2015 World Champs - A Story Of Redemption

It’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself, but we don’t really pay attention until things start going wrong. In 2011, I was trying to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics with my former partner, Grace Gao, and our primary competition at the time was Halim Haryanto Ho and Eva Lee from USA. We were the top team in the Pan American region at the time, and we played each other a few times. The first 2 times we competed were extremely close, going 3 games in each match. On the 3rd head-to-head match at the 2011 Brazil International Challenge, we ended losing in a 3 game match, a couple of weeks before the 2011 Pan American Games. I was pretty devastated at the time, and I spent pretty much all of that time trying to figure out what went wrong.

At that time, I had transitioned back to Vancouver, after training with Kim Dong Moon and Grace in Calgary for about 2.5 years. Kim went back to Korea as he was offered a job as a university professor, which was a great opportunity for him. I was able to chat with him over Skype and go through the tournament footage. Within a few minutes of reviewing the match in the first game, he figured out the problem. I suppose that’s what happens when you happen to be one of the greatest Mixed Doubles players of all-time. As for the strategy… you will have to ask me in person, or I’ll write about it in a book someday.

When it came time for the 2011 Pan Am Games, we ended up facing Halim & Eva in the final. It was a similar trend again, where we would win the first set, they would win the 2nd, and it would be up to the 3rd game to determine the victor. Going into the 3rd set, there came a critical point in the match where we had to pick our strategy. Our Canadian coaches were telling us to switch things up, but in the end, Grace and I decided to follow our instincts and listen to Kim’s advice from the Brazil tournament. No offence meant to our coaches at the time, as it really was a logical choice based on qualifications. In my books, a multiple World Champion is higher than any coaching certification level. In the end, things worked out and we won. It was still close, and I credit everyone for their part in that win, including Grace, Kim, and our coaches at the time.



So the 2015 Pan Am Games thing happens, and it sucks. It feels terrible, but I’ve already written about that. After taking a few weeks off, I decided to look at the draws for the 2015 World Championships in Indonesia. As I scrolled through each draw, looking at the draws of all the Canadians, I finally ended up in the mixed doubles draw. In the back of my mind, I figured with my luck, I’d play China or Indonesia in the first round. Fortunately, I wasn’t playing Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei from China (Philippe Charron and Phyllis Chan took the hit instead), nor was I playing any other Chinese or Indonesian team. After reading who our opponents were, I had to re-read it to make sure I didn’t read it wrong: we were to have a rematch of the Pan Am Games final.

“Redemption? Or is this the end?”

So many thoughts went through my head and Alex shortly messaged me later in the day to ask if I saw the draw. I said that I did, and that we should redeem ourselves. I’m an analytical person, of course, and “WHY?” is usually the first question I ask myself. Why do I want redemption? Simple… because we are better than that. We work as hard as we can, with the resources we have, and we refuse to let a bad loss bring us down. I still stood by my belief that if we play at our typical level, we have a really good chance to win. That’s why. Now for the tricky part… “HOW” do we make this happen?

Alex and I try to have a weekly call and we ended up having a chat that lasted more than an hour. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but it really got to the root of problems we encountered at the Pan Am Games. As frustrating as some parts were, I tried my best to be constructive and also as transparent as possible. Losing to them again may require some deeper reflection on whether it is economic to continue competing, as we are competing with finite resources. Additionally, if we cannot beat them head to head anyway, it makes little sense to me to continue to compete as their resources are much greater than ours. To finish our conversation, I made it clear that I would be taking creative control of the team, and I hope she would trust my recommendations.

It’s not easy to take charge, because it takes initiative. It takes responsibility. It takes willpower. As I believe (and studies have shown) that willpower is a finite source, I sometimes re-frame the question and ask myself: “Do you want to be right by proving them wrong, or do you want to win?” In school, sometimes when faced with an uncooperative team, you can ask “Do I want to expose these people for what they really are, or do I want to make a good grade?” Ideally, I would opt to work hard to get the good grade, because you probably won’t be working with these people again.  And if you do, suck it up, because it won’t be forever. And if it is forever, either you died and ended up in some kind of personal hell, or it’s time to change your world. There is a brilliant scene in “The Equalizer” [2014], where Teri is speaking with Robert McCall:

Teri: "You and I know what I really am."
Robert: "I think you can be anything you want to be."
Teri: "Maybe in your world, Robert. It doesn't really happen that way in mine."
Robert: "Change your world."

Change is uncomfortable, and I know that. Trying to start an uncomfortable conversation feels ugly, yet it gets better with time. The first part is the hurdle, and finding the motivation to do that rarely happens. However, motivation may not always come before action. According to Precision Nutrition, sometimes it’s the action that spurs motivation. It’s that first step we need to take BEFORE motivation comes. If we are always waiting to be motivated, it’s going to be a slow. Motivation is like opportunity: stop waiting for it to come to you; go toward it instead. How is this concept any different than badminton? Don’t wait for the shuttle to come to you, move towards it.

Seeing Ahead

Martin Walker: ”A good chess player thinks five moves ahead.”

Cal Lightman: “Great chess players only think one move ahead, but it's always the right move.”

The lines were from ‘Lie To Me’, one of my favourite TV series’ based on the research of Paul Ekman on how the face gives away emotions, sometimes in microexpressions, which can give enough information to determine if someone is telling the truth. These lines are one of my favourites, because it alludes to the differences in expertise between people. I was never the top of my class in any of my subjects, but I can say I was probably the best in the country in my event at a few points in time. Maybe my classmates were top of the class, but were they top of the school? Top of the province? Top of the country? Of course we aren’t even comparing apples to oranges, it would be like apples to screwdrivers. Just because I’m good at one thing, doesn’t mean I am better at someone in something else. For example, what do you call the guy with the lower marks in medical school? You call him, “Doctor”. However, if your life is on the line, would you dig a little deeper and make sure you find the most qualified doctor available to the resources that you have? Maybe it’s not that different after all. If my badminton career is on the line, I think I will go with my gut feeling, 9 times out of 10. As for Alex, I think she trusts me as well, in addition to the bonus of being on the same page. Be confident in your abilities, and work as a team.

After reviewing the footage of the Pan Ams a few times, a strategy popped into my head, and then it became glaringly obvious what kind of adjustment we would make when we faced the USA team. The problem was whether we could implement it in time. We only had one scheduled practice before our match, so we were working with very little time. We tried the best we could, and although it was far from perfect, I think it was enough to make a significant impact in our match. As we started off the match, the strategy worked well, and we had a good lead. However, there were a few times where our habits and reactions came back and we ended up losing those rallies. The first set was extremely close, but we pulled through to take it. The second set started off poorly for us, but due to some unforced errors by the USA pair, we were able to catch up. With the luck of the net cord, we tied the match up at 20-20, and we won again in the points to take the match.

I think Alex and I felt relief after we won more than anything else, as it was pretty close. We had an interview with Badzine after the match, and upon some more reflection, we know we are still able to win, but the gap between our level of play has shrank drastically over the years, and they are right behind us so that anything less than an average performance can suffer a defeat, as we saw at the Pan Am Games. The court we played on in Indonesia was quite windy and I felt we were quite even with the drift on the court, probably making similar amounts of unforced errors. This match definitely could have went either way, and I’m fortunate that our adjustment was enough to earn us those extra points.

Onto the next level…

After the match, we scheduled a later practice to work on some kinks as we would face Denmark the next afternoon. It was a long day for me, as I did a brief workout in the morning, played the match against USA, then went for a 2 hour practice. Regardless, it went pretty well and I’m glad I had the extra practice to work out more kinks and to practice our strategy more with Alex. The way I see it, if it can work against Denmark, then it can work against the best in the world. And for the most part, it did…

The match went fairly well, as we didn’t really have too many expectations going into the match aside from trying to do better than we did at the All Englands. I spoke with Alex about her defense, and that anything that goes past the midcourt should be at least ‘touched’ with the racquet, even if it leads to a front court finish. The idea was to make our opponents always have to hit one more shot to finish, giving us one more chance to return it. The idea worked extremely well, as I don’t think Alex let a single smash blow by her, because I could see confidence in the defense. No more squaring off to the forehand; no more upright defensive stances. Our tactics were just a bit short in quality compared to the Danes, but it was enough to know that we are on the right track. It was enough to see that we are moving in the right direction against the best in the world. Now, we have to reinforce it, while not getting discouraged and readjust to current Canadian trends. Time to play like a world-classed top 20 team, because the difference between 1 and 2 in Canada is the difference between a top 20 and top 40 team.

Having to come back to play nationally is going to be a hindrance most of the time because we can get away with too much. We can smash it through the girl much easier, people are much more prone to lifting, defense is weak, shot quality is poor, and the amount of unforced errors are too high. It’s easy to get comfortable with this after a few exposures, even though you consciously try to tell yourself when certain shots would be returned at higher levels, your shot quality would have been punished at higher levels, and serve quality is not good enough against the World’s best. It’s also difficult because coming back to play at home, you are the player/team to beat. Everyone can study your matches in an attempt to beat you in a single match, so for the players coming back to compete in Canada, it’s much more stressful. Players out to beat you can just train to beat a top Canadian team, instead of training to become a better team. Sometimes there may not be enough time in one match to adapt to your opponents, but over many matches, the stronger Canadian team will come out on top. But… that’s another topic for another day.

What's Next?

We are off to Guatemala for their International Challenge at the beginning of September. Unfortunately, we just missed a 5/8 seeding as our ranking fell slightly due to our loss at the Pan Am Games (everything counts, if you really think about it). There are some good teams out at the event, but the way I see it, there will always be good teams, and it’s time to establish ourselves as a good team as well. Sometimes we will be better, sometimes we won’t be, but as long as we’re constantly improving, I think we are on the right track!

Matches from Worlds can be found on YouTube, including one of Martin Giuffre’s Men’s Singles matches, and Kevin Li/Nyl Yakura’s Men’s Doubles match (as they requested match filming). Check them out when you have the time and be on the lookout for my next update!

"Citius, Altius, Fortius" is latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger".

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