Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

When you're down, just hang on: HS Prannoy

India's highest-ranked singles shuttler, HS Prannoy, on training the mind, what's caused his remarkable turnaround and how he's come to peace with his injury-prone career 

Kathakali Chanda
Published: May 11, 2024 09:30:00 AM IST
Updated: May 10, 2024 12:03:04 PM IST

When you're down, just hang on: HS PrannoyHS Prannoy. Image: Shi Tang/Getty Images

A few years ago, no one, perhaps HS Prannoy included, would have bet on him as India's highest-ranked singles shuttler going into the Olympics. But with a bronze in the World Championships and at the Asian Games in 2023, the latter, despite carrying an injury, the 31-year-old is leading the charge for the Indian singles contingent at the Paris Games. In this interview, Prannoy talks about being a late-bloomer, rising through his injury-prone career and how he's worked on his mind and expectations to script his purple patch. Edited excerpts: 

'I was quick with the basics and got hooked on badminton'

My father used to play badminton recreationally and was very passionate about the sport. That's how I was introduced to it. Then, I became attracted to the sport and started playing with him whenever he went to play with his friends. When I was 10, I went to summer camp for the first time, and I was very quick to learn the basics. Within the first six months, I could play in tournaments, which gave me the confidence to carry on with the game.

I didn't have role models when I was growing up in Thiruvananthapuram as we didn't have much exposure.  But when I was young, my dad used to get a lot of CDs where I could watch top players. Those were my initial role models—like Indonesian Taufiq Hidayat, whom I used to copy. That apart, it was all my dad because, to me, he was the only one who knew something about badminton at that point. That apart, I had no clue what was happening in the country, and till about 15-16, I didn't know who icons like Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand were.

'Cheating will never give you lasting success'

My father has worked in the Air Force for 20 years and has led a very disciplined life. I could learn a lot of things from him because it can be very tough to teach discipline, and it's easier if one picks up by watching people around them. And the only thing that my father would tell me was not to cheat. He would tell me that cheating would only give me temporary happiness but wouldn't do me any good in the long run. Some months or years down the line, you will always get called out if you cheat. From my younger days, I've always been able to do that.

'Set your expectations low'

The last couple of years have been good for me. I've won bronze medals at the World Championships and the Asian Games and won the Malaysia Masters, too, in 2023, my first BWF World Tour title. What have I been doing differently of late? Not keeping a lot of expectations, with which I often struggle. When you work hard, there are definitely a lot of expectations. But I've learnt to do the tough part in the last two years—sobering those expectations. I tell myself the important thing to focus on is how well you can recover and how well you can train the next day; nothing else matters. Sometimes, I waver and begin to expect good results—that's when things don't fall into place for me.

Also read: Pullela Gopichand: No backup plan for many players, need to secure them through sponsorships and jobs

'Working on the mind is crucial'

When you are playing sports at an elite level, there are always insecurities around you. Doubts creep up all too often. This is especially true when you aren't playing well. That's when a psychologist can help you gain perspective and make you understand what kind of a person you are and how well you can get the best out of a certain situation. For the last four years, I have been working with a team of people to build on my mental resilience. That has made a big difference. So, even if things aren't going well, I know it's important to keep the faith and continue the work. You learn that, in match situations, what to focus on and what to shut out. The results have been showing in the past two years.

'Build pressure on your opponent'

The other aspect of building up mental resilience shows up in how I've been turning around after losing the first game and winning matches thereon, including against the likes of Viktor Axelsen, the World No. 1. Over the last few years, badminton has evolved into a very physical game, and the shuttles have become slower than usual. I've realised that in a game of badminton, the game can change in just a matter of 4-5 points. So, whenever there is an off set for me, there is always a belief in me that says that I just need to control a phase of 4-5 points and your opponent can crack. That's what I've been trying to do, and even if I lose the first game, I know that somewhere in the second game, I just need to hang on. If I can put pressure for long enough, the opponent will crack—and it might be at 17-all in the second game. And once it reaches the deciding third game, it's a dogfight—at that point, there are no physical attributes; it's all a mental game.

Also read: Is Badminton still a hard sell in India?

'Injuries are inevitable if you play at the highest level'

I had the highest number of injuries between the ages of 21 and 27. That was also one of the toughest periods of my life because I didn't have the maturity to understand how to deal with those situations. What I did at a later stage of my career was understand that this is inevitable at times. I've seen injury-free players, but when I look at their career graphs, I've also seen them not pushing beyond a point. I realised it's up to an individual to decide what you want from your career—just to be mediocre and hang around there, or push ahead and play at the highest level. For me, I always want to play at the highest level. When you start to push in that direction, you can't avoid injuries. My coach, Gopichand sir, once told me that if you are playing at the highest level for 10-15 years, keep 3-4 years away for injuries. It's as simple as that, you cannot fight against it.

'Age is truly just a number'

People say my best success has come at an age when other shuttlers are thinking about wrapping up their careers. I guess it's people who decide what age one can play up to, and I've always wondered why we should listen to anyone else. We just have to listen to ourselves, and I say this not just for me but for everyone else, too. Around 27-28, I thought they were my best years of badminton, and I couldn't go beyond a World No. 8. Around 2020-21, I thought I was done with the sport because post-COVID, I wouldn't get many opportunities. But I really wanted to prove that I could be in that top 5 because I had never breached that mark. I am still pursuing that dream—last year, I came close and was ranked No. 6, but I couldn't get to the elite top 5. Nobody else but you are responsible for chasing your dreams, and you should listen only to yourself. In world sports, we also have role models like [Novak] Djokovic, who shows the world that even at 35-36, it's okay to play tennis at the highest level. These examples motivate you every single day. Age is just a number, and hopefully, there are a lot of players out there who believe that they can do their best past 30.