There have been three retirements due to injury so far at the TotalEnergies BWF Thomas & Uber Cup Finals 2020 – two yesterday (Michelle Li, Lea Palermo) and one today (Saina Nehwal). The nature and extent varied – Palermo’s appeared to be the most serious, with coach Baptiste Careme saying that test results were awaited on her knee injury.
Li retired over concerns of aggravating existing Achilles conditions in her left and right leg, while Nehwal said she had a groin problem.
Li, perhaps without meaning to, might have heralded a subtle shift in the conversation around injuries, physical and mental health. She talked of the struggles she had at Tokyo 2020; the recurring injuries and her hope at having overcome them. Retiring from the match was a setback in her journey, but while she was disappointed about it, she was clear that the decision had been right, to prevent longer-term problems.
Playing He Bing Jiao, concern flashed in her mind the moment she felt she might aggravate her Achilles, which was on the mend after the Tokyo Olympics. Retiring from the match was a decision she disliked; yet, it was important in the longer term. As she put it, she didn’t want to play on with pain any longer.
Just a day earlier, Li had talked about the tumult she’d undergone at the Tokyo Olympics, given her injuries, struggles with form and fitness, and issues with mental health. Many badminton players in the past had possibly the same dilemmas as she; yet, Li is the first to articulate her concerns and connect them with mental health and self-care, two terms that are new to sport, and brought to light by the likes of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles. They have now entered the badminton lexicon.
“I hate doing that (retiring). I never do that. Even when I’m injured, I continue till the end. I just don’t like pulling out. It’s like an internal conflict. In the past I always played on, I kept pushing it, even if I was injured I still played, but something needs to change for the future. I need to make smarter decisions. I have to learn my lessons, and I have learnt it the hard way,” said Li.
“I’ve got scolded a lot of times by doctors so it’s like, why put myself in that situation. I guess I’m tired of playing with pain. So I think, especially at the Olympics there was so much pain physically and mentally that I want to see where I can go when I’m 100 per cent. That’s where my mind is right now. When it comes to these decisions I have to make it so it aligns to my goal.
“I tried to play, and I don’t think my body is ready yet. I’m a bit afraid to push too hard because I’m still in the process of recovery. I needed to know my limit, and after the first game I knew it was tough to keep pushing.”
Quite unusually for a badminton player, Li admits that her mental health was far from ideal at the Olympics.
“It (Olympics) was something else, there were a lot of issues that were outside of badminton, that was a big struggle for me. I was hit with so many issues that I’d never dealt with before. It was a big learning experience.
“I’ve been playing for a while, but the combination of Covid and so many restrictions, my injury, it was difficult. My performance was awful at the Olympics, I didn’t enjoy it at all.
“So for me I want to find the joy and that’s when I play at my best.
“If I were to compare it with the two other Olympics, Tokyo wasn’t the same at all. My own performance was my worst. I used to be afraid to speak out, but now it comes with maturity, I’m not hiding anything. There were some mental health issues too, so it’s about trying to admit it, get over it… I was dealing with my own personal problems as well, I was feeling anxious the whole tournament. The anxiety and… just everything accumulating, made it worse. That definitely impacted my performance.”
If there was some contradiction between her faith in her recovery on the eve of the tournament, to the realisation yesterday that her body wasn’t ready yet, Michelle Li was forgiving of herself.
“I spent a lot of time to get here, and I didn’t want to take a few steps back. And I think I look forward to future tournaments, so this is a smart move for the bigger picture.”
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