TOBY NG

From 'Good' to 'Great'... But I’m Stopping at 'Great'

Different people have different definitions of World Class. Tim Ferriss says the top 5%, whereas some may define it as being the top 0.1%. The difference between these factors is quite large: being the top 5 in a room of 100 people, or to make the example easier to compare, the top 50 in a group of 1000, whereas in the other definition, it would be the top person in a group of 1000. I kind of like Tim Ferriss’ definition better, because sometimes, being the top 0.1% comes down to uncontrollable factors, including luck. Opportunity is different for everyone, so it never really is a level playing field. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can cope with reality.

Badminton has been a long time passion, and I’ve grown very fond of it. I’ve also grown quite good at it and I think I can say I’m pretty great at it, at least in my events. However, I’ve been trying very hard to be one of the best, and given the circumstances, I believe it is an impossible task. The sooner I get a real grip on reality, the sooner I can find a solution to my problem, because it has been keeping me from enjoying badminton. The pursuit of always trying to be better should be encouraged, but the pursuit in trying to be the best needs a well-defined plan, finances, and opportunity: none of which I have had this time around. If anything, I should be grateful that I’m even having an opportunity to compete to begin with! So, yes, thank you to all those who have helped make this happen.

I suppose it is one part of human nature to always strive for more, and my badminton career has been no exception. To put things into perspective, my parents have always wanted me to get good grades in school, go to university, get a degree, and get a good job. Badminton was only meant as an activity to keep me out of trouble and to exercise, and here I am, trying to make a second Olympics. It’s funny to me sometimes because the path my parents wanted me to take is no different than the Olympic dream. Why? It’s because the competition of getting good grades, to go to university, to get a good degree, to get a good job, is also extremely high. Sure, maybe there’s only one continental spot for a Pan American team in my event every 4 years, but getting that plastic surgery or dermatology residency spot seems pretty obscure as well. My luck is that I have less people competing in badminton than in medical school.

Where am I going with this? It’s quite simple. I’m only trying to say that I would rank pretty average for a high school student, average for a university student, and I would probably get a pretty average job. I wanted to get into physiotherapy initially, but my grades are not even close enough to submit an application. However, the effort I put into being a student was probably pretty average at the time. Now I know much better, and I thank badminton (and sport, in general) for teaching me how to go from good or average, to great. I can say I’m a mediocre student, but I’ve excelled in badminton in the province. I have been provincial champion, best in BC (and Alberta for a couple of years actually). Then, I’ve extended it to being the best in Canada, winning national titles and being ranked 1st in the country. I can’t imagine being the country’s #1 kinesiology student, although I think that would be also pretty cool. It’s too bad being a student isn’t an Olympic sport, although I can see a lot of cons that would have as well. Besides, what purpose is there to being #1?

That question has been echoing in my mind these past days, after a couple of bad tournaments in Europe. However, Europe is much stronger overall in badminton, so perhaps I’m the one being unrealistic. They have better programs, better competition, and the average level of the sport is significantly higher than in Pan America. Asia might be even another step above Europe. So who am I kidding? All I can really do is to try and learn from my experiences, because until we develop adequate badminton opportunities here that can match that of the best countries in the world, I think it is a long shot to believe I can compete against them. I’m only being realistic, because I have been in fantasy land far too long.

I hope this doesn’t discourage anyone in Canada though, because it is a growing process. We can learn from the best and in terms of improvement, those who are not as good have a better growth curve. We can slowly begin to catch up if we make the right moves and do the right things. Having past players recontribute to the development of upcoming players is critical, and that I can promise I’ll do when I hang up my racquets from international competition. I think of a badminton career as being an exam: every player will write their exam and get a grade. However, others are in the process of starting the exam or currently in the middle of the exam, and to help the next generation is like giving away some of the test questions. It may not necessarily help them because their exam is different, but you never know if they might come across the same question. The overall goal is so the next person will do better than we did. It would be selfish to simply leave without helping anyone because there is a good chance that someone helped us when we first started. Despite using test cheating as an analogy, please don’t actual cheat on tests. Think of it more like passing on a restaurant or hotel review so the next person is well prepared.

So as far as these next 3 tournaments are concerned, I can only play my best and hope that it is enough to get me to Rio. If not, it’s okay. It’s difficult to compete against a team that has 8 more international tournaments this year (and probably another 10 from the year before) which has full funding, when I don’t even train in the same city as my partner. I have no formal training program, occasional coaching where they ‘oversee things’ (whatever that means), and I am doing mostly everything on my own with fading memories of my previous Olympic experience. I should be lucky I even got from good to great. It has been a struggle because I’ve been so driven to succeed - not because someone pushed me, but it’s because nobody pushed me.

I remember losing the final in the 2015 Pan Am Games, the first time I have lost to USA. I think everyone just congratulated me and told me that a silver medal is really good and I should be happy. 2nd place doesn’t make the Olympics; 2nd place is getting worse if your head to head record coming into the tournament was 5:0. Nobody said, “You need to step your game up”, “You need to train together more”, “You need to be better than that”, etc. So I had to do it, I had to be the one to keep pushing and fighting and trying to find new ways of getting better. And here I am, 10 months later, stuck in the same mindset. But it’s the same mindset that makes me practice serves for half an hour after losing a match because I missed 4 serves. It’s the same mindset that has helped me "lateralize" many lessons from seemingly unrelated subjects and apply them to my badminton. It’s the same mindset that has taught me, “Progress. Not perfection”. Unfortunately, I always forget about the latter.

I don’t think I am a perfectionist, but if I really think about (and take data), I would probably be one. I mean, trying to take data? Of course that’s probably a red flag. For far too long, I’ve been worrying about perfection, and I need to stop it. I don’t need to halt ‘progress’, but I need to stop ‘perfection’. I need to let go of control. I need to embrace the chaos that is reality. Sometimes rallies don’t go the way I want; sometimes I don’t execute my shot the way I want; sometimes the court conditions are not optimal; sometimes all of these things happen all at once in the same rally. Sometimes life is so overwhelming and chaotic, but hey, life goes on, whether we are in control or not.

If anything, control may just be an illusion to soothe our egos… I’ll let you ponder that thought for a bit.

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