India leadership lessons

ARTICLE | May 17, 2023

Playing the long game   

Indian sporting legend shares leadership lessons for business professionals

By Mark Yeow, Workflow contributor

What makes a champion? For Saina Nehwal, it’s consistency and contentment. We sat down with the Indian badminton legend to find out how she’s kept thriving for more than two decades in the sport.

“The quality of being a winner is not something which you can put in a player's mind,” says Saina Nehwal. “It has to come naturally.”

Nehwal admits that she still isn’t sure exactly what makes a champion and suggests that top coaches may have better insight into this question. For her part, the former World Number 1 and winner of India’s first-ever Olympic medal for badminton espouses a relatively simple formula: small actions, compounded over time, yield results.

“Consistency is key,” the 33-year-old replies when I ask about her preparation strategy for key matches. “When you train, you can’t be killing yourself every day. It’s more important to be in the circuit for the whole year, playing the same people again and again – so that even if you lose once or twice, the next time around you have the game to get closer or beat them.”

Nehwal has made consistency her art form after more than two decades of peaks and struggles in professional badminton. She first shot to stardom in 2012 with her bronze medal at the London Olympics. In 2015 she made history by becoming India’s first-ever World Number 1 in women’s badminton (and second-ever among men and women). Shortly thereafter, she wrestled with multiple injuries that cut short her progress in successive Olympics and cast doubt on her future career.

“It hurt really badly because you're sitting for three, four months out at a time,” Nehwal recalls. “I know some people might say: you have achieved a lot, why are you crying? But this is my job. Every moment is important.”


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Nehwal’s trailblazer status may have indirectly contributed to her physical struggles. “In India, our sporting culture is relatively new,” she explains. We’ve only started having world-class trainers or physiotherapists in the last five or six years.”

“Sometimes I wish when I’d started playing, I’d had those trainers to look after my body – to make it more like that of a professional player. Instead, I was working with an average physique to come out with results – the stress of which contributed to injuries at the peak of my career.”

Nowadays, Nehwal has access to the latest technology – like heartrate monitors that ensure she doesn’t overexert herself in training – to help her return to badminton’s upper ranks. Yet there remains a substantial imbalance between India’s sporting capabilities and those of other, more well-established rivals. 

“We can't compete with the Europe and US as of now, because they’ve been in the sport for so many years,” Nehwal says. “For example, there’s new technology where you can record where your opponent tends to play more – on the left or right side – and adjust your strategy based on that. In Europe, they do this extremely well, because they have much more experience using the technology as part of training. We don’t have as much of that in India yet.”

“Physically, other Asian countries are stronger, but Indian players come up with good ideas. We know how to adapt to the right style.” 

How do India’s athletes grapple with that systemic disadvantage? Nehwal feels it’s just a matter of time before India closes the gap in both technology and training, thanks to players bringing back experience from overseas as well as the rise of sports tech hubs in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore. But she’s also quick to point out that many Indian athletes have transcended their underdog status by outthinking opponents with innovative playing styles. 

“When we’re on the court, we get smarter in the kind of strokes we have to use,” Nehwal says.

As I talk to Nehwal, it quickly becomes apparent that her greatest strength comes from how she thinks – and not just in obvious areas like on-court strategy and grit. For someone who stresses how competitive she was growing up, Nehwal is remarkably sanguine about the actual outcomes of her matches.

“Sport can be really harsh to you, as can every professional field,” Nehwal says. “But the mind will take you really, really far. In difficult times, you learn to be quiet. To think about what's going wrong, to do things correctly. Then you wait for your time to come back again.”

Nehwal credits her parents, both of whom played badminton competitively, with imparting this more balanced mindset towards competition. Her father, a university professor, famously drew down his pension fund to pay for higher-quality training. Her mother, a former state player, instilled a fierce discipline in everything from diet to physical training to on-court resilience. Today, both provide much-needed encouragement and a reality check when sporting pressures threaten to boil over. 

“Whenever I talk to them (about my struggles), they tell me: don't worry, you know, everyone is trying their level best. Everyone wants to win,” Nehwal says. “But you cannot give up at this stage when you have achieved so much for India, you have done well. So be patient, go and do your training.

“And when I am in training, when I do something which is related to the fitness or on court, I forget everything else. I am so happy.”

I ask Nehwal if she ever gets bored with her job. After all, few millennials I know have persisted in the same career for 23 years. “Of course,” she says. “(Elite athletes) are no different – we cry, we do silly things, we get bored. But it’s just for one or two days, and then you’re like: I want to play again.”

“One day your body will say you can’t do it anymore, and that’s where you stop. But till that day I want to enjoy it, do my best, and take whatever beatings I can take.”

Perhaps that’s what separates competitors from champions: a willingness to not just absorb challenges but learn to enjoy them. Though Nehwal credits her parents with sharpening her ambition – and stresses the importance of parenting in developing early athletes – she’s quick to point out that second-hand ambition can only get a player so far.

“You need to want to complete the coach’s program, finish every training,” Nehwal says. “Those with discipline, hard work, that mindset that they will be the best in the world – I’ve seen 90 percent of these people come out as winners.”

It’s about consistency in attitude not just athleticism. Nehwal tells me that even after the inevitable end of her on-court career, she’ll persist with the sport in some fashion. “Badminton players don’t know anything else”, she quips. Just like how preparation for the Olympics starts four years before the competition, her two decades of winning and losing have prepared her for whatever new challenges lie ahead.

“Sometimes you feel the end is coming closer and it’s even more difficult to digest,” says Nehwal. “But I’m blessed I got so many chances to stand on the podium for India. And that motivation keeps me going.”

“It’s tough, but you just make your mind strong and fight it out. Having a target, challenging yourself, that’s what it means to live.”

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Mark Yeow's first foray into the world of journalism and content was in high school, writing articles about antique furniture that he patched together between studying and video games. Since then he's written about everything from environmental science to wireless technology to trends in global trade, alongside citizen video journalism for social impact causes around Southeast Asia. Raised in Australia, he currently resides in his birthplace of Singapore but struggles to say which is truly home.