As a child, Lakshya Sen would speed through nearly 150 stairs that cut through a steep climb to shorten his route to reach home in Almora, Uttarakhand. Walking a few kilometres uphill navigating a winding stretch to reach school or sprinting along with his elder brother Chirag in a race to enter his father’s badminton academy was routine for Lakshya.
For anyone growing up in the hills — Almora is located around 1,600m above sea level — this is nothing out of the ordinary. What it did provide Lakshya, though, was a strong physical foundation to build his agility and endurance on the court, traits that were visible during his recent exploits in world badminton.
All through his giant-killing run in the international circuit over the last four months that saw him win bronze at the World Championships and silver at the All England Championships, one of the striking features of Lakshya’s game has been his ability to close out physically-demanding duels.
The legendary Prakash Padukone and former international Vimal Kumar were on the lookout for precisely such physical attributes — apart from skills, of course — while scouting talent for their junior programme almost a decade ago. It was a tough phase of transition for the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bengaluru. The academy’s senior international players were past their prime and no new talent was on the horizon.
Padukone, who was the first to open a private badminton academy in the country in 1994, thought of starting afresh. As a first step, PPBA asked all the senior players to move out and constructed the base of a well-planned programme for juniors, inducting promising shuttlers aged 10 and 11. There was also a major shift in the kind of talent they wanted to nurture; the ones with the physical ability to complement their badminton skills.
“To develop someone in technical skills is easier for me, compared to making them stronger and fitter,” Padukone had said while reflecting on the talent they were scouting for the academy’s junior programme.
“Earlier, we used to just look at their game irrespective of their physicality. But sometimes beyond a point, technically even though they are good, it is difficult to reach top-10 in the world because of physical impediments. There is now a lot more emphasis on physical parameters especially from a young age with scientific analysis,” added Padukone, who won the All England title in 1980.
Their search took them to the hills of Almora, where Lakshya’s father DK Sen, a badminton coach with the Sports Authority of India, was looking to send out his trainees to more prominent training centres.
“There was a lot of talent in Almora but that is not enough. We were always short of good quality shuttles, and then to reach the top international level, you need a good programme and guidance,” said Sen, now a coach at PPBA.
The outlet which Sen was hunting for came in the form of PPBA. His trainees, including his two sons Chirag and Lakshya, were inducted in PPBA’s junior programme.
“We started with 10 kids in 2010. We had limited resources for the kind of scientific programme we had in mind. Luckily, Infosys joined us later when we needed funding. Olympic Gold Quest also came up to help Lakshya and some other players,” said Kumar, director and chief coach at the PPBA.
The young trainees were put through a badminton-specific strength and conditioning programme under the expertise of Deckline Leitao. Tests were conducted to get precise information on their core muscle strength, endurance levels and other parameters. PPBA moved to a new state-of-the-art Centre for Excellence on the outskirts of Bengaluru in 2018, where Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra also set up a high-performance centre, which guided them through a more advanced biomechanical expertise.
Sen’s trainees blossom
PPBA sourced buckets of its talent pool from Sen. Currently, PPBA has 13 of the 60 trainees from Uttarakhand and several of them have started to blossom. After Lakshya’s performances, two PPBA girls, 17-year-old Anupama Upadhyaya and 18-year-old Aditi Bhatt, made it to the final of the Polish Open last week. Both were trainees under Sen.
“Lakshya was very tiny when he joined. Even then his ability to put the shuttle across the net without making any mistake – and while doing that you are continuously playing 10, 15 shot rallies and gasping for breath – stood out. Lakshya, from a young age, had that ability. When he is gasping, he could still put the shuttle across. Somehow, he will dive, or do whatever he can,” said Kumar.
“Lakshya’s brother Chirag and other kids who have come from Uttarakhand, they all have the basic good endurance that you need in badminton. Of course, then comes the temperament but these qualities are inborn. The process that he went through, all the running around at a young age, has definitely helped,” he added.