The Unsung Hero of India’s Badminton- Aditi Mutatkar

The Unsung Hero of India’s Badminton- Aditi Mutatkar

Ramdas Shenoy speaks to Aditi- The Silver Girl of Indian Badminton Circuit, her insights on life, badminton and advice to young aspirants.

After the OTT release of the movie ‘Saina’, Aditi and her family were flooded with calls and messages from friends and family all over the world. A match between Saina and Aditi is shown as a turning point for Saina as a junior player but Aditi’s journey and perspective towards life is a learning and a practical with a balanced and positive view of life. This interview brings out insights on being a true sportsperson and great tips for GenNext.

How would you describe your badminton Journey, the challenges, as a young Aditi?

As a young Aditi the challenge more than for me was more for my parents, because in terms of the finances, badminton is an expensive sport and I come from a middle-class banker family, the challenge was in terms of providing the rackets, the sports kit, sending me for tournaments, food, nutrition all of these things, with a bombardment of requests from my end.

If we look at the Indian eco-system, when it comes to the initial journey, most of the Indian athletes struggle with finances, unless they get picked up by a Sponsor, like I got picked up by Bharat Petroleum at the age of 16. One of the major challenges is that it is an expensive sport and my parents had to find a way to get that extra money that they might not have budgeted for when they put me in the sport.

As a young athlete, I absolutely enjoyed playing, enjoyed the pressure and I enjoyed the whole competition, enjoyed the training and all aspects of learning. I had never complained about anything, like a young girl who has to get up at 5 a.m. in the morning, I never complained, because I loved preparing to win. I loved the whole process not just the tournament and winning of it, but the actual back work that goes behind it. So as a younger Aditi, I absolutely enjoyed the journey and it was more for my parents to make those decisions, like they had to move from Mumbai to Pune as Pune was less expensive city than Mumbai.

How can one make a choice between academics Vs sports, considering even today India is not a sport playing nation?

Luckily for me my mom was there, whatever I do I had to continue with my studies and I had to be a first-class student, if not better. I had a very stern mother, who kept me on my toes. I had to take my text books everywhere. I would never miss an exam, even if I didn’t go to school, I made sure that I was coming back to write my exams, even if it was clashing with the tournaments, my mother would make sure that I would miss those tournaments and write my exams. It was clearly communicated to me by mother that sport is not for life and it is a short career. You have to work in parallel for your academics because there is no guarantee in sports. That was very well communicated in her own way. So even though I was in sports, I always scored more than 75%. I do believe that if you prioritize things early it is easy to achieve them.

I had prioritized studies, I would at least give 2-3 hours for my homework studying and practicing math, that meant not going to play with my friends or not going to parties or not going to a picnic or whatever it meant I was ready to do it.

Till what age should a child aspire to be a sports person (any sports), as everyone would love to wear the Indian Jersey?

It is a good and tricky question because I think in sports you have examples of both, examples of athletes starting young- the examples of that are more, the younger to start a sport the better chances for you to excel, which is scientifically proven and you have examples to see, but there are examples of athletes starting at older ages or peaking at older ages than they were younger and then playing for the Indian team. I know athletes who were nowhere when they were under 19, but they go into the senior and suddenly shine.

It is very difficult to tell that this is the right age to decide or that is the right age to decide, especially when you have to decide to stop without knowing the athlete and the mind frame the athlete or the parent is in.

There, are some pointers though like – are you very injury prone? Do you see lot of injuries happening? When you push yourself too hard, you get injured, if it is happening a lot, may be your body is not up for it.

Second, at what level are you playing? Say you have given 3 years, 4 years, you are really working very hard, but you may not have the match temperament. That is what lot of athletes struggle with. I have seen the hardest of the hardest workers, when they are not playing in the tournament, but when they enter the tournament, they just cannot perform, so if you don’t enjoy that competition, if you don’t enjoy that pressure that might be the signal that maybe you know, for you to discontinue, in spite of attending say psychology sessions. Injury and objective analysis of where do you stand in terms of performance and are you able to be consistent at that level.

Also, are you in touch with the academics. You always have the option to fall back on, a lot of athletes who leave everything for the game because it is very unclear on what is going to happen. Also, it is important to understand at what level you are playing. If you are India no. 1 or 2 you are going to have job security, may be Indian Railways or PSUs will pick you, but you are not at that level, you cannot guarantee yourself a financial kind of output at the end of it, then you have start thinking about Plan B, because if you keep at it for too long, you might miss the bus on both the ends and you don’t want to do that.

If you have given 3-4 years and if you kept some goals like being a district champion and for the three years you have been training you have not been able to achieve that and now if you are at a place at academics that needs your attention, then you need to make that decision. But again, I have known of many athletes who were really struggling and peaked at a later age, and they peak really well. I have an example of Arvind Bhat(who is known as India’s most unconventional champion in the badminton world), who started at 13-14, and achieved peak at the age of 35. To be honest, they are one off examples.

There are lot of private academies started by sportspersons. Is it a money making machinery, because some only have names attached to it. How can one chose the right ones?

For a dedicated coach, running an academy is a very expensive affair. There are lot of costs involved and very difficult to make profits. Need to understand the commercial angle of it and you need to also make money and there are different types of people. Not everyone wants to become Saina Nehwal and some join for 1 year and leave, sometimes it is a fad.

Making money is ok, but the quality of coaching and the knowledge of the game, the sincerity and the commitment required, that is not up to the mark and though badminton now is one of the most popular sport but when you see in terms of coaches, the quality of coaches and training being given, it is not up to the mark. Lot of times, there are players in the circuit and they start their academy. Lot of coaches in terms of certifying themselves, coaches who have not been players who get themselves in the circuit. The quality is overall dropping in terms of level of coaching being given. There are very few centres where quality coaching is happening and I am talking about grass root level and not like Gopichand’s academy or Prakash sir’s academy but at grass root level quality is a question mark.

How to decide who to get the coaching from?

The amount of time the child is getting to spend on the court. It is very important. It depends on the age as well. The amount of attention, like If there are 40 children playing on one court for one hour, then it doesn’t make any sense, the children won’t learn anything.

These are the signs that the parents have to watch out for and the parents can decide. The time your child is actually getting to play the sport. Is there, a curriculum that is being followed, how scientifically it is taught? A proper pathway on how the child is going to move from a beginner to an intermediate level. Is there a plan for the athlete? If you don’t see all of this structured enough, you might be in the wrong place, specifically when it comes to franchisees and centres, you have to be very careful not to just go with big names. It is very important to observe what is going on in the ground. Is there a plan in place? Is there a structured model for your kid to see improvement? It has to be quantified. It is not like today he is doing good and tomorrow he is doing little better. That is not going to help. It, is like today is getting 10 tosses, and tomorrow he is hitting 50 tosses. It has to be quantifiable and has to be measured. If that is not being done at these centers, and you don’t see a growth path for your child, then you might be just wasting the money.

What are your future career goals- Badminton and beyond?

As an athlete I had some career goals. It has been a long career. I was there for 16 years with the sport, so when I quit the sport I was completely goal less. I had no idea on what I am going to do and that happens with lot of athletes. Though I was good in academics I never really thought on what I am going to do next. I had a job in Bharat Petroleum, but when I was actually doing the job I realized that this is not the place I should be in.

Then I got married and it completely changed my world as my husband was in US at that time and luckily when I was in US, I saw that opportunity to study further, as I always was a good student and I did my Masters in Public Administration, Non-profit Management, from University of Texas, Dallas, because I was always sure of the fact that I always wanted to work in the social sector.

I saw the social sector giving me that opportunity and was very clear about it. For me it was not like work for some corporate and then give some money to social sector, that is not what I was interested..Not donate, but actually go on the ground. I was very happy that I did the course, I also did very well one of the top students at the university. That gave me the confidence because you don’t see lot of athletes doing well in academics, so not many role models for me and I did that and got a chance to comeback to India to a smaller foundation called Art of Play Foundation.

They understood my passion for doing something for Indian sports, but in no way I could do anything for American sports, as they have lot of things sorted for them and luckily my husband understood that. We came back and I worked for the foundation for 2 years and worked with Government schools all over India and make a curriculum for them on sports, work on physical education, how Government works and how policies are formed. There were lot of interesting insights and now I am associated with Simply Sports Foundation.

So yes, it has been an interesting journey as there are not many athletes who move to the social sector or get educated to do that. It has been an unchartered territory and with lot of people around me, I have navigated my own path and I am happy for the kind of work that I am getting to do and very satisfying.

What do you love doing beyond Badminton?

I love any movies from all over the world, I love to read, luckily, I was always a reader and which kept me humble and made me understand that sport is not the only world and that there is a bigger world out there and one should not get stuck in the own bubble. It is easy for an athlete to get stuck in our own bubble because of the limelight and everything starts and ends with us and which is not the case and the books I read at that time and that I read now helps me stay grounded    and keeps me ready for bigger things.

What keeps you grounded?

With my parents and the whole background that they come from, I have a younger sister as well. I was always pampered the way my younger sister wasn’t but they were clear about some goals like my academics..Whatever happens I had to be a good student.

Also, the kind of people around you like Prakash sir, Vimal Sir and the kind of coaches I had in Pune, they also had a very big impact. I was 14 when I, left my house and I was in Bengalaru, my interaction with my parents was not as much as I had with my coaches. My coaches were my guardians in a way. Lot of things I think and behave is more because of my coaches as well.

They kept me grounded, because if you have all England Champion as your coach, whatever you do is not good enough and the way he interacted and spoke (referring to Mr. Prakash Padukone), having him around, you cannot act like a boss or something. You have to stand on your two feet and understand the world in a very different way as a young kid and I got access to him at the age of 11, very impressionable age and I had very big role models like Aparna Popat, Gopi, all the time.

With regards to my husband, the good part of the story is that my husband is not an athlete and no connections with sports whatsoever. He now understands sports and this journey better and we talk very different things all the time and that keeps me grounded all the time. I can’t hold that air, because even my in-laws they don’t have that exposure. They value what I have achieved and everything but I absolutely love that fact that it is like that.

How do you look at the Saina Factor in your life?

I look at Saina’s story as being very fortunate to see badminton grow and it was privilege to be around at that time. I would have loved to be #1 but I loved the whole journey and I have no regrets. Life is very fair, may be as an athlete I would have seen it as unfair but today when I look back, I feel life has treated me fairly. I am happy with where I am today and I am doing lot of work for Simply Sports Foundation and it is really very cool and work on women in sports and conditions, it may take few years to see the impact of it and I am at happy place. Everything has taught me so much, my injuries, everything being #2, #1, #8 everything has helped me to be where I am.

#PadukonePrakash #Gopichand #AditiMutatkar #DeepikaPadukone #PrakashPadukoneBadmintonAcademy #SainaNehwal #Badminton

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