Badminton could really use a data revolution, from broadcast to coaching

Tennis and badminton are two racquet sports that have serves, backhand, forehand… but the similarity almost ends there. They vary greatly in the way they are run, the structures in place, the global spread, and the money associated with the sport. But we will not go into all these aspects.

In my previous column on what India needs to do to build on the Thomas Cup triumph and become a badminton powerhouse, I had written about the need for a ‘moneyball’ approach. Building on that, in this article I’ll break out one important aspect of it – the use of data – in three distinct parts.

I watched Roland Garros a couple of weeks ago and as a spectator the viewing experience couldn’t be further from Badminton for the data made available to even the casual spectator. The viewing experience becomes so much more interesting with detailed stats after each set. It helps draw viewers into the game even more.

Of course, badminton has not yet reached the sophistication of tennis as a product. But it’s high time steps were taken to make more use of data. So let’s talk about how improved use of stats and analytics will help the sport…not just from a spectator’s perspective, but from a coach’s and player’s perspective as well.

A spectator’s point of view

One of the possible reasons badminton spectators haven’t reached the length and breadth of a sport like tennis, I think, is the lack of statistical breakdowns that often get fans talking.

If you’ve watched badminton on TV long enough, you know that the production environment doesn’t offer viewers much more in terms of visual graphics than head-to-head information, the result itself, the rally length on some occasions and sometimes the speed at which a successful shot is hit.

It’s the bare minimum and ends up having a spiraling effect on the live commentary. For example, there are no statistics on the number of winners/unforced errors from the forehand/backhand side. No stats on which side of the court each player is aiming at. No info on points won/lost on serve. And these are not even high-tech requirements. Such a lack of statistical discourse is not encouraging for someone wishing to gain technical knowledge of the sport.

Certain systems have obviously been tested in the past, but currently there isn’t much for in-game and post-game data. You often rely on an impression of what you saw, and the same goes for post-game analysis. If you want to check key stats after the game, there isn’t much information.

Ideally, you want to see things like total distance traveled, number of winners/unforced errors on each side, percentage split of strokes played on the forehand and backhand sides, number of smashes hit (and percentage of success) so we can know who chose the more offensive approach in the game. In doubles, this could be the average smashes by each pair, the number of points won in a row, and most importantly, the number of points won in the first 3 shots of a rally.

Yes, all of this would be expensive, but if we are to break out and drastically increase the sport’s viewership worldwide, then making the show more visually appealing is crucial. Improving the statistical production value of games broadcast live is the definitive way forward.

The Indian badminton team recently won the Thomas Cup. If India is to build on this, more investment in statistical analysis would be crucial. (Photo: AFP)

Use of Data in Scouting

We’ll get into the analytical side of things shortly, but before that we’ll touch on the importance of data in talent scouting, something that’s brilliantly portrayed in the film money ball. The job of a scouting team in a high performance badminton setup would be to look for the style of players that the national team is currently lacking.

So let’s say we’re short on the men’s roster for the mixed doubles team, so the scouting team asks for the statistical attributes a player needs to create a potential roster. Input would come from the coaching staff and then the process of strengthening the squad from the home circle would have to begin. If the attributes are met, the player could be tested at the national camp for the coaching staff to see if the player has the potential to be quickly included in the setup or not. This method could be used across events for better talent identification. For this to work, the coaching team, analysis team and scouting team would need to be fully aligned.

In high-performance centers

Now that’s the more interesting part for me.

As written in the previous column, badminton in India needs to move towards a centralized structure of high performance center type. And here we need, firstly, a proper sports analysis team consisting of the chief analyst, some auxiliary analysts and maybe some data-crazy experts who have studied sports analysis and understand how statistics work in sports. So the key is a database with games of all players in the top 100 at all events. There needs to be one person from the analysis team who travels to tournaments to primarily record as many games as possible.

The task of the sports analysis team is then to derive as many statistics as possible about all the players. As part of the data team, they would not have work on the pitch when the players were training. So once the tournament draws for a major event are complete and the players know who they are playing against, the team needs to hand the detailed raw data over to the coaching staff.

You don’t need to be badminton experts, but it is important to understand the sport in terms of the different types of shots. This has been a problem area in the past. Unlike tennis, a forehand in badminton could mean a variety of shots: clears, smashes, slices, reverse slices, spinning shots, net dribbles, half-smashes, etc. It would be crucial for those doing the video analysis to consider these variations . But apart from that, to draw conclusions or form opinions and so on, it would be the job of the trainers to figure out how to use the data.

Badminton is a very instinctive sport and many factors can determine the way the player plays on any given day. For example, HS Prannoy recently lost to Zhao Junpeng in the semi-finals of the Indonesia Open Super 1000 and it was a performance he was eager to learn from as things didn’t go his way despite being in great form in Jakarta that week.

If Prannoy is to play Zhao in a future tournament, the coaching staff should receive a detailed data package from their last meeting. A brief study including the number of Zhao’s backcourt and frontfield winners/unforced errors, the pie chart percentage of the total court Zhao played on during the game, and the percentage of number of shots played to the back should -court and frontcourt on Prannoy’s serve. Then it’s up to the trainer to interpret that data and sit down with Prannoy and make a plan on how to beat Zhao at their next meeting and plan training sessions for key skills related to that.

It’s a big investment, but therein lies the future of the sport as the rims continue to get finer.
Software applications are emerging that could make analysts’ lives easier by accounting for the many intricacies of badminton. It will obviously require a good investment of money and manpower on the part of the federation and the Sports Authority of India. But it’s an area that could play a major role in pushing India to win more major events in the future.

Schlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player who was ranked No. 32 in the world in men’s doubles. Shlok recently retired from the top echelon of the sport and is currently the head coach at Triangle Badminton & Table Tennis in North Carolina, United States.

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