SATURDAY morning, so the courts were empty. Ruth was sitting by with headphones and I struck up a chat with her, she said she was about to leave for New Zealand.

Soon, Tom John and Prakash Jolly come by. Tom’s planned some shadow exercises for them today. “You’ll be doing 30 sets of shadow with incomplete rest,” Tom says. “During a match you’ll be getting just 5 or 10 seconds of rest between each point, so we’ll try to do the same here.”

Tom’s got a fast style of talking, never pauses for breath. He looks a rather unlikely character for a badminton coach, but each of his trainees swear by him… he pushes them beyond limits they never thought possible. It’s that consistent pushing of personal barriers that results in a champion.

“…The top players do one hour of shadow, incomplete rest, yeah? There are different kinds of fitness — Pakistani, Sri Lankan… to win the New Zealand tournament you need to be Indian fit, 30 sets of shadow.”

He looks at Prakash Jolly, who’s a promising state player, not yet ready at the national level. Prakash’s looking down, rather like a schoolboy who hasn’t completed his homework. “You think you’re fit — and then you lose to some stupid New Zealander who runs all over the place. If you reach the quarters or semis you’ve done your job, but if you lose before that you’re going to get a danda. ”

Tom looks at Ruth, he’s still talking about Jolly. “He used to be able to do 30 sets, but he’s been fooling around lately.”

He addresses both: “Do you have your water? No. Don’t expect me to get it during a tournament. Simon Archer (British doubles player, reputedly with the hardest smash in the world) once came with two shoes, each of a different pair; both for the right foot. I told him sorry, I’m not going to run around for him.”

Tom’s the quintessential pro. He won’t tolerate excuses or a lack of preparation. Turning up for a match is no different from turning up for the IIT entrance exam — you don’t go in without a pen, pencil, eraser, and the rest of it. You don’t turn up at the exam hall and ask other people to lend you their stuff.

The shadows have started. A ‘shadow’ is about mimicking the play during a match, without having to hit a shuttle — you imagine the opponent’s return. Each set of shadow is a minute or more, and it’s a minute of pushing your body through a burst of movement — lunges, jumps, crouches. The player has to go the way the coach directs, and Tom has a rapid-fire style of directing, his words shooting out as quickly as the imaginary opponent’s returns:

“Push, down, c’mon push, jump — quick! I want you to come here, yeah?” he points to the service line. “Down, push, jump up, in — quick!”

Ruth’s flagging, and he pulls her up. “You’re no exception, my dear. You think you’re an exception, but you’re not. Get that into your head.”

Off again: “C’mon, c’mon! walking like a soldier, not tired! We agree on that? Good. Down, down! Now off you go.”

These practise sessions are where champions are made. It’s away from the romance of the lights, away from hundreds of fans, that steel is made, out of the furnace of this torture. After the first ten sets of shadow, a player operates purely on will and desire. Here, ‘talent’ is an ephemeral word. Many people wonder why ‘talent’ is hard to come by, imagining that pretty strokes and ‘stamina’ are all a champion is made of. Talent is a common commodity in the world of sport. Hunger is not.

“C’mon!” Tom yells. “Walk like a soldier! If you move slowly someone will shoot you down! It’s a battlefield. C’mon, be tough, c’mon, push, up to the net, go go go.”

I’m wondering what kind of shadows the Chinese do. Maybe 50 sets. Maybe more. Maybe they’ve gone beyond the limits so often that they’re numbed to pain. Xie Xingfang, the world no.1, said she felt tired when not practising.

Jolly’s punching his fist when he completes each set. In his mind he’s playing a match, and possibly the third set, last few points. That’s when desire counts, and the last dregs of energy you can summon. That’s what these practise sessions help achieve — to summon from deep down those last reserves of energy often enough. You’ve to make it accessible to the will.

“With a smile!” Tom’s saying. “Because it’s a happy player that wins!”

And then he shouts a long winning scream! “Eeeeeiiiiiiiiyyyyaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!! Like that! How do you scream when you win a point? How do you push yourself? Scream so those New Zealand birds in the jungles will go wild!”

It’s entertaining, just listening to him.

Later, he tells us he’s even done some DJ-ing so he could make money when he was a student in London.


About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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3 Responses to Tom

  1. nikesh says:

    Nice post Dev, gives an insight into the coaching methods used by pros. Could you tell me what “push” and “down” means? Would love to see more posts like these as it can help the reader improve their play.
    Keep blogging!
    – Nikesh

  2. badmintonmania says:

    Thanks, Nikesh. ‘Push’ — a generic term, to power with the legs, especially for the jump smash, but it can also mean to drive harder. ‘Down’ is to reach down and retrieve the anticipated drop. You can make out the difference in commitment of players by the way they approach the shadows… serious players keep ‘pushing’ way past exhaustion, and stay down, as low as possible, for the shots down the flanks or close to the net.

  3. nikesh says:

    Thanks Dev.

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