As a professional international Badminton Player, she represented India at multiple top sporting events including 2 Olympics (2000, 2004) Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. Her achievements include winning 4 medals at Commonwealth Games and a silver medal at the World Junior Championships (the first Indian to win a medal at this event)
She has won 16 national singles titles in 17 years including 9-consecutive Senior National titles (equalling Padmashree Prakash Padukone’s national record) and was conferred with the Arjuna Award in 2005.
She is one of the 17 participants from around the world and the lone Indian to be selected for the GLOBAL SPORTS MENTORING PROGRAM, an initiative by the promoted by Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State and EspnW. This prestigious program was aimed at empowering women and girls through sport.
Today, she works to contribute to Indian sport and society in various capacities through coaching, mentoring, television commentary, writing columns, sitting on Government Committees and until recently as Executive Director of the Olympians Association of India.
“I believe that my 360-degree view of the sporting world earned through my various experiences and contributions over the years has provided me with a better understanding of the sports fraternity.”
Today, she enjoys sharing her experiences and learnings gained through sports as she strongly believes that ‘SPORTS IS A METAPHOR FOR LIFE’.
Interview with Aparna Popat
What challenges did you face, in getting to where you are today?
That would be a long list – right from social and cultural norms, gender bias, financial constraints, logistical issues, physical limitations, emotional and mental stress and of course, all the other uncertainties that playing a sport brings.
What drives you to get up in the morning and go training every day?
The drive to be better than I was the previous day.
What is important to you? (apart from sports what else do you do, and believe in? It’s good for people reading this to know that there are other interests too aside from sports)
I strongly believe in the power of sport and the Right to Play.
The attitude to keep learning is most important to me
Other than that, I am interested in music. I always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument but didn’t have the time.
I spent a lot of my childhood doing calligraphy and art. I especially like impressionist art.
I love being around kids because they are fun and help me see life differently.
How does being an athlete make you a better person?
Simply playing sport does not make you a better person. It’s how you approach the sport that makes you a better person.
There are some realities that an athlete experiences on a regular basis. – things like you can’t win all the time or rest on past laurels, having to do the same things over and over again each day to seek excellence, being tested with challenges sometimes in high-pressure situations and overcoming those using all your forces – physical, mental, emotional, learning that you often need a team with you to succeed and that at the end of the day, its really your lifestyle, choices and efforts that dictate your performance.
It’s through these experiences that an athlete develops certain character traits that I believe make them become a better person.
One word that describes you?
What do you give up to play sports?
I lost out on what is generally referred to as ‘fun’.
No parties, festival celebrations, late nights, junk food, movies, college life, the comfort of home (when I was 16-yrs old I left my home in Mumbai to stay on my own in Bangalore), etc.
But I never felt that I gave these up as there was nothing more that I wanted to do than to play badminton and get better at it. For me, playing badminton was fun.
What mental tool do you use under pressure?
Awareness and Breathing.
Under pressure, we often falter as we lose sight and sense of the situation at hand. So breathing helps me to bring back the awareness so that I can do the right thing in a proper manner.
What is your mantra?
The harder you work, the luckier you get.
Each day, try and be the best version of yourself.
If you could play another sport, what would it be?
Tennis or basketball
What expectations do you have of a coach?
For me, a coach is someone who should make you love the sport, make you a better player and a better person.
He should be fair. He should understand your nature and temperament and then motivate and guide you accordingly.
He should be a role model and lead by example.
At what age did you know that you wanted to become a professional sports person?
In the early days, I don’t think I ever dreamt of being a professional sportsperson or represent India at the Olympics or anything like that. I came from a non-sporting family so this option was never considered even.
But I was always competitive as a child. I was always looking to give myself new challenges and then persevere until I succeeded. And I loved sport.
In 1986, ever since I started playing badminton at the age of 8-yrs, I really wanted play well and compete. I was hungry to learn quickly and perfectly. I used to play 7 days a week.
I started winning titles very early (In 1989, I won the title at the first ever National Championship I participated in).
Thereafter, I was able to continue the momentum.
The career just happened.
What do you do to calm your butterflies when you compete?
To calm myself I turn to music and art.
Before matches, if I was tensed, I would listen to some soft instrumental music and if I was feeling dull or lethargic, I would put on something peppier with a good beat.
I would also sketch or do some colouring before a match to keep the butterflies at bay.
What coaches, teacher or other people have been great influences in your life and why or how?
My family was my biggest support – my Dad taught me focus and discipline, my Mom taught me values and compassion and my older sister taught me to have fun and look at other things outside the sport too.
My first coach (my Guru) made me love the sport. He was nurturing and taught me techniques, concepts and ethics of the sport, and how to conduct myself on and off the court.
Then as a teenager, through the coaches at the Badminton Academy at Bangalore, I learned to work extremely hard each and every day, to take decisions independently and be accountable for my performances.
All in all, my family and coaches helped me remain grounded while guiding and motivating me without putting any pressure.
What is the most important lesson you have taken from being a player and applied to being a coach.
I have learned that there are many ways to succeed. But success will only come if the passion and will come from within.
What one word or phrase do you want people to associate with your name?
What kind of philanthropic work are you involved in, if any?
Mentoring sportspersons, advocating Women in Sport and Sports for All.
What’s on your iPod right now? (What music genres and which artists do you enjoy listening to before a match?)
I love listening to all kinds of music especially retro, rock, country, instrumental and fusion music.
I used to mostly listen to Neil diamond and Richard Clayderman before a match and sometimes to songs such as the title track from the movie ‘Lakshya’.
Why do you think everyone should play a sport?
Because it’s fun!! And it makes you lead a healthy lifestyle.
It is also one of the best platforms to prepare you for life. Sport taught me less about winning and more about living.
Which sport would you not let your child play? Why?
Any sport that does not make them happy.
What do you do to keep fit? Nutrition?
I exercise as regularly as possible and eat in moderation.
How do you incorporate mindfulness practices into sports
Through observation and awareness of every small element.
But this is something that needs to be practiced constantly by incorporating it into each activity of each training session. Only then will you to be able to draw on it on command.