Each tournament experience is greatly influenced by the reality of being in a specific country. Performance, however much it shouldn’t be, is often affected by the circumstances surrounding competition. Such was the case when I played the BWF Future Series in the beautiful city of Habana Cuba back in 2018.
I flew in from Brazil after playing the BWF Brazil International Challenge. It was an exhausting 23-hour trip that took me from Campinas, Brazil to Sao Paulo, Miami, Panama City, and finally to Habana. I landed in Havana almost seven hours late. The airport had low ceilings, not quite enough lights, and the once-white floors looked dull brown. I stood in the Delta Service line waiting for my delayed bags until a little lady with no English grabbed my arm and brought me behind the counter, yelled at a few employees, and grabbed my bag from under a counter. She half dragged me through Customs and Immigration, waving her badge as we avoided the lines completely. She told me in Spanish that a truck would come get me.
By now it was almost two in the morning. I sat on the curbside until the airport emptied and all the little shops and money changers closed and waved their goodbyes. Finally, with the moon hiding behind the clouds and me sitting under the lone street light that lit the entrance of the airport, I saw headlights from a rattling truck. They picked me up, took me downtown, and dropped me off in front of a bullethole-ridden white concrete hotel with chipped pillars and left-over orange paint sticking in odd patches to the walls. It might be important to note that I did not stay in one of the tournament hotels in the tourist district. I instead opted for the cheaper option downtown, which was also recommended by the tournament organizers.
My reservation, which had been done by phone due to the lack of internet in Havana, had somehow been lost but they found me a room. I had not drank water in many hours, and asked for a bottle. After multiple “no’s” the hostess found a 500ml bottle of water and gave it to me.
I carried my bag up a long flight of chipped stairs. Every floor boasted groups of young teens drinking, smoking, and often dancing to the claps of their peers. Several young men asked me for my bottle of water. I joked that I would trade it for their whiskey, but kept the water to myself.
After finding my room, I settled onto a moth-eaten bed and shut off the single light in my room. Moments later there came pounding on my door.
“American, American!” The slurred words came from outside.
I hesitantly opened the door. “Si?” I answered to a young, shirtless boy and a girl who hung off shoulder, both obviously drunk.
“Can we have some of your bottled water?” they asked.
“I am sorry, I drank it already,” I replied, and gently shut the door with a small wave.
The next day, after using the hotel phone many times to call the tournament organizers, no shuttle came to take me to the venue. I waited many hours at the front of the hotel. Finally I took a taxi to the venue because I had practice courts reserved, only to find the venue was not set up but completely locked up.
I returned to the hotel and ate the included dinner, which, though cold, was a tasty variety of meat and beans and rice.
The next day, in an attempt to get to the venue, I called the tournament organizers multiple times from the hotel payphone to no avail. The guard, seeing my frustration, managed to get a hold of someone on the office phone and tell them I was trying to reach the venue. 1:00 pm they said. At 4:00 pm no one had come for me and I asked the guard to call again. You get the idea, it took awhile.
The day of the first round came. I got picked up in a rattling white van with no air-conditioning. We wove our way through picturesque cobblestone roads, old concrete houses with chipped paint and blue tarp covered windows. Then we sped down a long hill surrounded by giant trees, by a zoo, and finally to the venue.
We arrived an hour and a half before my first match. The venue was an old dome building with a large scattering of skylights. I asked to pay my registration fee, which I was told I could not do yet.
After a long warm-up, I was ready to play.
They called my match at 10:30 am, right on schedule. I went to the staging area. I waited almost twenty minutes, still warming up. The referee wandered up casually. “You know,” he said looking away, “we cannot call your match until you pay your registration.”
I explained my attempts to pay and that the organizers were waiting for someone who could take my money.
He nodded. “Ok, no problem. You will play next match.”
The next match came and went, and my warm-up became a workout as I attempted to keep my body prepared to play. By now, the temperature had risen to the high thirties — Celsius of course. My water was becoming depleted, and there were no nearby shops to buy more.
At noon a man walked up to me and said I could pay him for both the hotel and the registration fee. I had USD for the registration fee, but had been told I could pay for the hotel with a credit card. To this he explained I would need to pay both with Cuban currency.
The price he gave me was nearly seven times the price quoted in the prospectus and it was needed in currency I did not have access to.
By the time we sorted it out and re-translated the prospectus, it was 1:30 in the afternoon. I had finished my water and eaten a Cliff bar because I was starving. We took off to the bank to exchange my American currency for Cuban dollars.
The bank was a hole-in-the-wall concrete building surrounded by armed guards. We waited over an hour in awkward silence outside before being ushered in by guards. Multiple different guards counted my money, and then several attendants recounted it behind the bullet proof glass.
I got back to the gymnasium at 3:00pm, hungry and dehydrated to the point of a headache.
“Half hour!” said the referee. “We want you on the tv court!”
Dizzy from dehydration, hungry, and thoroughly frustrated, I lost my match.
I rebooked my ticket home for the next day with a new appreciation of focus under pressure and in difficult circumstances.
There are lots of ways to work on singles defense. Made a short video of a couple drills I did to work on my defense.
If you want help working on your game leave me a message. I do in person and virtual coaching. I can help with technical, tactical, and physical aspects of the game as well as make personalized training plans based on your needs and schedule!
Building on the last few blog posts about training. I would like to move forward to the next topic – keeping training simple. This goes hand in hand with my past posts about focus and intentionality. It is another piece of the puzzle that I have been working on recently.
Keeping training simple has a few different aspects, and a lot of benefits. It is easy to waste a lot of time on the non essentials. I have found that in trying to fix everything at once I inevitably fix nothing. This means that the first step towards simplifying training is creating tangible and focused improvement goals. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say I need to fix my backhand side defense. Working with my coach I realize I have two major issues that are hindering all the rest. The first is a lack of strength in my left leg when I get low. The second is a technical issue of my contact with the shuttlecock. There could be lots of other things in my game that need fixed. Maybe I need a harder a smash, and need to come to the net faster. Those are things that will be addressed in “general training” all that time you spend on court doing various drills. But looking at my matches, perhaps I am rarely able to get into a position to smash and follow to the net quickly because I end up making errors on my backhand defense. To balance my game out I will spend a significant amount of time on my backhand defense.
Following the example above I would need to keep practices focused on one of two things, my leg strength, or my technical issues with my BH defense. I could separate these into two separate training sessions. Perhaps at home I could do pause lateral lunges and RLE split squats to build some leg strength. On the court I would break my practice into a very few drills to work on my BH defense.
I kept one goal at a time – BH defense. Then I broke that goal into two main parts, and separated them into different practices. I would follow that up and keep the number of exercises to a minimum as well. Pick the most efficient ways to improve and stick to those. Make sure the quality is really high and you are staying mentally focused. Time and energy are both limited. Make the best use of both and stay focused on the goal you set for yourself.
How do you keep your practices focused on specific goals? Let me know in the comments!
I wrote out this short simple footwork session for a few of my students, but realized it may be helpful to others as well. I encourage you to try it and let me know how it goes!
First off, why footwork?
Footwork is a few different things, but in large part it is a skill. Something that needs practiced and perfected. There is a physical and fitness element to it, as in all sports, but it is foremost a skill. The timing, rhythm, foot position, hip position etc are all critically important.
Whenever you do footwork you should give yourself specific skills to work on. For me during my footwork today I was working on the timing and push off my left foot. Watching my hip position and the timing of bringing my racket foot in towards the split step.
Warm Up – 2 rounds
10/side low lunge with reach
25 low squats
50 jumping jacks
Footwork 30 seconds rest between each set 20 sets of 20 corners
5 sets of 20 front 4 defense corners
5 sets of 20 late back court to late front court
5 sets 20 2 corner defense
5 sets of 20 defense and back court
3 rounds fitness
10/side bird dogs
10/side banded fire hydrant
50 skipping rope or pogo hops
10/side lateral lunges
Core 3 rounds
15 hollow rocks
25 Russian twists
20 plank shoulder touches
20 superman planks
You may notice that all the footwork for this session is defense position footwork. That was done on purpose as the goal was timing the push and finding that hip position in defense. I did my session in the grass. But you can do it in your garage, basement, living room, driveway, anywhere you can find space!
Don’t forget to stay low and push with the non racket foot, don’t pull with the racket foot!
If you have questions please comment below. Or tell me how your training is going during this period of physical isolation!