People who think that winning is everything in life should hear what Michael Jordon said – I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. Former badminton player Aparna Popat is another player who believes the same. Aparna who represented India in Olympics has a career spanning nearly seventeen years and added numerous titles to her tally. She was India’s national champion for a record nine times between 1997 and 2006.
I spoke to Aparna to know what sports taught her and what is she up to post retirement from the field. Read to know what keeps her motivated and her love for the sport – Badminton.
How has been your journey since the beginning of your sports career and then post bidding adieu to sports?
I was a tom-boy as a child, and was the only girl in the cricket team in my building during my childhood days. It was very early on that I realized that girls don’t belong in sports just because of the difference in numbers. But I also very quickly realized that having boys and girls in the same team is possible; it was possible to share the space but more important was to share that space.
Unlike the social norms those days, my family always encouraged to play sport and there was no distinction. I was never told to choose or play a particular sport. But as a society, you make certain observation regarding women/girls participation in sports. Luckily for me, badminton is a game where more often the girls and boys practice together. Even girls and boys tournaments and practice sessions happen together. So there was no distinction on that count, but I think slowly when you start playing national and international sports, go to international camps, be it selection of team and things like that, you realize that for every four men single players were selected for team, there would be only one single woman player. Another instance is the prime practice time which would be given to men; the best shuttles were reserved for them and many more. So these small but important biases that existed then is prevalent now too.
Did such hindrances your impact your performance?
I wouldn’t call them hindrances, neither these impacted my practice in any sort of ways but yes, these were common sites. Imagine if you were men single champion, the importance given will be slightly different from a women single national champion. But again very subtle. I think badminton as a sport did extremely well to keep that balance.
Looking at another instance, the international badminton championships I participated, the price money was always at level for both men and women, which is indeed great! But on a larger scale, there are obvious issues when it comes to women in sports, be it price money or facilities, media attention, sponsorship, or opportunity to play, these are indeed realities. I probably didn’t had to face too much of it, but I can’t deny its existence.
So what are you engaged with post your retirement from badminton?
I am engaged in different things involved in and around sports. Pre-COVID, I was providing coaching, doing governance in sport, helping individual, sport administration in national and international level, mentoring, TV commentary, and was involved with the media in some way.
What are some of the life lessons you carry on till date from your golden days? Any suggestions for others to follow when they want to opt sports as a career?
Today the scenario is opening up on both fronts – opportunity for career in sports in different areas like media, sports marketing, sports management, talent management, sports science and a lot more. On the other side, courses on education or qualification for these roles are also coming up, which is a bright hope. But I still observe that opportunities are few in sports as compared to other industries, while it’s also tough to break into a sports career.
Having travelled through a player’s journey myself, I can say that the journey is very slow. Hence patience is very crucial if you want to get into sports. A lot of these opportunities may not be the highest paying unless you go into cricket or IPL or that sort of similar game. So patience and persistence when it comes to career in sports is very important. Being able to cope and being adapt is another mantra. So being resilience, adapt and coping with different situations are the three main lessons that stand out for me apart from discipline, dedication, determination and others.
What are some of the other career opportunities in and around sports that girls can look at for?
There are a lot of career opportunities in and around sports, right from coaching to trainer to other sports avenues akin to sports doctor, conditioning expert, sports marketing & management, event management, media & broadcast, CSR, NGO that supports sport, finance and sponsorship, performance analysis, nutrition, and many other fields.
When you were playing badminton you did not had so many technology and intelligence to help you improve your game. Today how are these technologies bringing in more power to sports?
Technology is just a tool, which is in the coach’s hand. If a coach sees it is useful enough to create a difference, if technology intervention can help improve performance and bring in more sponsorship, it is a blessing in disguise. For an instance, the way today viewers consume sports through various mediums, and their number usually decide how much sponsorship will come in. also, there is a whole lot of gamut areas that can help sports become better and help players right through their journey.
You spoke about the difference in treatment between men and women in sports. Do you think the government is doing enough to fill in the gap?
Honestly I think the government is trying its level best and of course, to look after sports, there are a lot of technicalities. There are surely few issues that need to be sorted out but on a large scale, I think that the government is putting in good efforts because today if you see the results in performance, at least at the highest levels, we see a lot of athletes who are really shining and have become household names and role models. That is only been possible because of their performances which comes through government support, which otherwise was not possible at all.
I can surely say that the government is doing its bit but certainly more can be done. There is always room for improvement. India is a very big country and we have lot of social issues when it comes to sole aspect of women and all the related stuffs, it will take time but the effort is being made for sure.
There are news about sportspersons who are being sidelined and now have to lead a very painful lifestyle where they are either street vendors, or work as a labour. So there is quite a discrimination in sports as well especially with those who have brought laurels to the nation. Can anything be done to bring them back to the field or help them in certain ways?
This is like a completely separate issue because handling players is one thing but handling those who have retired from competitive sports is something that needs to be taken care of. As you rightly said that we see lot of champions who have gone through such phases of life and certainly that should not be the case going forward.
I think we have a lot of good panels of advisors who also sit on a couple of committees; but more than what could be done, I think the question is how we can manage to do it because the trick is always in implementation. We can keep talking but unless it’s implemented, there is no consequence. So while on one hand the conversations are happening, but at the other end we have to wait and see how these get implemented. It is like a chain – awareness, conversation and implementation and the review of it whether it was impactful or not.
We got through the awareness and right now are at the conversation phase and hopefully it will be implemented soon.
Winning & loosing are the two sides of the same coin. Sports is no different. How did you handle yourself through these curvy journeys?
I focused on the process and not on the results because in sports, that is a very dangerous parameter to have; it can be an indicator but not an eventual goal because you win some and you lose a lot along the way. Sports profession has pressure from every side, especially from parents; hence for kids, they turn the eventual goal into an obsession which makes it difficult for them to sustain. Hence it is paramount that you focus on the process, learn well & play well, and eventually try to achieve whatever you have set out for yourself step-by-step.
What is most important is to enjoy the journey. Remember, it requires tremendous patience; it is like sowing a seed and waiting for the fruit. Just like in my case, I sowed the seed when I was eight years old and I played Olympics 12 years later. You need to have the patience in the whole journey and put in your 100 percent of every minute, every session and every rule and only then only you can get to success.
I think one major difference between sports and any other profession is that sports tests you a lot. Because when you play a match or a tournament, it is like giving an exam every other day for years. On top of that, you never know what the result will be. So you are giving exams on a regular basis, and being tested very often.
Apart from this, people judge you. Remember you are playing in front of hundreds of audiences, so it’s not only that you are winning, succeeding or failing in private, it’s in front of everyone and now with social media, that also brings a pressure of its own. So you really have to cope up with situations like this. Even in a match, if you look at it, it’s unscripted. I do not know anything about the next move. Hence the coping mechanism comes from that. So the more you play sport, the more you keep learning to adapt and cope with the situation.
So what’s your mantra to cope with such pressure?
Be aware and prepare as best as you can! So when I say be aware, it is about being aware of yourself, how you react in certain situation, be aware of your surrounding or situation that can arise and then if you feel you can anticipate then prepare and keep ideas or the answers ready. So being aware helps a lot with coping with pressure and being prepared well also adds to this.
Health is wealth and for players, it is like their regular dose of oxygen. What would you suggest the youngsters out there to take care of their health, nutrition, exercise?
It is about discipline, and making the best of the choices. It is that simple. At every point you make a choice and if you are disciplined, you will make the right choice. But if you are tempted and carried away, you will not do so. I played badminton for 20 years, and I can very confidently tell that I had been disciplined every day of those 20 years. It was only because I loved to play badminton.
I was so passionate about badminton that even when as a kid someone used to ask me to go out for a party or movie, I would politely refuse. So everything was for badminton just because I loved the game so much.
Any tough phase in your life and the learning from that?
Lots of tough phases, but you have to look at them just as a challenge. It is also important to look at it objectively and find a solution to it. This is again a mindset which I believe I developed through sports as sports is all about problems and finding solutions.
Yes sometimes things were tough on financial front, sometime on personal front, sometimes tough just because there is politics involved in the game, sometimes you feel you are wronged somewhere, sometimes you just have bad luck and run into trouble. So what is important is how you react to a situation. Sports taught me that and I believe that because as I had been very consistent in my performance over the years, I could take those problems in my side and become a stronger & better person. Sometimes even if you can’t overcome them, you need to learn to move on and just make the best of whatever you have.
Going forward, can we see you wearing entrepreneur hat?
Yes, surely. I am trying to do few things that I believe I wanted to do for a while. So hopefully in the next couple of years, I may put something together in the field of sports.
I might have moved away from the field, but I just love the sport so much that I am very grateful for the opportunities that today lie in the field of sports. I continue to engage myself in one way or the other. I have never been an entrepreneur but would soon share my journey too with you.
What would be your one piece of advice for budding champion?
Enjoy the game and enjoy working hard. Because it is not easy.
How do you balance your personal and professional life?
It’s really very tough but of course you need the support of your family. At the same time you need a lot of discipline because you have so many things to do in such short timeframe. Hence it all links to how you manage time and juggle between the priorities and even juggle the guilt of not doing the leftover work. While you realize you did a lot, you also realize that you missed many. It’s interesting that no two days are the same and you always have new things to learn.
Oriental and homemade food. My favourite dish would be homemade pizzas.
Denmark as I have good memories of the place.
Sports movies like Chak De! I am not a big movie person, but I like watching inspiring movies mostly biopics.