Interview with Rachel, the extremely good badminton player

Rachel and I met when I was an undergrad and she was a PhD student within the same philosophy department. We played on a department intramural team called Nagel’s Bats, GET IT? Not only is she very athletic, but she also has some cool thoughts on women in sports. Lucky for us, she took some time to be interviewed for this blog!

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Rachel, on left, wearing purple.

Me: You’re one of the most diversely skilled athletes I know. As a kid, were you encouraged to try lots of different sports or to specialize in one or a few things?

Rachel: Thanks! I can’t say whether I was actively encouraged to play sports as a child, but I was essentially golfing from age 3, and I was a generally sporty kid. Our neighbourhood had lots of other kids and we’d generally spend all our free time playing street hockey, baseball, tennis, riding bikes, football, or some other activity, structured or not. I played little league baseball, tennis, and golf from a very early age. I transitioned into badminton around age 10 and started winning tournaments almost immediately. Although I’ve picked up and even competed in many other sports, golf and badminton were my main focus.

I’ve heard you mention that a bad accident crushed your hopes of becoming a professional golfer. My first ACL tear took me out of sports for about a year, and I really struggled with my identity as an athlete (are you an athlete if you can’t go for a jog?), and I know a lot of people with chronic injuries who say their injury makes them struggle with their relationship to their body. How were you able to come back strong after your accident?

The car accident was pretty devastating. I was barely 16, and it was September. It happened to be the day I was going to get back to training badminton after my month off from the previous season (where I was the BC provincial U16 singles champion). But as a passenger, we hit a telephone pole around 80kph and I badly injured my wrist, back, knee, and neck. I quit golf as a result and I was away from badminton for roughly two years. Unfortunately, those are the years where one’s skill really develops and matures, and I missed out on those. So when I went back to training at 18, I was sorely behind: people I was beating easily were now beating me. I went from being top ranked, to barely making semi-finals (and only winning one tournament, as a fill-in doubles partner for one of the other top players).

Honestly, the accident and injuries changed my relationship to sports in a lot of ways. I was a high-performance athlete before the crash, but not really after. I had to shift away from thoughts of professional golf (which was my career path) and towards academics.

I still consider myself an athlete, but I no longer consider myself high-performance. Just the other week I was at a World Cup speed skating event, and I found myself feeling a little upset that I lost the chance to compete on the world stage. I miss being absorbed by being a high-performance athlete: it really is an identity. I used to build my life around training and competing: now I build training and competing around my life (as a professor).

So I wouldn’t say that I “came back strong after [my] accident” per se. Sure, I got back into heavy training, but nothing like I was doing before, mostly because my priorities had shifted. I used to train 2-4 hours/day; now I play more than I explicitly “train.” But sports, and competitive sports, will likely always be a part of my life: it’s just part of who I am. My back and neck haven’t fully healed from the soft tissue damage. However, they’ve healed well enough for the levels of sport that I compete at, although I can only golf recreationally now.

Knowing you don’t have a world stage athletic performance coming up, what motivates you to keep training?

The short answer: that I will probably have one in the future. I usually plot out my competitive schedule a year or more in advance, so I can plan for different events. There are some events I want to peak for, and others that I use more as part of my training and development. Right now, I’m training to peak for the Alberta Provincial Championships in badminton in April 2014. I have some tournaments along the way, I just competed in one this weekend (early January 2014). I used it to see where I stand against the other top players, and to identify my weakness and areas to improve. That’s exactly what happened. I came third, and I know exactly where to improve. Even now I’m thinking about my 2015 schedule when I move to the US. I’m planning on playing a couple international-level events in 2015-2016.

So I partly stay motivated by focusing on my goal events. My explicit goal is to win the provincial championships this year. In the past, I’ve had multiple goals like being the top ranked player at the end of the year and to win various tournaments (I successfully did this as a junior, for example). I also have longer term goals like winning a national championship within the next five years.

I also have a self-image of myself as a high-performance competitive athlete. This is something I’ve only recently come to know about myself. I like that I’m a high-performance athlete, regardless of my results. So knowing this also motivates me to train, even if there isn’t an event in the next couple months. It’s a lifestyle: it means putting training first in a lot of ways, or at least making it a high priority. It means taking care of my body. I don’t drink very often, and when I do I don’t get drunk: it’s hard for me to remember the last time I was. I eat well–for the most part! And I get my sleep, since I know that it’s so crucial for my recovery and well-being. I also like, for example, that I can bound up 5 flights of stairs without being remotely winded. So I guess I have a sort of second-order desire about being an athlete: I like that I’m an athlete, and that partly motivates me to do what it takes to be an athlete (which means training, among other things).

I’ve never played a coed sport competitively (well, I guess Crossfit teams are coed, but I wouldn’t call myself competitive yet), but badminton has mixed doubles. Can you speak to any observations about the difference between women’s teams and coed teams?

Yeah, I can definitely make a number of observations about that, especially from badminton. I play all three events: singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

In terms of being on various teams, it’s hard to say if there’s much difference in a sport like badminton, since it’s just two of us. At most, I felt that playing with another woman is more enjoyable because my partners happened to be more supportive if I was having an off day. Sometimes, male partners get upset, and I didn’t enjoy that. I don’t know what it would be like on larger team sports like volleyball or soccer, though. All of my competitive sports are either individual or pair events.

However, I definitely notice big differences in playing with men, women, and mixed groups more generally. It’s not uncommon for me to play with three guys in doubles games (where I’m the only girl). I’ve noticed that I vastly prefer playing with other women, and least enjoy playing with men (although that partly depends on who the players are). But I often have to play with men in order to play against better players to improve my skills.

Our society is heavily inflected with gender. Men are roughly expected to behave a certain way, and women are roughly expected to behave a different way (and heaven forfend if one consider oneself something other than a man or a woman–and yes, such people exist). For the most part, I really don’t enjoy playing with men: there’s too much bravado. Even in club pick-up games (which are fairly competitive in good clubs), I saw too many heated arguments and proverbial chest-thumping. Trash talking is more prevalent. I’ve walked off the court when it got to be too much for me. That’s a pretty extreme thing to do, but I’ve felt it necessary a couple times. There’s also much more sexism (and racism) playing with men, and that may be part of the trash-talking, I don’t know. I find playing with women more comfortable and more relaxed, even if we’re just as competitive as the guys. The atmosphere is lighter and more supportive, even if we’re all fierce competitors.

Just the other day I was having a conversation with another woman about how it’s sometimes hard for us to find games because of things like implicit gender politics: men assume that the women can’t keep up, so they’d rather play with a group of all men than include even one woman. They’re also less likely to smash at the woman, perhaps out of some outdated sense of chivalry. It can get pretty annoying: I came to play, not to stand on the court while my partner gets all the shots.

But when it comes tournament time (in mixed doubles, obviously), things flip: the strategy is usually to isolate the woman and focus the attacks on her. Often the irony, though, is that I’m the stronger player, so this works against them. I really enjoy those moments. Sometimes the ego takes over and rather than play smart and hit to the weaker player (which may be my partner), they’ll focus on me even more, which just feeds into our strengths. Men can be weird.

Do you think men and women should compete against each other in individual sports?

There’s a movement for not just gender equity in sports, but something called gender neutrality. Gender equity is where men and women have equal athletic opportunities. This manifests itself in a lot of ways, such as access to funding, training, facilities, but also the sports themselves. Ski jumping is fighting to be recognized as a sport open to women. They had to fight like hell to get it into the 2014 Olympics. However, it also manifests itself in how the sports events are constructed: men’s and women’s cycling and tennis, for example, are not gender equal. The women’s events are shorter than the men’s. And the reasons behind it are sexist: there’s an implicit, or explicit, view that women are less athletic, and so can’t play the same length of time as the men. (This is, of course, absurd, since women compete the same running distances as men, as just one example.) Or there’s an implicit (more often explicit) motivation from people’s real or perceived disinterest in watching women’s sports for the same lengths of time as men’s sports: the women’s Olympic road cycling race is shorter than the men’s. It’s not because the women can’t handle the men’s distance (even the men’s distance is short by “full day classic” race standards. Often the justification given is that people just don’t want to watch women go the same distance.

Badminton, thankfully, is finally gender equal in this respect. It used to be, under the old scoring system (in place until 2001 when they started playing around with it, before finally settling on the current system in 2005) unequal. Every event except women’s singles was best of three games to 15 points. Women’s singles was best of three games to 11 points. Under this system, players had to serve in order to score points. Under the new “rally point” system, where every rally can count as a point, regardless who served, all matches and all events are best of three games to 21 points. I think it’s great that badminton has become more gender equal in this way.

Gender neutrality is different. That’s where men and women compete against each other and no real distinctions are made between competitors based on gender. Horse jumping is the classic example where men and women compete against each other.

The worry with gender neutrality is that there are perceived and sometimes real gender differences between men and women. There’s tremendous overlap in the general population between physical traits of men and women. It’s only at the “tails” of the graph where we see some distinctions come out, often with the fastest or strongest men as being faster and stronger than the fastest or strongest women. So it seems unfair for men and women to compete against each other under these conditions. However, there are other ways to categorize sports than gender: weight class is one way. I don’t have an answer to whether full gender neutrality is the goal. I think it’s a tough, contemporary debate we’re just starting to have.

It’s just a fact that I can’t compete with the top men in badminton. They’re faster and stronger than I am. However, I do train and play against (outside of tournaments) lots of great men players, because it gives me a real challenge and it improves my game faster than playing against similarly skilled women.

You’re a post doc! What are you researching these days, and do your research interests have any athletic applications?

My main research is on a topic called the norms of assertion. The central question there is when we assert things (make claims) to each other, do we need to know what we’re talking about? Does what we say have to be true? Are there good lies? Some of my work on this topic branches into other questions like what does it mean for an outcome to be lucky. This includes thinking about the relationship between luck and skill at performing a task, like shooting a basketball. And this topic is more clearly relevant to my life as an athlete, since luck is everywhere: does the shuttle hit the top of the net and tumble over (for a point), or not?

One of the projects I’m currently working on, in addition to my work on the norms of assertion, is on a couple sayings common in sports: do good players get lucky more often, and can we make our own luck? My view is roughly that skillful players often do get lucky more often than less skilled players because one thing that having a skill means is that one gets to stay in the game longer, and so one gets more opportunities to get lucky. If I get to play twice as many games as a weaker player because I win my games and go deeper into a tournament, I’ll have more chances to benefit from luck. It’s just a numbers game. And in the sense that we can purposefully increase our skill, we can purposefully get lucky more often in a very indirect way. It sounds paradoxical, but that’s partly the point. We can’t directly control how lucky we are.

What are your athletic goals for 2014?

I mostly already covered this. I’m playing about five tournaments in the first half of 2014. Our competitive season runs roughly from Sept-April. (There are exceptions, of course.) I have three in January, one in February, and one in April (I’m likely skipping the one in May). My primary goal is to win women’s singles in the April tournament: the provincial championships. My secondary goal is to also win in the February tournament. I’m treating all of the January events as training and development in service of my primary goal.

I haven’t decided fully on my goals for the rest of 2014. After the April tournament, I’m going to evaluate where I am, and what my schedule will look like for the rest of 2014 and into 2015. I’ll probably take a week off to relax and re-set, both physically and mentally. Then I’ll get back to things.

And while my primary goal is winning, I’m really focused on performing well. If I do that, then whether I win or lose isn’t really important. Playing poorly is what upsets me. Losing generally doesn’t, particularly if I play well.

What does an average week of training look like?

This entirely depends where I am in my training or competitive cycles. At the height of tournament season, I’m mostly just fine-tuning things like technique and working to maintain my fitness: I’m no longer trying to increase fitness. Sometimes I have three tournaments in a row, and there just isn’t much time for training in between them, because I need to schedule in time to rest before the next one starts.

I should note that I primarily train for singles at the moment. Training for doubles would look a lot different.

If I’m in a full training phase, I’m training 5-6 days/week. I usually only have one full rest day, on which I get an hour-long massage just on my legs.

Monday is a hard training day. I’m usually doing intervals or speed work, followed by an hour or more of MAF (Phil Maffetone’s system) cardio (180-age HR training: for me that means around 150bpm). Intervals means one of two things. The first is the 200m indoor track where I sprint 100m and either walk or slowly jog 100m. I do that for about an hour (about 40sets). The second is stairs: I work in a building with 14 floors of stairs. I usually run up four flights of stairs, walk down one, starting at the bottom going to the top is one set. Then I walk all the way to the bottom for rest. I do about four sets in an hour. Then it’s either the bike or a 10km run for an hour. If I’m doing speed work, then I’m on a badminton court (or something sufficiently similar) doing shuttle runs. I can’t afford a badminton coach at the moment, so I do this rather than drills with a coach feeding me shots. (Sadly, when I move the US, I’ll be in a city that doesn’t have a suitably qualified coach, so I’ll have to continue doing most of my training on my own.) I have to make sure that I eat and sleep well Mondays, or else Tuesday will be a very bad day.

Tuesday is another moderately hard day on court doing 2 on 1 or 3 on 1 games. Basically, it’s me against two or three opponents, where they’re trying to put me under a lot of pressure to play fast and high quality shots. This is my favourite form of training: it best mimics real-game situations against good opponents. It’s hard to find other good players to train against that are at or above my skill level, so this lets me mimic competition conditions against people who aren’t necessarily as good as me.

Wednesday is an easy day. I usually play doubles on Wednesdays. It’s fun for me, and it keeps my racket speed up. It’s essentially an “active recovery” day.

Thursday is my full rest day.

Friday is another interval or speed work day.

Saturday is either a rest day (depending on how I feel), or a MAF day on the bike or running.

Sunday is my flex day. I might play singles, doubles, 2 on 1, speed work, MAF biking or running. It depends on what happened that week, how I feel, what other people are doing, what the next week will bring, etc. I think it’s critical to have flexible options for training.

So I’m training 10-20hrs/week, usually. Sometimes I do two sessions in a day (e.g., speed work in the morning, cardio or playing in the afternoon/evening).

When is your next competition?

I just finished one (January 10-11). I came third in singles. This was a “see where I’m at” tournament. I found some weaknesses, and also some strengths, so I know exactly what I need to work on (more speed, more 2 on 1/3 on 1, less cardio). I’m satisfied with the result, though not happy. I did play very well in my quarter final match, though, and I’m very happy about that. My next tournament is this coming weekend: it’s a master’s event (I’m playing in the 30+ categories). I strongly anticipate winning singles, and possibly doubles and/or mixed doubles. And the next tournament is the following week, which is the next provincial series event (and I’m sleeping on your couch! Thanks!!)

I can’t wait to see you play! (and cheer very loudly. Too loudly some might say. We’ll see…) Thanks for taking time to be interviewed and good luck with your season!

Rachel, on left, in purple

Rachel, on left, in purple

And readers, leave a comment with your thoughts on gender equity and gender neutrality in sports!

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Rachel, the extremely good badminton player

  1. What cool friends you have, Lisey! I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts about gender equality, but like Rachel I MUCH prefer competing against women. When I played co-ed hockey and soccer the men just took everything so seriously that it wasn’t fun.

    Good luck at provincials, Rachel!

  2. Thanks Lindsay!

    I can happily report that in my masters tournament, I won the singles, doubles, and mixed 30+ events 🙂

    The next tournament this weekend is full of very good players. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

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