Tuesday, September 2, 2014

2014 World Championships and Moving Forward


I’m writing this while streaming the finals of the 2014 World Championships, and I’ve already come across a few thoughts. It’s before the Men’s Singles final, in which I hope Lee Chong Wei will finally take the match, and that is also the time limit I’m setting for the blog so I don’t ramble on for too long. I woke up to watch the ending of the Men’s Doubles final, and (*spoiler alert*) I was very surprised to see that Ko Sung Hyun/Shin Baek Cheol won over Lee Yong Dae/Yoo Yeon Seong. I would think that not having to play a semi-final would have been a significant advantage for Ko/Shin, and I would still count on Lee/Yoo as being an overall stronger team. I suppose it was just that one tournament that didn’t work out the way you wanted and it happened to be World Championships. We can probably say the same for the Women’s Singles (*spoiler alert*). It was pleasant to see a European World Champion and I hope it will help further opportunities for Spain. I know it must be disappointing to Li Xuerui, but I think it’s nice for the sport to have at least some depth in at least a few events. Hopefully, Carolina Marin’s victory will inspire our top badminton player, Michelle Li, to rise to some more amazing results of her own!

Tournament bus... often times without enough seats for everyone.
(Source: Me)

Looking back at my performance this tournament, it wasn’t the best (match can be found HERE). I was trying to play things that I am not very comfortable doing, especially when I was under the impression that things needed to be done this way for the best chance to win. I suppose I second guessed myself and opted for a team strategy, which was not comfortable to begin with. I understand that people see the game differently, and tactics are generally a way to approach a match because physical and technical attributes cannot really be changed right before, or even during the tournament (e.g. ‘you need to jump higher’ or ‘you need to angle your racquet more’, etc.).

Let’s step away from the actual performance for a moment and address a way of looking at things. Let’s talk perspective. On the one hand, we have different coaches working with different players. We have Jeff White, the National Team coach for Canada, coming in to coach us for the World Championships. He has seen us play at various events, but he does not address training issues; he only observes. Alex’s coach at the moment, Andrew Dabeka, is working with Alex in Ottawa, and is one of the best Canadian Men’s Singles players in his time. However, I do not know of his Mixed Doubles ability and I cannot comment on that. I was working with Ronne Runtulalao at ClearOne briefly before the tournament, as he works with us at ClearOne and has watched my matches at Canada Open with Alex. So we have been fortunate to have 3 coaches working with us, but unfortunately, they did not collaborate. We ended up with a very interesting mix of tactics to consider.

Main Venue (Source: Me)

Let’s begin with looking at how we view performance: I believe it is very training oriented, whereas it seems that Alex takes on a tactical approach. For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that we are on the extreme ends of our performance beliefs. For myself, I believe performance will be a slight degradation of optimal practice. Any tactics or strategies need to be performed in practice, and new tactics and strategies should not be simply ‘inserted’ into tournament play. There is little room to ‘improvise’, unless it has been performed in practice. Over time, many aspects of the game will eventually be covered, which leads to a stronger and more mature player with a diverse set of skills. However, technical ability and physical capacity must be addressed IN training. It must be developed first, because they are fundamentals to badminton, and also in many other sports as well. The tactical approach (as I am biased to the other approach) seems less realistic. It has worked for people before, but it seems more like the things you see in movies (or the rare real life events that end up being turned into movies). With a solid “system” in place, you would minimize the problems you would face if you opt for this approach, as you can make small adjustments because they are a part of your arsenal, or at least a similar ‘lateralization’.

Ballerup Super Arena (Source: Me)

I like to think of this as studying for a very difficult test. Ideally, studying the right material the right way would be best, but most of the time, we either don’t prepare enough, or maybe we over-prepare the wrong material. So, who would do better on the test? It’s really hard to say: it depends. If we go back to our match, we had a mix of tactics to attempt, based on our match against our opponents at Commonwealth Games. On Alex’s side, they believed that we gave up the attack too much, and we had to challenge them more at the net. On my side, Ronne simply tried to give me strategies to mix up my shots and do a few things differently on defense. Ultimately, we decided on trying to challenge the net more in the match, which I was not terribly comfortable with and I could already foresee various counter-measures that I needed to adopt. Not lifting is not easy for me in Mixed, because it also increases the speed of the game we need to play at. If you cannot read the game well enough, then everything becomes fast and furious and turns into something like Men’s Doubles.

From my own perspective, I take a systematic approach to my game. I like to use high lifts to open up the court, instead of trying to play blocks and challenge a very confined space. I don’t like playing floaty mid-court shots to try to hit over the player at the front, because it doesn’t work very well at the higher levels (and World Championships is pretty much one of the highest levels I can play at). I like to vary up things based on what is happening in the game, although I do tend to be a bit too predictable at times. However, I can also tough it out and continue a standard way of playing until a better chance opens up, because that’s what I think the best players can do: play a good pace in a rally until they get a good chance to attack, then make the most of their opportunity. I usually don’t like to gamble. However, the strategy to adopt for this match seemed like a heavy gamble, and perhaps I didn’t understand what the coaches wanted, but it appeared that I had to play the tactic of ‘blocking more’ so that Alex could take the net. It seems like a great idea, and anyone watching my Commonwealth Games match would probably agree, but there is one limiting factor: execution.

Denmark... beautiful! (Source: Me)

How many of you have heard of the strategy: block and move in? How many have practiced it? Now, the question I propose is, “How many of you practiced it in a match situation, where your training partner can kill your shuttle if it’s too high, or play it over your head if you run in blindly without watching your opponent?” I know we should move in, but is it the appropriate time to? So, this would be a great concept to consider in training, but not when you’re in the middle of a match. I felt that the blocks could have been a good strategy, but I didn’t believe we could really execute it. And we didn’t.

I had trouble getting Heather away from the net, and I tried to play some shots over her head to the mid-court, but they didn’t really work out so well, because it’s honestly a terrible shot that unfortunately works in Canada, but the rest of the world will punish you on it. Playing to the net also proved difficult because I would then have to cover a side in case Alex couldn’t make it in time. I felt Alex needed to creep forward as well to minimize the distance she had to move, but now that opened up lifts/clears over her head, which I also had to cover in case she was gambling forward too much. The tactic COULD have worked, but I don’t think we had the ability to execute it. I would have opted for a more casual defensive strategy to open up the court to give ‘holes’ to exploit. Additionally we lost heavily on the first 3 shots. Knowing it needs to be better is easy, but ‘how’ to make it better, and ‘what’ to do to make it better becomes much more difficult.

Training at Gentofte Badminton Club, led by Thomas Stavngaard! (Source: Me)

The real difficulty lies in how we move on from this, as we don’t even train together. In fact, we are 5 hours away by plane. Fortunately, we had a meeting with Jeff White after the tournament and it was good because we got to the heart of certain problems and we have at least a few actionable items we can address for the upcoming Pan American Championships in October. However, with Alex playing the Guatemala International, it eliminates at least a week of training, which gives much less time to prepare. Although the Pan Am Champs may not be at a very high level, there are still many upcoming Canadian teams which will be looking to take the title, in addition to other Pan Am countries, like Brazil and USA. The fact that I have to be nervous about a tournament I have won 5 times is troubling… but I’d rather over prepare than to under prepare. It will be a tournament which counts toward the Pan Am Games qualification, so I cannot take things lightly.

But when have I taken things too lightly?

September will be a key month for preparing, as I will be preparing not just for one, but for 3 tournaments back to back to back (Pan Am Champs, USA International, and Brazil International). I’ve won 2 of these tournaments before, and made a semi-final in the last one. I’ll be taking new measures to improve my game, including keeping communications with Alex, but this time, I will make sure that I lead. I will consider tactical suggestions, but I will play the way I need to play to win, instead of following orders which did not involve prior preparations. I’m all for following plans that have been practiced in training, but I’m not about to adapt different strategies or tactics that the team hasn’t performed before. 

I will lose on my terms. I can also win on my terms. And it’s time to start winning again…

Always seek to improve. How can you say
you've tried your best, if you haven't tried everything?