Kidambi Srikanth does not believe much in yoga or meditation to improve focus and concentration. He says he is not someone who can sit for a while and visualise. He would rather get on court and do the same specific thing again and again to perfect it.
For the former world No.1 men’s badminton player (currently ranked 14, the second highest among Indians), it’s more about understanding the training or the strokes he plays on court. “When you know what you are doing and why you are doing it (in practice), that’s when you can recreate the whole training programme (while playing the match),” he says over the phone.
He does not practice visualisation, unlike a lot of other sportspeople. But he prefers to focus on the specifics before going into a match or after a tournament, working on particular aspects of his game keeping his opponent in mind.
After being locked down like the rest of the country in response to the covid-19 pandemic, Srikanth started training since the first week of October. In the first tournament he played since March’s All England Open, he lost in the quarterfinals of the Danisa Denmark Open in October to Chinese Taipei’s World No.2 Chou Tien-chen.
Having gone through a number suof highs and lows in his 10-plus years as a professional player, the 27-year-old prefers to consider every match stripped of its stature, whether be a final or a semifinal. “I just want to go on court and play well for those 42 points,” he says.
About 60 to 90 minutes before a match, he starts warming up, tapes his ankles, does some stretches, and knocks on court for some time. Before that, he is completely focused on badminton, shedding any distractions or accessories like music.
The warm up is based on the specific strategy that he has to employ during his match. “When I am doing some kind of knocking there, I practice the same strokes that I have to play in the match. If the plan is to be more aggressive, then I practice more smashes. If the strategy is about defence, then I practice more of defence.”
For sportspeople, injuries are among their lowest phases. Srikanth had an ankle injury after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and a knee injury last year. While it’s tough to get back from breaks, to be able to play at a hundred per cent takes a lot of time and patience, he says. His best moment, he adds, was in 2018 when he won the Commonwealth Games silver medal at Gold Coast, Australia, just soon after reaching the No.1 ranking. In 2017, he won four Superseries tournaments that contributed to the ranking.
But the kind of euphoria that comes after an achievement does not last long because there are continuous tournaments. “I became No.1 when I was in Australia. But you have to continuously think about the next match, so you don’t get too much time to celebrate. I was happy to see myself on top of world ranking’s list. Again, immediately, I had to go back to reality and think about the opponent for the day. I didn’t get a pause to celebrate that moment—that’s just part of daily routine.”
Even though it’s challenging to come back from a loss, regular tournaments help deal with this aspect too. “You have to return and think about the next tournament and you can’t really think about that loss.” To be motivated enough to play another match in 2-3 days after losing the previous match or tournament requires gumption. “That takes a lot of self determination,” he adds.
He is able to avoid some of the loneliness that sportspeople feel during travel because he is on the move mostly with the same set of players, from the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. Besides, there is WiFi, family at the end of a telephone and PUBG to take the mind off solitude.
“I play video games in my free time, but I can’t play them for long periods of time,” Srikanth clarifies. “I try and sleep for as much time that is available. PUBG is not an addiction—it’s for half-an-hour or one hour every other day.”
His coach, Gopi Chand, the former All England champion, had a career riddled with injuries and heartbreak, which Srikanth hopes to learn from. “In his career, he saw a lot of things that none of the current generation players have seen. He is one of those mentors for me—he advises me on most things,” adds Srikanth. Besides, academy colleague and 24th-ranked Parupalli Kashyap encouraged him from the time Srikanth was coming up the ranks of junior players.
'Mindgames' is a series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure