entering qualification zone since there are several higher ranked teams from the same country.
In contrast, it is unlikely there will be any mixed doubles participation from India in Paris.
With such a tight race going on for ranking points, competitors will be looking to play in as many events as possible. That is where the role of workload management becomes important.
Workload management is used to reduce the risk of injury and mental burnout while optimizing performance based on an athlete’s fatigue levels. There are many elements that go into this – fatigue (physical and psychological), wellness, fitness, recovery, training load and tournament burnout caused by travel time (jet lag, acclimatising to different conditions), and more.
There is a great deal of strategizing that goes into planning a player’s schedule for competitions. But in a season like 2023, where gaining Olympic qualification points is important, different athletes have different approaches.
Take how Sindhu and Lakshya approached that five-week period from July 4 to August 6. In this time-frame, there were five events held in back-to-back weeks – Canada Open Super 500, US Open Super 300, Korea Open Super 500, Japan Open Super 750 and the Australian Open Super 500.
Before heading into this mega five-week circuit, both players had inconsistent results. Lakshya did have a few good wins in Malaysia and Indonesia earlier in the year but still wasn’t his best version on the court. Sindhu meanwhile has struggled this season.
Initially, both had signed up for all five tournaments.
Canada takes a day to travel, and the massive time difference must have created initial fatigue. Lakshya and Sindhu had a good run in Calgary, with the former winning and the latter reaching the semi-final, losing to Akane Yamaguchi.
The next stop was the US Open which makes sense as the travel time is short. Lakshya reached the semi-final, losing to Li Shi Feng 17-21, 24-22, 17-21 in a marathon match, while Sindhu exited in the quarter-finals losing to Gao Fang Jie, whom she beat in Canada.
After the US Open is where the approach changed though.
Lakshya’s team realized that he was burning out physically and mentally, and opted out of the Korea Open. In contrast, Sindhu stuck to the plan.
I am not saying it is the right or the wrong approach, but we need to consider the travel time, which leads to less preparation time in the lead-up to the match.
Sindhu loses to Pai Yu Po in three games, and she is back on the plane, this time to Tokyo for the Japan Open, losing the opening round to Zhang Yi Man in straight games, and then she goes straight to Sydney.
Lakshya is now fresh from the one-week break in Bangalore, where his team must have worked on his recovery and court preparation.
There is always a difference in preparing at your home base, as the team has more control than preparing during tournaments. He goes to Japan and reaches the semi-final for the third consecutive event.
In Tokyo, he beat Priyanshu Rajawat 21-15, 12-21, 24-22 in 65 minutes. In the second round he beat Kanta Tsuneyama 21-14, 21-16 in 50 minutes, and then beat Koki Watanabe 21-15, 21-19 in 47 minutes in the quarter-final. He then lost to Jonathan Christie 15-21, 21-13, 16-21 an a 68 minute-match. That is a lot of court time, especially with the Australian Open starting in just a few days.
The long flight from Tokyo to Sydney on Sunday with not much recovery time in between might have led him to retire from the match against teammate Kiran George in the first round in Australia. I feel it is the right call as he would have wanted to head back home and train for World Championships.
Sindhu meanwhile, made the quarter-finals in Sydney with wins against Indian juniors Ashmita Chaliha and Aakarshi Kashyap in straight games before losing to the eventual champion Zhang Beiwen.
Sindhu was one of the few players on the circuit and the only Indian who went on to play in each of the five back-to-back events which practically gave her a little over two weeks to prepare for the Worlds. Sindhu’s team could feel that she needs more match practice to get her rhythm back, but the question is, would her team do the same planning had it not been an Olympic qualification year?
The planning of events becomes highly vital. Finding the right balance of preparation, rest, and playing tournaments is the toughest in an Olympic qualification year. The last thing the team wants is to qualify for the Olympics at the cost of burning out due to the excessive mental and physical load, which could hamper the chances of peaking at the right time.
You want to save your best badminton for the biggest stage, which can only happen through being mentally and physically fresh for a prolonged time. The former world No 1 men’s doubles pair of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon of Indonesia would peak at tournaments before the Worlds Championships or Olympics and hence failed to deliver at the bigger events.
Troubles on the road
It is tough maintain your levels in back-to-back tournaments, especially when there is travelling involved in between.
Travel time significantly hampers your on-court preparation time. In a tournament setting, participants are allocated a set practice time at the venue in comparison to training at the home base, where the schedule is in control of a player and his or her team.
Late hotel check-ins, long immigration queues at airports, the lack of a fully functional gym at the venue… it can all make a difference in preparation. A change that could be the difference between winning 21-19 and losing 19-21.
From a coach’s perspective, it is crucial to understand your athlete’s workload – pushing them every single day of the week will eventually lead to physical and mental burnout. If you have tested your players’ on-court and off-court training for five sessions, giving them an easier session where the focus is more on skill is essential.
Prannoy has been working with a technology company that provides him detailed reports on his recovery levels. Through the readings, his daily load is then altered, which is one of the reasons why he has remained injury free in the past year or so.
Sawtik and Chirag have also focused more on smaller intense sessions to stay injury free and focus more on quality than quantity. As a coach, you want the player to be looking forward to training as much as possible. It won’t be possible if they are mentally and physically exhausted all the time; having a complete day off-court is also vital for the players to be away so that they look forward to getting back on court quality over quantity always.
At the same time, a mental reset is essential.
The athletes need to take three to four days off from the sport once every six months to recharge and reset mentally.
In an interview with Scroll, Lakshya said that he needed a break from badminton for a few days to reset, which he will continue to do. Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia publicly announced that he would take a break from the circuit post-Indonesia Open and skipped Canada and US Open to make a comeback at the Korea Open.
The Race for Paris is still in its early stages. But with the World Championships starting next week, and the Asian Games around the corner, the charge for rankings points will heat up, just as workload management will grow important for success.