Badminton Expert Views
Thinking outside the box will get more women into the sports ecosystem - Aditi Mutatkar, Program Head, Simply Sport
Sports is not just a profession for elite athletes to gain worldwide fame, recognition, it’s a lifestyle that teaches valuable life skills that equips children to deal with the challenges of life. From setbacks, fighting spirit, humility, teamwork and integrity, sports encompass all these qualities and more. That’s why every child deserves a fair opportunity in participating and learning from sports.
Few others are bigger believers of fair opportunities and female participation in sports than Aditi Mutatkar, 5 time national badminton champion who has represented India at the World Championships, Asian and Commonwealth Games and has made into the badminton news innumerable times. In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Aditi speaks about the beginning of her badminton journey, overcoming challenges, special achievements, female participation in sports, importance of mental health and her advice for young athletes.
Q 1) How did your journey in badminton begin and what motivated you to take up the sport professionally? Did you also face any challenges?
I began playing at the age of nine and I lived in Bombay at that time. My father used to play badminton as a hobby and he would take me out to play because I was a hyperactive kid and my parents didn’t know how to use my energy and considered sport as a good option. I started playing with him and it started with outdoor badminton at the beginning and I picked it up pretty well from day 1. That’s where my parents thought that I might have a spark to pick up the sport. My father enrolled me in some competitions and I reached the semifinals of one of my first tournaments without any formal training. That’s where my parents decided that I should get professional training and see how it goes. My professional training began at Andheri Sports Complex during my summer holidays and after training for two months my coach suggested that I enter into a state tournament. I won that tournament and that’s how it started for me. From there on I kept winning more often and it made me realize that badminton is a sport that I want to play seriously.
My father was a banker, my mother was a school teacher at that time and I have a younger sister as well, so in the beginning it was tough financially for a young family in Bombay because a sport like badminton has expensive racquets, coaching is expensive and one shuttle is 75 rupees. It was tough financially until I landed a job with Bharat Petroleum at the age of 16 but the first two years of financing my career made my parents move to Pune from Bombay as it was cheaper. That was a major challenge at the beginning of my career.
Q 2) You have competed in a number of international tournaments, representing India. Which is your most special achievement so far?
The Bitburger Open Final in 2008 was a very important tournament for me because it was the first Grand Prix event that I played a final in. Only Saina (Nehwal) had played a final in such an event so that was an important achievement for me individually. As a team event, the Commonwealth Games silver medal that we won in Delhi where I contributed by playing the women’s singles with Saina. Being a part of that team and winning the silver medal, having never won it before was a historic achievement. These two are my major accomplishments that I feel happy about.
Q 3) You are the head of women in sports department at Simply Sport Foundation, what is your focus area and how do you plan to achieve it?
If we speak specifically about the women in sport initiative, the idea is to firstly approach it in a very methodical way. It starts with doing proper research about what is really going on at the grassroot level with regards to participation in sports for women. We don’t just want to look at athletes participation but the ecosystem in general. If you look at the numbers at an administrative level, coaches, support staff then you will notice there are a lot fewer women as compared to men. The idea is to first understand the problem which is not that easy at the India level. India is a complicated country and every part of it brings its own set of problems. The North East is completely different culturally as compared to the west. We have to understand the issues at every level on a country wide scale to come up with solutions that make sense. The idea is to first do an extensive research project, come up with a report and have objective recommendations which can actually be implemented rather than something theoretical. Once we do that, we will be able to come up with specific programmes for specific geographies in India which can help get more women into the sports ecosystem.
Q 4) We have seen young girls, especially in rural India, face immense social challenges while taking up sports. What needs to be done to encourage more girls/women to be involved in sports?
We have to lead by example, for example: if you look at Manipur as one of the states that do really well in sports despite not having a proper structure in place, I believe it comes from the fact that they don’t have a patriarchal society. They have football tournaments for ordinary mothers who come and play and I think the culture makes a lot of difference. If you have your own mothers, middle aged women actively playing on the grounds, it makes a difference in how a young girl or boy looks at sports. Especially when it comes to rural girls, it’s the mothers who will have to take up the challenge and start pushing themselves in some way or another into sports. It’s a dream to see more women on the grounds which is not just a rural issue but an urban one as well. You don’t see many women playing at Shivaji Park in Dadar compared to men, so it’s a huge expectation to see more mothers and middle aged women playing sports. The other issue in rural areas is that it’s very difficult for mothers to send their daughters because there is always an issue of public safety as there is an issue with transport systems. Having a playground or a center is not enough, there also needs to be safe transport to take them to and fro. There are many things that can be done but we need proper research that is geography and area specific. It cannot be a central research that’s applicable all over India because it will just not work, India is too complicated in that sense. We have to think outside the box but these could be some of the ways of getting girls to play first, as that’s the first step towards entering the ecosystem and then making a career.
Q 5) As someone who believes in giving children a fair opportunity in sports, what is required to make India a sporting nation?
It's quite a difficult question but I think we are getting better. Women are watching more sports than ever and taking keen interest in sports as evident by various studies done on broadcast. There is also a rise in awareness in terms of fitness as you now see people hitting the road, running and cycling. I think for us to become a sporting nation, the first thing is to get more girls to play because half of India's population consists of females and if they are not participating and are confined only to the kitchen it won't help. By participation, I don't just mean competitive participation but in the form of a lifestyle. For example, in Manipur you see boys and girls playing football and it isn't considered a big deal there which you still don't see happening even in big cities. This has to stop and should become a norm to have as many girls and women on the playground playing shoulder to shoulder with boys. Another way of looking at this would be having sports in schools including the government ones as well. I have had some experience working with the government schools at the grassroot level when I used to work with Art of Play Foundation before Simply Sport. We used to make curriculums for them regarding physical education and I have seen how physical education is looked at that level. Even if you look at our sports policy and all of those things, we are so much about the competition that we have lost sight of sport as a way of life. Until sports becomes a way of life we cannot become a country with a culture of sports. We have millions and millions of children in schools today, more in the government schools than the private schools therefore, till sports don't reach there and we don't have proper curriculum and proper access of sports to the population especially in rural India, things won't change. I think schools are the best ways to get more and more young people to participate in sports, making it a way of life for them and giving them the access to sport not just in a competitive way but as a part of their life. Hence I feel schools are one of the ways to make sure sports reach more and more people. Also, it is important to get more girls into playing as 50% of the population not playing is definitely an issue. We are already into leagues and such things are slowly coming up in India and I feel it's something really great because it's not just a way of supporting local talent which otherwise would go unnoticed but also a way of making revenues and making it profitable for everyone involved. Therefore I feel things like that could help but it's a deep philosophical question we need to first define culture before we solve this issue but things like these could help.
Q 6) How important of a role does mental health play, not just in achieving a favourable result but also for keeping the spirit high while recuperating from injuries and setbacks?
Mental health is very crucial and you have to be open to it as well. Lots of athletes are actually just not open to putting themselves up for it but I think it's very important. Also, especially when you are going through injuries or downtime in any way when it comes to sport mental health actually plays a very important role. Yes there is professional mental help that you should avail but also the support ecosystem of the athlete is extremely important. The conversation you have with your parents and friends along with the kind of support system that you build around yourself as an athlete is quite important. I think if the channels are open there, it makes a lot of things easier. For example when I was injured I kept my channels with my friends and parents open and was able to discuss anxiety and other things with them. My friends were there with me to keep my spirits high and give me a distraction in a way where I could come back from that positively. I think the ecosystem that athletes build around them and keeping that positive is extremely important in addition to of course the professional counselling that is now more easily available. Mental health is crucial and especially in the times we live in, there are so many pressures that teenagers go through now more than when I was a teenager because there is constant comparison and social media. The money in sports that has come now because of the sponsorships has also led to comparisons such as who is doing what and who is getting what in terms of financial support. I feel athletes today have added pressure compared to when we were teenagers making the issue of mental health all more important.
Q 7) What would be your advice to aspiring athletes? Do you think there should be a lesser focus on ‘winning’ and more emphasis on enjoying the journey?
Yes. I have been there as an athlete when I had compared myself to the next best or to the fact that I was number two to Saina (Nehwal) for a long time as a junior and then as a senior as well. It's extremely difficult to be at the number two position and to still keep a very objective understanding of your own self but I truly believe that you have to enjoy the journey when you are at it rather than looking back at it and saying I could have done it in a better way. Yes, winning is extremely important in sport. I would lie if I say it's great to be number two, no it's never great to be number two. You always work towards being the number one but I would also say that being number two is not as bad at all. It still means a lot and I know the way society looks at all these things but it's very difficult in sports to be at number two or three in the country and it's not a small achievement. Every athlete will have their own journey and till you respect your journey and your achievement it is extremely difficult to find respect on the other side. What happens is if you are number one or number two, the way society will look at you will keep changing all the time. When you are number one they will try to pull you down and when you are at two they will belittle you. It's just that people around you will always have something to say so it's very important to have that own assessment of yourself that too a very objective one. I remember as a junior athlete I would always find myself saying 'hey Saina has become World Number ten and I'm World number thirty and it's not good and if she is at ten I should be atleast number eleven' which was so wrong because I was still world number thirty and there are not many athletes in badminton who have reached that level but at that time there was nobody to tell me that and make me realise the potential of what I was achieving at that point of time even if I was not Saina. Therefore I feel it's extremely important to enjoy your journey and as an athlete you will see it whenever you stop playing and when you come out of it as an athlete you will realise you are so much more equipped than anybody else to cope with things that are going to come to you because sports teaches you so many things. There are too many life lessons that you learn and if you are aware of that and you respect that, you will succeed after that journey of being an athlete as well. You have to start respecting wherever you are. Of course, work at being the best you can be but compare yourself to yourself as much as possible rather than the next player out there. It's important to enjoy the journey and have self respect and have a very objective assessment of your own career rather than a competitive assessment of it. Have fun with it as you are there because it doesn't really last long for athletes since it ends around the age of thirty when most of our peers are starting their journeys. An athlete’s career is for a really short time and one should have fun with it.
I want to win the Olympic gold medal for India - 17 year old World Number 2 Samiya Farooqi
It’s always exciting when a future badminton star is coached by the most celebrated badminton coach in India, Pullela Gopichand. Having unearthed the likes of Saina Nehwal and P.V Sindhu, there is naturally a buzz surrounding Samiya Farooqi, the 17 year old World Number 2 in the junior women’s singles charts.
A product of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, Samiya spoke about her journey so far, her ambitions for the future, overcoming adversity and dealing with the pressure and expectations in an exclusive interview with SPOGO.
How did your love for badminton begin? When did you feel it’s a sport you can pursue professionally?
My father says that when I was very young I loved going to sports shops and I always had very good hand - eye coordination. I remember watching tennis when I was a little over 6 years old and was fascinated by the sport. I asked my father if I could play the sport and he took me to the Gopichand Academy instead of a tennis academy because he thought that my body was very lean and it wouldn’t be suited for tennis. That’s when I started playing badminton and gradually started enjoying the game. I played the sport for fun until I was 10 years old which was when my coach Gopichand sir called my parents and said that he sees potential in me and that I should pursue badminton professionally.
What role has Mr. Pullela Gopichand played in your journey so far? How would you describe him as a coach?
Gopichand sir is not only my coach but also a mentor and a very big inspiration in my life. I have never seen a coach as hardworking, disciplined and dedicated as him. He puts in a lot of time and effort to not just bring out the best in me but also other players from India. He prepares us to become the best players in the world and I’m very thankful to him for pushing me to become the best. Every title that I win makes him feel that his hard work is paying off and he motivates me to work even harder to win bigger titles. His dedication towards the sport is such that he calls us at 4 am in the morning as he is busy with other senior players later in the day. He has a very good team of coaches who support him all the time. I believe I’m at the Harvard of Badminton in India and I feel lucky to have him as my coach and be mentored in his academy.
Who do you look up to as your idol in the world of badminton and why?
I look up to Tai Tzu Ying from Taiwan. Her strokes are extraordinary and very deceptive, even when it’s a crucial rally or an under pressure situation, she will always play her strokes to perfection and remains calm and composed. I also admire Carolina Marin for her attitude, both of them are the fittest players in the world. I learn a lot by watching their videos and I hope to be better than them one day.
You've suffered ankle and back injuries in the past. How challenging was it to recover from that and get back in the groove?
Injuries are a part of every sportsman’s life but the most difficult thing to get through is the toll it takes mentally as well as physically. I had an ankle injury towards the end of 2019 when I was at my peak and a back injury after the lockdown ended. I had to rest for two months to recover from the ankle injury and three months for my back injury. One of the toughest parts of resting was to control my diet as I couldn’t afford to gain weight. It’s also very tough mentally because a lot of negative thoughts kept crossing my mind such as “Will I be able to move the same way on the court? How hard will it be to get back? All my colleagues are getting better while I’m stuck with an injury” and so on. Whenever I got these kinds of thoughts I would speak to my parents and feel much better and more focused to recover faster. One of the most challenging aspects is the physical training after an injury, the body loses a lot of muscle after so many weeks of rest and it was tough to get my fitness back but thanks to my coaches they helped me get back on court faster.
Tell us more about your accomplishments so far and what do you hope to achieve in the future?
The major titles I’ve won are the Junior Asian Badminton Championship Under 15 and the Under 19 Bulgarian title. I have also won silver and bronze medals at International Under 15 level and many national titles. Since I have only just begun competing at the senior league, my current goal is to get into the top 100 of the world rankings and then gradually progress to top 50, top 10, top 5 and eventually become the world number 1. My ultimate goal is to win a gold medal at the Olympics and win many more super series titles to become the best women’s singles player in the world.
How challenging has it been to continue training amidst the pandemic?
Not only in India but the whole world was under lockdown for a few months because of the pandemic and my training stopped as a result. Even though I was doing online workout sessions with my trainers, it still wasn’t enough. Once the lockdown lifted, we started practicing again while taking all the necessary precautions but it was a challenge to get back on the court fitness wise. After a few days I suffered a back injury, so 2020 was a very tough year for me as well as many other athletes due to the pandemic.
How do you deal with all the pressure and expectations you have at such a young age?
There is always some pressure while playing. When I was a junior player, I didn’t really experience any pressure as I was doing well but when I progressed to bigger tournaments I started to feel more pressure. Even though my coaches and parents have never put any pressure on me and have only wanted me to give my best on the court, I have high expectations from myself and feel the need to perform in every match. Whenever I feel a lot of pressure, I meditate and pray because it helps me feel relaxed. My father says that winning and losing is a part of the game and I also believe that some pressure is good because it helps me be alert and play aggressively on court. I’m told I play well under important pressure situations in the match, so it works well for me.
How much of a leap has it been in the transition between junior and senior level tournaments?
The transition from junior to senior level has been pretty smooth. When I won the Under 13, I was made to play the Under 15 and when I won the Asian Championship Under 15, I was made to play the Under 19. I almost jumped past the Under 17 and when I started winning the Under 19 at the age of 16, Gopi sir told me to stop playing at the Under 19 level and shift to the senior level. I was a semifinalist in the National Senior Ranking in Pune and also at the Bangladesh International in Women’s Singles but lost a crucial year because of the pandemic. I’m 17 now and my target to be in the top 100 or even top 50 has been delayed because of a year being lost due to the pandemic. I’m hoping to get there this year provided we get to play in tournaments and my fitness level is good with no injuries.