Badminton has a burnout problem and it took an Olympic champ to break the silence

There are no easy answers to what the ideal schedule spacing between badminton’s important tournaments, ought to be. But player burnout is real.

When Chinese Olympic champion Chen Yufei posted candidly on Weibo about her “burnt out”, and later spoke of it to the media after her first-round win at All England, she was voicing concerns that will echo many other players. While ACL and ankle are the most dreaded words in the shuttle world, it is the debilitating draining of the mind of all joy of playing the sport, that is oftener an unspoken sentiment of the elite athletes in this sport.

A few lines stood out in Yufei’s admission on how the pressure of being an Olympic champion can take a toll. “Because of responsibility and because my name is Chen Yu Fei, I took my tired body to the courts and kept playing. However, I didn’t enjoy any of my matches nor did I look forward to them.”

This manifested in multiple disorders. “It all came from a busy 2021 – first was the Olympics, followed by the National Games and the Sudirman Cup, then the Uber Cup,” she was quoted as saying by the BWF. “My body was totally burnt out, and my mental state was the same.

Then came all the disorders in my body. I could not sleep well or eat well, and my mind was heavy and I had little energy.”

The post-Olympics rigmarole of expectations from performance – to be the best at every tournament for the next four years to live up to the tag, can be cruelly exacting, one assumes. When Yufei confessed to how she had really felt post the gold for the whole of last season, being crowned the champion didn’t sound like too much fun. That a Chinese athlete had taken to social media to speak of this was refreshingly bold.

Chen Yufei. (File)

A holiday in Bangkok had helped her recharge her batteries and start to enjoy the sport once more and she’s in the finals of All England. “It’s not about whether posting on social media helps or not. I see it as a way of expressing my emotions and thoughts. It does not really do anything about my performance. The fans were all very positive and cheering for me and encouraging me,” went the happy ending. However, the larger issue of the punishing schedules in this sport persists.

Reduction in number of tournaments might not find the same fans sound very enthusiastic, so the federation has a tightrope to walk. But some of the scheduling remains confounding – like this year’s start of the tournaments, where a Super 1000 in Malaysia, was followed by India, and then back to Indonesia the following week in what was fairly disorienting timezone-hopping for players. For fans, the bothers tend to be simpler armchair concerns like finding streaming sites, and the odd late-night matches and surfing channels. But cluster tournaments in three back-to-back weeks – though planned to facilitate travel – can hamper the best of performances, like Viktor Axelsen’s loss in Delhi playing on a second straight Sunday.

Solutions are hard to come by, for a sport that enjoys modest sponsorships compared to tennis and golf. Having those many tournaments actually makes sense, and spacing them out will be deeply difficult on players’ own pockets. On their own, the bunch of tournaments on the calendar cater to every possible format – an annual World Championship featuring the best, the team events in Sudirman and Thomas Uber Cup, the continental Games and championships, four Super 1000s and a bunch of Super 750, 500, 300 & 100s – the last ones for upcoming players.

However at the very top of the pyramid, the elite players find themselves with no respite, and their energies get spread too thin if they are obligated to turn up at all the Nationals, as well as shoulder burdens in team events, and then also pursue their individual ambitions on the Tour. Tennis got that right with the four Slams, but badminton is uniquely muddled, given all players turn up (or are expected to) for all of the Super 750+ events. Yufei’s case was extraordinary, owing to the pandemic time abnormal schedule. But surely, a gold medal, coming out of lockdown, ought not to have taken such a toll on her, that she wasn’t even enjoying playing the sport.

all-england-badminton All England Badminton Championship 2023 is underway.

Social media chatter about big players’ forms can be in the range of unkind to downright insulting. Declaring someone ‘finished’ is very common and can mess with player minds especially coming out of surgeries after injuries. When the Olympic medallist tag puts a target mark on your back, and fan folk don’t quite comprehend what ‘peaking towards a big event’ means, then players can put themselves under tremendous pressure causing burn-outs. Headlines of losses can then become dreaded words.

With Olympic qualification starting in May, there will increasingly be cases of players rushing to far too many tournaments than are good for their bodies and minds, to collect ranking points. The challenge for coaches around the world will be in reining back these mad urges of players to be at every tournament, and burning themselves out in the process – though it’s not going to be an easy decision to make, needing two players to be in the Top 16.

“I think that is a way of expressing, to unload my pressure. This is a new year, I would like to look ahead, take a fresh start,” she was quoted by BWF. Not everyone’s sentiment will carry the weight of an Olympic champion, but there will be those who silently suffer the same, and it will be badminton’s loss if these burnouts leave them broken in body or mind.

Badminton is teeming with big names facing a plethora of challenges. PV Sindhu only took a break after the ankle acted up, and what is celebrated as her consistency at big events might well have left her utterly knackered. Carolina Marin, through her documentary, has spoken on the challenges that began after she won her gold at Rio, and has had rotten luck with injuries thereafter. Kento Momota’s career is riddled with mishaps, though the Japanese setup with wise coach Park Joo bong have maintained patience and said that they would never rush him. Nozomi Okuhara repeats at every mixed zone after a loss or win, how grateful she feels just to be able to turn up and play on the court.

Even at the domestic tournament levels, pressures can be exacting. Aakarshi Kashyap would break down into tears after losing the Indian senior nationals to Anupama Upadhyaya and speak of the immeasurable stress she brought upon herself because she was playing a junior and was expected to win. She literally froze at the clutch, and that sort of pressure is never good for anyone. Earlier, Saina Nehwal copped talk of being finished, when she lost to Malvika Bansod, when semi-fit. Aakarshi would even speak about how learning to handle jet lag during the frenetic international travel for tournaments, was so important and something that players might struggle with.

Fans have only just begun to realise what the weight of their expectations does to players. While each player will cope in their own way, perhaps badminton needs to rethink some of its fundamental scheduling and ensure no one is losing finals out of exhaustion – physical or mental. Happy champions are better than brilliant champions on the verge of burnout.

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