Keeping the Indian badminton team ‘fit’ for gold

With heart rates steadily rising and a whole nation praying and knocking – India watched as HS Prannoy took on Denmark’s Rasmus Gemke in the final semi-final match of the 2022 Thomas Cup.

The stakes were high – between India fighting for their place in the Thomas Cup gold fight and settling for bronze, there was a HS Prannoy taking charge, India against world No. 13 Denmark get through who was desperate to make history.

But snap! Barely touched in the middle of the first set, HS Prannoy fell and twisted his heel in an ugly way, his face contorted in pain, the limp started to show and the golden dream felt the hit too.

Sumansh Sivalanka, the long-time physiotherapist of the Indian badminton team, was only dripping with sweat in the corner of the dugout, with the whole situation of the end-or-no-final game with the nerves.

“I was really concerned when we saw the replay on the big screen and his (Prannoy’s) facial expressions on the pitch. I knew it was going to be bad,” Sumansh tells The Bridge, days after India magically made history at the World Team Championships, winning the Thomas Cup crown by beating 14-time champions Indonesia in the final defeated 3-0.

READ | Painkillers, patience, endurance – Prannoy’s recipe leads India to the first Thomas Cup final

HS Prannoy injured his ankle in the Thomas Cup match against Denmark (Source: Getty)

“Both Dr. Kiran, my senior colleague and I were worried until the end of the game, it was a tense situation. But we also communicated with Prannoy during the game because the dugout was quite close and he kept telling us that it was getting better, so we were a bit calm,” recalled Sumansh, explaining that the pitch conditions at Bangkok’s Impact Arena were everything other than ideal, with players slipping, falling and injuring themselves easily.

“Fortunately most of our players are taped at the ankle so there was already a layer of protection on the ankle that got hit, that was lucky for us although the timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse.”

What Prannoy managed to do after that is hard to forget – as he dug deep into Gemke, who tried to force him into rallies. While the Indian camp hoarsely and jubilantly “HSP! HSP! HSP!’, Prannoy moved like a man on a mission despite the apparent injury that bothered him at times, clinching victory for India and securing them a place in the Thomas Cup final.

“During the game Prannoy used a painkiller but I don’t think it could have worked that quickly because the game went on for another 30 minutes! More than any painkiller, it was Prannoy’s courage and determination to stay in the game and win it for the team,” said Sumansh, full of appreciation for the Shuttle veteran, with whom he has worked closely over the years.

“You can always go and talk to Sumansh. He probably knows our body best. Even if it’s a small problem, we go and ask him because you never know that during a tournament that problem can become a big problem. Sumansh knows very well. Well, who has what problem and what is their weakness,” HS Prannoy told The Bridge, always grateful for the physio team’s interventions.

“During the Thomas Cup, all employees were enthusiastic. It looked like they were mentally present on the pitch as well,” Prannoy recalled.

“They knew we had chances to win and so they left no stone unturned. I remember Sumansh working under pressure when I was injured. I remember wearing the same t-shirt throughout the tournament, he said it was lucky for him,” he reveals with a chuckle, claiming that the win was possible due to the unseen efforts of Sumansh and Kiran alike, helping the team stay fit and ready to win history and Thomas Cup gold.

Fitness, relaxation, performance – find the balance

The Thomas Cup team for India with coaches and supervisors (Source: BAI)

The Thomas Cup team for India with coaches and supervisors (Source: BAI)

It’s amazing how much the sport has changed in recent years, taking on a more physically demanding, mentally grueling role, making the competition fiercer and the champions even more exquisite. The same thing happened in badminton, one of the fastest racquet sports in the world, the pace has only gotten maddening with a hectic badminton calendar to adapt to.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the badminton calendar has become too busy. In fact last year we had the Sudirman Cup, Thomas and Uber Cup back to back followed by a couple of BWF tournaments in Europe and managed a five week tour for the players, amidst strict travel regulations it was a very tough time.

“Because all of these were prestigious events, the team didn’t have much time to recover and perform consistently,” explains Sumansh.

The post-COVID resumption of badminton has resulted in a sharp increase in injury rates, with players having to retire mid-tournament due to a variety of fitness issues that are a reflection of the busy schedule.

“The first tournament after the pandemic in Thailand was a disaster! We couldn’t even leave the hotel because of COVID protocols and we were served poor quality food which was disappointing but we couldn’t help the situation either,” reveals Sumansh.

“Moreover, from India, the lack of connection to other places is a nuisance, and the odd hours of travel, the long transit time, everything put a strain on the players’ bodies and that is directly proportional to the injury rate.

“That presented us with a big problem last year as we hardly had access to an official gym during the tournaments in Europe. As it was a team event, 10 people holed up in a small gym for an hour and did the minimum they could do. In Denmark, I remember we took some weights with us and trained with them in the parking lot because there was so little space in the gyms!

“So in a five-week tour, our players could only go to the gym four to five times and play high-intensity badminton on the side – it’s not the right mix of training and performance,” explains Sumansh.

Former world No. 11 Sameer Verma, who also had a good run during this European tour last year before suffering a calf injury, also wrote in an article for The Bridge: “Honestly this is a time of adjustment and all of us try to push hard because we only have a handful of tournaments left and we also get injured or don’t have enough time to recover.”

For a player to go out and perform a lot depends on having a good recovery because once they step onto the pitch for a game there is no turning back, no room for excuses.

Just as a gladiator enters the ring with only one motive – to win, so do badminton players.

“Once the athlete is on the court, he cannot control how much to move, he enters the court to win the game, whatever may come. When recovery isn’t spot on, injury rates go up,” notes Sumansh, emphasizing the importance of understanding one’s body and focusing on the recovery and rehabilitation aspects, rather than just performance.

“But players and coaches are more aware of the recreational aspects, they choose their competitions wisely and don’t blindly play all tournaments,” notes Sumansh, observing how the scene has gradually changed over the past half decade.

“Sumansh, Kiran Sir and Johnson have been part of our badminton system for over 8 years. While we play on court, they have to do all the hard work off court. I know how challenging it is for Sumansh, we in short time go from game to game and they help us find the best possible solution to our injuries,” says Prannoy, explaining that despite his dominance, Sumansh has managed to fit into the spirited Indian badminton team so easily and so well.

Keeping a team fit to play at the top level and wanting them to keep producing winning performances is not an easy task, and behind the Indian badminton team’s success on the court is the calm and diligent work of this Teams of physical therapists, including Sumansh, who are nothing short of miracle workers, armed with cures up their sleeves, get the squad soldiers back on their feet, put on a show and make history on the pitch.

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