Lessons From the 2021 USA Junior Nationals

This was my first time coaching a Junior Nationals, officially. I've had limited experience managing and coaching a team, as I've always coached more from the sidelines or as a personal favor to others. But of course, I must acknowledge the help I received from the parents throughout this trip in managing their kids, helping with transportation, and finding restaurants to accommodate all of us. It definitely made a difference and I am extremely grateful for the assistance!

Of course, I must also thank the other coaches and staff at Bellevue Badminton Club for their work throughout the year in making this trip possible. Additionally, I want to thank the players for their cooperation throughout the trip. Though we may have wanted better results, I hope the trip provided a good learning experience overall. Despite assigning some "homework" to some of the players in writing a 500-1000 word essay on what they learned from junior nationals, I will lead by example and start first. Please don't plagiarize my work though...

One of the first lessons I hoped to instill in our athletes was a lesson I learned far too late in my career, taken from Stoic philosophy: "You control how you play". It's one of my favorite videos and I share it with aspiring athletes because it's a powerful message. Though I'm no longer competing, it's something that can still work for me, with a simple modification: "You control how you coach".

As a former athlete, I know the type of coaching I want, which also means I know the type of coaching that I don't want. I always hated the overcoaching and the oversimplification of things.

"Just block and move in."

"Get on attack."

"Stop lifting so much."


In my mind, it's like I'm playing a different game, but maybe I was just making excuses. I could've been wrong too, and I accept that, but the first thought to each of these statements were usually rebuttals:

"But the girl is standing so close to the net. I don't think I can block consistently enough to allow my partner to rotate in."

"I'm hitting harder and trying to set up for a lift, but my opponents aren't giving up the attack so easy and I'm making more mistakes because I'm over-forcing it."

"I stopped lifting, but all my shots aren't good enough and I'm just getting more late and lifting even shorter because I'm trying not to lift."

Been there. Done that. I got frustrated and angry when it didn't happen the way I wanted. Of course the coach wanted us to do well, and the intention was there, but is there a better way to do it? Yes, I think so. I try to add humility in my coaching. The first thing I say is the most important:

"You don't have to do what I say. It's just a strong recommendation. I'll keep recommending it if I feel that way, but you can continue to do it your way because it's your game and you need to make your own decisions."

Sometimes that's not what an athlete wants to hear because they just want an easy answer. But we all know there are never easy answers. I'm not that good, nor will I ever be. Also, NOBODY is THAT good.

So yes, I'll add in the "maybe, try this", or "if you can", or my favorite, "if you think your opponent will adjust, do this. If not, do that". It almost sounds a bit like an algorithm, and in a way it is. But to be fair, I'm still figuring it out too. I know I need to show confidence in my coaching, but the last thing I want to say is something along the lines of "If I was playing, I would just do that". The player isn't me, so why would I expect them to think like me or play like me? I am VERY aware of the differences between beginners and experts, which was covered in detail in my coaching education. I may see one thing, but it's actually many things chunked together. Some things I see are very specific, and often I may not even consciously know the cues I pick up from watching the game from the back of the court. Also, I see things without having to consciously attend to the shuttle, which is a huge advantage. The players have to think, decide, and act, all while chasing down the shuttle at a high rate of speed on the court. I'm just sitting in the back, watching. I know it's easier for me because it is.

When assessing the situation after a rally, I need to figure out what to do: should I say something, or should I let the athlete continue. Sometimes I'll just give words of encouragement, but this is something I need to figure out as well. If the athlete is thinking something, perhaps it's best not to overload them with more coaching so that they figure things out themselves. However, sometimes they're thinking about things that aren't helpful to them, and saying something keeps them present if I give them a specific task. This is why I prefer to give options, because I need them to decide for themselves. That decision will hopefully bring them back away from thoughts that aren't helpful to them, whatever they may be. Reading body language isn't easy, and each athlete is different. Sometimes you can tell, but other times you're only making a best guess. That's why I like to talk with athletes before and after games to see how they are feeling, instead of making unnecessary assumptions.

That's also why I discourage athletes from asking irrelevant questions, such as "How many points did you get?" This is the worst type of question because any answer will be instantly judged by the other person based on their subjective thoughts about what constitutes as a close game. Why not ask, "How was your game?" This allows for a player to assess whether they felt it was close or not, and ignoring the scoreline because it lacks context. Scores are like BMI. It gives you a general idea of a person's body mass, but you really don't know if they're overweight unless you also have additional context like waist circumference. Similarly, scores PLUS total length of match may be a better indicator of what kind of game it was. So a score of 21-7, 21-8 in 12 minutes is like a high BMI with a high waist circumference. Sorry, I'm pretty sure it wasn't close at all. But if it was a 30 minute match instead, then you might infer that the rallies were long, but one side ended up winning the majority of them. That's like a high BMI but lower waist circumference, typically letting you know you're dealing with an athlete with significant lean body mass.

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson

What happens when things go wrong? Environmental factors are often important, but it highly depends on the opponent. Sure, we can all agree that everyone has to deal with the same environment, but that kind of thinking is like saying that everyone has an equal opportunity to make money. Maybe some players have access to train in high ceiling facilities and how to handle a drift when they play. Maybe some players are used to playing on professional badminton courts. I'm leaning toward dealing with environmental factors as a priority, because you cannot execute your game plan effectively if you don't account for those factors. Being able to adapt is a life skill, and it comes back to our first lesson: you control how you play. You can't control the environmental conditions, but you can control how you manage yourself within those bounds.

Another derivative of controlling how you play is understanding effort levels. You can control your intention to win a rally, but the outcome depends on many outside factors. Your opponent, for one, is trying to do the same, and neither is in control of the other. However, the effort you put into winning a rally is largely controllable, so how do you expect to win if you're not trying harder than your opponent, given a similar level of ability? When I was competing, I learned to ask myself how I was supposed to win against stronger teams if my defensive stance was lazier, if my racquet preparation was lower, or if my quality of shots were more variable. Statistically, it won't go well for me, and though I may get lucky sometimes, it's often not enough to win me the entire match. This also ties a bit to ego, because to protect one's ego, some people opt to give up earlier because they are unable to face trying their best and losing. This vulnerability is a prerequisite to winning, because to be able to win, you must put yourself at risk to lose. Otherwise, it's really not worth much to win, isn't it?

Throwing ego aside, one of the best ways to learn from a defeat is something I did a few times when I was competing: I would ask the opponent's coach for advice (AFTER the match, of course). I would try to be polite, introduce myself, and ask for a bit of feedback about the match. I've never had a coach turn me down, and I often get some great advice because it's usually the same information the coach was giving their player when they were coaching against you. Perhaps it's a step towards networking as well. It's never wise to burn bridges, and what's the worst thing that can happen? It's just a no. No problem.

A final lesson is to pay attention to what people are currently doing, because you may then be able to make inferences about what they are NOT doing. However, you cannot tell what people are doing from scores on Tournament Software, nor is it wise to consider what other people say about other players, especially those with less of a badminton background. Those who play badminton see things differently than those who don't, and the greater the badminton experience, the sharper the insights most of the time. This effect is known as "quiet eye", but I will cover this concept in more detail another time. In a nutshell, "quiet eye" is simply seeing the right things at the right time, so you can make the right decision... more or less. For example, someone might tell you that someone jumps really high, but they fail to notice that their recovery time is very slow. Everyone's a critic, so often it's best to see for yourself if you're going to be the one competing. You control how you play, so you should best see it with your own eyes before you decide.

To recap, here are the key takeaways:

  • You control how you play. Repeat this every time you make an excuse about something.
  • The athlete MUST make a decision, and it's best to encourage them to choose especially in tougher situations.
  • As a coach, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. Don't forget the athlete is probably trying to figure things out by themselves too.
  • Scores often don't tell the whole story of the match, and athletes who like to compare scores likely have an ego to deal with.
  • Game plans often go sideways if one cannot manage environmental factors.
  • For a chance to beat a stronger opponent, maximum effort (or maximum luck, or both) is often the minimum requirement.
  • Ask your opponent's coach for advice if you lose to them. Be polite and don't worry if they say no. If you're mentally prepared to do that, it can only get better from there. This extends to failed interviews or other application processes. Asking for feedback so you can learn and improve yourself is something that will eventually lead you to success.
  • Notice what people are doing, but also consider what they aren't doing. If they're not the best of the best, there's clearly something missing and if you know what it is, use it to your advantage if you can.

Beware of simply skipping to the bottom and memorizing these concepts, because a superficial understanding will probably hurt you in the long run. As the proverb goes, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." To take it further, I would recommend you challenge my thinking and find areas where I could be wrong, because... I could be wrong. Knowing that I can be wrong enables me to reconsider the evidence as it comes, so I can adapt and make a better game plan, just as if I was playing a badminton match. We all control how we play. I've made my move. Now it's time for you to make yours.

Good luck.
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