Handcrafted book summary of Playing to Win-Saina Nehwal

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                                             Playing to Win

Saina Nehwal

Penguin India

144 pages; Average reading time 2 hours 07 min

This bookbhook summary will take not more than 12 minutes


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This bookbhook summary has been handcrafted by Priscilla Thomas.  Apart from writing book summaries for India’s favourite book summary app,Priscilla is currently a stay-at-home mother to her one year old baby. Books help her escape from day-to-day life and she feels there’s nothing better than sitting with a book and a cup of coffee.

 Early days

I was born in Haryana and spent my early childhood in Hisar, where my father worked as a scientist at the Haryana Agricultural University. Every afternoon my parents used to go to the faculty club at the University to play badminton. My sister used to hold me while I slept and my parents played. In fact, my father remembers that when I was just six months old, I was able to follow the shuttle back and forth. When I was eight years old, my father was transferred to Hyderabad. During my summer holidays in Hyderabad, with no friends or school to look forward to, I found that I was really bored in the new city. In order to combat this boredom, my parents enrolled me in karate classes where I did quite well, I even managed to get a brown belt.

Badminton comes into my life

 The following summer, my parents found out about a badminton summer camp that was being conducted by the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh. Two senior and respected coaches were part of this camp – P.S.S. Nani Prasad and S.L. Goverdhan Reddy. Because both my parents enjoyed playing Badminton, they decided to take me to the camp. In fact, my mother had played for the state of Haryana as well.

When we arrived at the stadium, we were told that the trials for the camp had ended. However, my father, who is a very persistent man, would not take no for an answer and convinced the coaches to give me a chance. At the end of the first session, both the coaches were impressed with what they saw in me. For one month, I went to the badminton camp every morning. Mummy would take me to the Lal Bahadur Stadium which was quite far from where we lived. At the end of the camp, I was selected for further training.

Once my school began, I continued my badminton training, although it was challenging. Every morning, I would wake up at 4am and travel 25 km to the stadium with Papa. From six to eight in the morning, I would train and then rush to school. In the afternoon, Mummy would pick me up and take me back to the stadium. Papa would pick us up in the evening and by the time we reached home, it would be nine in the night and I would be exhausted. Even through this punishing schedule, I enjoyed my time on court and started falling in love with the game. At the same time, academics was also an important part of my life. Papa is a scientist and he always assumed that my sister and I would follow in his footsteps. In fact, my aim was to become a doctor, not a badminton player.

 First taste of success & sacrifice

 All this hard work paid off when in 1999, I won the Under-10 district level tournament in Tirupati. After the district level tournaments, I took part in state-level tournaments. I won most of the matches but there was always the occasional loss. While I would be upset after a loss, Mummy would be even more upset than me. Seeing my disappointment was very upsetting for her. This gave me the motivation to work harder and dream big.

As soon as I steadily started winning tournaments, academics took a back seat. By Class 7, I had made it to state, national and even international-level tournaments. With all the time I needed to train, I lost almost 40 weeks a year from school. This meant that the only friends that I had were those that I trained with, and competed against. There was no time for birthday parties or hanging out with friends after school, things that most children my age would do.

When it came time for my Class 10 CBSE board exams, I was playing the German and Dutch Open and made it back just 25 days before my exams were to begin. My teachers were extremely supportive and gave me all the extra help that I needed. My Math teacher, Rani ma’am, would even come home to help me. With a lot of last minute cramming, I managed a respectable 65 per cent. Finally in Class 11, I took a call that my academics would have to end if I was to be able to take my badminton to the next level. Although Papa was not very happy about this, he knew that my badminton career had started to take off and this was the right thing to do.

I have what it takes

When I was twelve years old, I was a member of the Commonwealth Games team. Aparna Popat was India’s top women’s player and the main member of our team. As a junior member of the team, I spent all my time on the bench, but I used my time wisely, watching and training with the other senior members of the team. I finally got the opportunity to be a part of the international circuit when in 2003, I played the Czechoslovakia Junior Open in Prague. This was an under-19 tournament and I was only 13 years old, and unranked. Yet I reached the finals and won the gold beating players ranked between 6 and 20. This validated my belief that I had what it takes to play international badminton.

In 2005, at the age of 15, I played in the Senior Nationals losing in the final to Aparna Popat. In 2006, I was selected for the Commonwealth Games. A sudden injury to India’s number one player, Aparna, meant I got the opportunity of a lifetime. I went up to our team coach Vimal Kumar, and told him that I wanted to play the singles event. Even though he knew it would be a big risk, he agreed to let me enter the singles. I made it all the way to the quarter-finals, where I lost to Sing Aiying from Singapore. Looking back, I believe that I had a chance to get a gold medal, but as a young and inexperienced player, my fitness levels were not where they should have been.  I was not able to push myself further in the tournament. Even though I had lost, people were now aware of who I was.

The world is a stage

The Commonwealth Games was followed by the Philippines Open where I won the gold medal.  Unfortunately no one from the Indian team had made it past the preliminary rounds, so I was forced to celebrate alone in my room. This win also brought with it a prize money of 9,000 USD, the largest amount I had ever received. There was little time to enjoy this win because I had to join the rest of my team in Jakarta. Issues with my tickets meant that I had little time to rest once I reached Jakarta and as a result, I lost in the first round of the Indonesia Open.  The Junior World Cup in South Korea came next and I reached the final, where I lost to the top seed Wang Yihan. With this, my career was now on par with Aparna Popat.

2007 should have been an exciting year for me. I started off the year well reaching the quarter-finals of the Malaysia Open. I then lost in the second round at the All England tournament, one of the big ticket tournaments for a badminton player. After this I played in Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, China, Korea, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Macau and Vietnam. But in every tournament I lost in the first or the second round. My previous year’s success seemed to be putting even more pressure on me and the media was unforgiving. They wrote that my success in 2006 was a fluke. I did receive some good news this year in the form of support from the Mittal Champions Trust.

 The Top 10

 From 2008 to 2010, all my handwork started delivering results. I had moved up in the rankings from 200 to 28 and a place in the top ten was not far away. The highlight of 2008 was the Beijing Olympics. In May 2008, I received the news that I had qualified for the Olympics. Each round was a battle and I lost in the quarter finals to Indonesian Maria Kristin Yulianti.  In 2008, I also won one of the prestigious Grand Prix tournaments, the Chinese Taipei Open as well as the World Junior Championships. I also made it to the Super Series semi-finals in Malaysia. In December 2008 I entered the Top 10 and by January 2009, I was ranked Number 9 in the world. In 2009, I was awarded the Arjuna Award following the Indonesia Open and the Chinese Taipei Grand Prix gold. The award was made even more special because my coach P Gopichand was given the Dronacharya award, an award given to sports coaches. My winning streak continued with my win in the Indonesia Super Series and the India Open Grand Prix.  I also signed up with the Olympic Gold Quest that included prominent sportspeople like Leander Paes. The aim of this organisation is to support Indian athletes who have the potential to win an Olympic medal by complimenting any gaps in government support. The disappointment of 2007 finally seemed to be behind me.

2010 turned out to be an even better year. I won the India Open, the Singapore Open, the Indonesia Open, the Hong Kong Open and gold at the Commonwealth Games. To top it all, I moved up to Number 2 in the rankings, which was a first for an Indian woman in badminton. I started 2010 discovering that I had been chosen to receive the Padma Shri and the Rajiv Ghandhi Khel Ratna, which is given to only one Indian sportsperson every year.

2012 arrived and with it came the London Olympics. I started off the year with the All England tournament which I lost. The Swiss Open came next and I got a much needed boost by defending my crown. However, in April, I lost the India Open and was forced to re-evaluate my plan for the rest of the year. I managed to win the Indonesia Open in a well fought final which was perfect preparation for the Olympics that was around the corner. At the London Olympics, I reached the semifinals comfortably. Unfortunately, I made too many mistakes and lost the match. Despite the disappointment in missing out on the gold medal match, I had to pick myself up from this devastating loss and win the bronze medal match.

 A tough moment

Badminton is not a game where you can be successful without a large support network. My first coach was P.S.S Nani Prasad who was one of the first people to tell me that I would, one day, be one of the best in the world. From 2001 to 2003, I trained under S.L. Goverdhan Reddy and S. Mohammad Arif who helped me work on improving my stamina and overall fitness. Over time, coaches became more than just trainers, almost like family, because of the amount of time that I spent with them. When I was 12, my mother met with an accident. Even though it was close to midnight, I called Goverdhan sir because in that moment I could only think of him. He arrived at the hospital almost immediately. The Junior Nationals at Guntur were the next day and I did not want to go considering that Mummy was in critical condition. But Papa insisted that I go since there was nothing I could do by staying in the hospital. Goverdhan sir promised to come to the finals if I progressed in the tournament. Not only did I reach the finals, but I became the youngest player to do so. It was because of this performance that I was selected to play in the Junior Internal Circuit in Europe.

Coaches win matches

In 2003, I began training with All England badminton champion, P Gopi Chand, who was forced to retire from playing badminton because of an injury. I have trained with Gopi Chand for the longest time and found that he had an almost buddha-like sense of calmness. He has also helped me become an aggressive player and maintain a high level of fitness and a positive mindset. He is not only a coach and mentor, but is a friend whenever I need a listening ear. One of the lesser known facts about him is that he is an excellent cook. During the French Open in 2011, he cooked the entire team a yummy chicken curry.

Coaches are the ones that make players champions, often working even harder than the players themselves. If a player has to start practice at 6am, coaches need to arrive even earlier. They sacrifice weekends and holidays with their families. Sometimes, the only time they travel is with the players to tournaments. They share the exhilaration of a win with us and the tears of defeat.

Gruelling schedules

When I am not travelling for tournaments, my day begins at 6am with stamina building, agility and fitness exercises. I do a lot of skipping, running and stair exercises for three hours. I get a break for an hour and half during which time I have breakfast. This is followed by more training from 11:30am to 12:30pm which is then followed by lunch and a nap at the academy. From 3:30pm onwards, I work on my game, going without a break for almost three hours- sometimes practising drop shots with my hitting partner and sometimes a tournament format with the other players at the academy. Some days we play football or go swimming, and on other days we lift weights at the gym. On Wednesdays and Saturdays I train only in the morning. Sunday is the only day I get to take some time off.

The rigour of winning

I have found that pre match rituals which involve visualisation exercises, where I plan what I intend to do on the court and correct mistakes that I might have made in previous matches really help calm my nerves. Gopi sir walks me through these techniques which help me deal with any fear that I have about my opponents. Just before I step onto the court, my heart races and my hand shakes. It is an adrenaline rush that I can never get enough off.

As an International badminton player, travelling becomes a part of the package. Most of my tournaments take place within Asia and Europe. Although this sounds very glamorous, there is very little time for a player to enjoy these places. Our flights are long and tiring especially when we need to make multiple connections. Trips to tournaments normally involve catching up on lost sleep, training and the actual matches themselves. The only indulgence that I generally allow myself is Thai food. However, I do need to keep an eye on my diet. If I win, I celebrate with an ice-cream. Then it is time to get back on the flight and come home. There is no time for sight-seeing or shopping.

Selecting the right food is also an important component for any player. I love what my mother cooks, especially aloo parathas. At the age of 16, Gopi Sir suggested that I consider eating meat to meet my protein needs if I were to match the Chinese players. Ever since, chicken and fish have been a staple part of my diet. I have a tendency to put on weight which is why I have to cut down on my favourite foods that include milkshakes, naan, paneer butter masala and jalebis. My daily diet is now home-cooked food without any oil.

There is very little to separate the top 25 players in the world. On a good day, it is anyone’s game to win. For me, it takes some time get over the disappointment of losing a match. I go over every game with my sports analyst to watch out for all the mistakes that I have made, and where I can improve. This learning curve after the match is important and is the only way that I can continue to improve.

Injuries are also a part and parcel of any sportsperson’s career. In 2009, I had my first injury where I was forced to pull out of the Senior Nationals because of a shoulder injury. In 2010, during the Hong Kong Super Series, I experienced pain and swelling in my foot, although I went on to win the tournament. In the first half of 2011, I was forced to play with a taped ankle for almost six months. Eventually I needed a stability trainer to help get my ankle back into shape. Later that year, I fell off the treadmill and hurt my knee so bad that I could not bend it. With these injuries, winning tournaments became a struggle in 2011. My year eventually ended well when I reached the finals of the World Federation Super Series.

 Building support to win

Family support is also crucial to any sportsperson’s success. My parents used to take my for training often spending hours driving to and from the stadium, while my sister would ensure that everything on the home front was taken care off, not complaining about the amount of housework that she had to do or that I was getting all of my parent’s attention.

Sports equipment is also very expensive. For a long time I did not even realise how expensive my racquets were. Each racquet cost around 14,000 rupees and I needed to have two at any point of time. And there were times when I was very careless with them. When journalists asked my father how I was managing without any sponsors, I was shocked to find out that Papa had borrowing from his provident fund savings to pay for my training and kit until 2004 when I got my first sponsor. Apart from this there were my shoes, clothes and tickets to be paid for. Sometimes Mummy would accompany me for tournaments. Little did I realise that Papa was spending anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 rupees per month on me.

With a rise in popularity came sponsorship opportunities as well as photoshoots and interviews.  My first photoshoot was in 2010 when I was twenty. I assumed that these would be relatively easy with a handful of people and I would leave soon. I reached the set to discover that there were 100-200 people. By the time I was finished with makeup, I could not even recognise myself. Even though endorsement requirements can be tiring, they bring in money which puts less pressure on my father and a certain degree of financial stability.

In 2007, I was offered endorsement by the Mittal Champions Trust which offered me 25 lakhs that went towards training, physios, equipment and travel expenditure. This support helps when the government does not pay for travel costs. In 2009, along with my other endorsements, I became the brand ambassador for Deccan Chronicle. Although there is criticism that these endorsements take up too much time, in reality they do not. In 2011, I had eight endorsement deals. All my shoots and interviews took place on days that I did not have scheduled training. In fact, I was giving up my holidays in order to meet my obligations. I believe that putting myself out in the media has helped popularise the game of badminton in India. At the same time I know that my popularity will last only as long as i win games. Because of the money that has come in from my endorsements I was able to buy a house in 2010.Being a celebrity also means that I am sometimes so busy that I have no time for myself. Even going for a movie involves a great deal of preparation. I can enter only when the movie starts and leave before the credits start to roll.

I firmly believe that I not the most talented player in the world or even in the country. What I lack in natural talent, I have compensated with hard work, commitment and focus. It is important to remember that no matter what you decide to do with your life, it is important to make sure that you love what you do and give it all that you have.

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