Athletes live by numbers, lose by fractions, wait to be ranked in single digits, are judged by statistics and speak in percentages. A golfer once spoke of giving a “1,000 per cent" but really, a 100% is quite sufficient. A 100% is, in fact, an ideal. A 100% is complete devotion in the pursuit of being at least 1% better.
A 100% is not about the game, it’s about the early morning slog, the things we don’t usually see, because repetition—watching 200 smashes—is not riveting, only rewarding. But this is where talent gets machined and concentration is fabricated. In the documentary Winning, the legendary 400m hurdler Edwin Moses says: “My whole thing was going out every day for all those years and putting on the best performance that I could in practice. I never thought about the competitions."
A 100% is about faith. It’s effort not flagging even when improvement won’t come. It’s commitment to cause without guarantee. Sometimes weeks go by, months, a year, nothing happens. And then “5-10%" happens.
“Five to 10 per cent" by which athletes become a better model of themselves. “Five to 10 per cent" by which Kidambi Srikanth, bearded master of badminton string theory, winner of four Super Series titles, leaps in 2017 and thus bridges the distance that separates good from very good and closes the gap between beating the top guys once in a while to besting them consistently.
“I slowly started to play well...slowly started to win some matches in a tournament," he says. Every semi-final reached is confirmation of progress, every final won brings certainty. “Confidence pushes you that extra 10%," he says. We’re talking on the phone, for the first time, so I can’t tell if he’s changed, but confidence often modifies an athlete’s tone, or alters a walk, or straightens the shoulders. It’s like acquiring a minor power.
If he, No.2 in 2017, No.3 right now, is at another level, then, he says, “It took me about two years to find that 10%". Practice paid off. Practice with an Indonesian coach, Mulyo Handoyo, whose “aggressive style" worked for him. Practice for three and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the evening where it’s eventually all about the percentages. How much you put in. How hard you put in. How much is in your tank. Because the tank is a psychological weapon, it’s Rafael Nadal in the fifth set and still running, and it’s scary.
Srikanth, nearly 5ft, 10 inches and 66kg of bone and gristle, runs in practice and bounds to No.2 and if you ask what he learnt, he’ll insist, “I learnt to believe in myself." He’ll say, “It taught me I am actually fit enough to compete with the top guys."
Fitness is faith. Strength shifts the thinking. Listen.
“If you know you’re fit enough to play longer matches, then automatically your whole strategy changes. If I know I can’t last for three games, then I might have a different set of plans. I might go a little aggressive, maybe a little more desperate for a point and then I might end up doing a mistake. But if I know I am fit enough to play more than three sets...then I am not desperate to win the point, because I know even if I lose the first set, I am still fit enough to win the second and third." There’s no panic. No rush to error. “I feel in myself that I can actually pull out matches."
Srikanth speaks in long, thoughtful, detailed paragraphs, sharing his art, explaining his alteration as a player, never asking if it’s the last question or insisting he has to go, dealing with my interrogation like a point that has to be firmly played till it’s finished.
He might be the same man in the mirror, yet he’s a more self-aware athlete. What he can do has changed. What insight he owns has increased.
“Five years back I wouldn’t have known the reason why I lost a particular match. But today if I lose a match, I actually know why I lost it. It might be because of my body condition, or maybe because of my selection of strokes or my strategy. But five years back...why I lost a match, I would have been much more dependent on my coaches. Maybe now I might be dependent on my coaches about 60%, but at least 40% I can understand maybe my body condition better. With the experience it’s not just about the strokes it’s also about knowing your body condition."
It’s February, and every week he must fly or fall, he must prove or perish. It’s just the way sport is. This year particularly will test him but his voice is of a man balanced and resolute. He knows that “one of the toughest parts is raising a level and (then) maintaining a level". He knows people will come not just to see him but for a performance. He knows medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games are within his talented reach, yet he knows “thinking too much about this might actually put me under some kind of pressure".
Again and again, he says one thing, like a three-word hymn, like a shield against everything else: “Keep it simple." He means don’t think too much, don’t think medals, just think of the shot, the rally, the match, just stay in the tournament.
Sometimes he’ll find that simplicity. Sometimes, overwhelmed, the best place to find refuge will be the practice court, where life always seems normal and sweaty, where it’s not about nation, glory, sponsors, but just you. Pushing yourself to one more shuttle. And finding that one extra per cent.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.