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British badminton states its case

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Ollie Williams | 13:39 UK time, Monday, 8 August 2011

British badminton has had its problems. Earlier this summer, those in charge outlined to BBC Sport the steps they hope will put things right. Now, during this week's World Championships at Wembley Arena, we may see whether that plan is starting to work.

In-fighting between top players and a lack of leadership sent the sport plunging from the high of Olympic silver at Athens 2004 to the low of being told by former star Gail Emms - one half of that silver medal - to expect nothing at their home Games in 2012.

Badminton England, which runs a national training centre in Milton Keynes and is responsible for most of the British stars preparing for 2012, subsequently asked for a chance to demonstrate to us that things are changing.

There are three individuals behind the scenes in British badminton who may prove crucial to the sport's turnaround. The first of them, Vikki McPherson, has already left the organisation.

McPherson arrived from UK Sport last August as an interim performance director, to find out what was going wrong within British badminton and start to tackle the problems.

I met McPherson and the two other members of that critical triumvirate, new performance director Jens Grill and coach Kenneth Jonassen, at the national centre earlier this summer. They were keen for the organisation to appear as open as possible about its recent problems.

"The players were hugely frustrated," said McPherson. "There was no clear and consistent leadership, and a history of issues not being properly tackled and allowed to fester."

The big issue facing McPherson on her arrival was a falling-out between star player Nathan Robertson and team-mate Robert Blair. The disagreement, described as "kids in the playground" by one observer, culminated in Robertson refusing to play in the same team as Blair - just as McPherson was settling down at her desk for the first time.

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Is British badminton ready to move on? BBC Sport's Jessica Creighton reports.

"Inevitably in an environment like this, working with the same people day in, day out, you're going to get tensions developing," she said.

"You have to deal with them and move on but that hadn't happened. Things needed to be calmed down and one of the most important things was telling the players we wanted their feedback.

"The real surprise for me was the number of players who said nobody had asked for their opinion before. These were people who'd been funded by the programme for five or six years. We asked why they hadn't been more proactive and knocked on doors, but they said they didn't think they'd be taken seriously and it might prejudice their selection on teams.

"People hadn't felt the programme was listening to them so they were giving their feedback to other forums instead - the badminton community and the media. They weren't doing that as a first port of call, they were doing it because they felt nobody was listening to them.

"It was very difficult to get back to the root cause of the issues, because there was a lot of emotion running quite high and some strongly-held opinions which weren't necessarily evidence-based," McPherson concluded, in beautifully diplomatic language from which one might reasonably infer some people were both outspoken and wrong.

Over the winter months, McPherson sat players and coaches down in small groups - usually no more than half a dozen - and told them "be as blunt as you like, but we have to hear it now". The players duly covered sheets of paper on the walls with suggestions and criticisms.

"They really responded to that," said McPherson. "I got some fantastic, honest feedback from the players that was also very balanced: a good combination between 'this is what it feels like for me' and 'these are my perceptions more generally'.

"For example, the players wondered whether we were giving their coaches enough chance to develop. They were thinking very holistically."

The players had hit on something: coaching at the national centre wasn't working, primarily because a lack of leadership left the players unsure who to speak to, afraid to raise issues, and often filling the vacuum themselves to the detriment of team morale. McPherson entirely understands how they felt.

"The players have to be very focused on what they're trying to achieve and if they feel the programme isn't delivering for them, they'll start to take control themselves," she said.

"And why wouldn't they? They may only get one shot at an Olympics and they have to make sure it's their best shot. Because of the lack of clear leadership, the players started to tackle things themselves.

"But they don't want to do that and they're not here to do that. When you tackle those areas properly, they'll quickly fall back and focus on what they're actually here to do."

Jens Grill, a veteran of two stints at Badminton England now elevated to the position of performance director, is the man who must act on McPherson's findings. He insists he has learned lessons from the year gone by and his priority will be to give the players the guidance they lacked.

"We can't have five leaders, we need one or two," he said. "Then we can move things forward. If you have five guys then nobody decides, everybody's a bit careful and nothing gets done. My first action has been for everyone to understand their job and that this is the guy who makes decisions."

Grill was in charge of Swedish badminton before returning to the British fold in June last year. He says he missed most of the fracas between Robertson and Blair, and he wouldn't comment specifically on their troubles.

But, asked if players de-selecting themselves could occur in future, he did say: "If you're picked to represent us, you play. If they say, 'I don't want to play in that, I'll play in the next championships,' then our investment is for nothing.

"This is a competitive environment, though. The guys are training together, helping each other, advising each other sometimes - but they are competitors. Some of them don't get on.

"It's like in a business, you've got colleagues you don't like that much but you're professional, you have a job to do and you get the most out of it, even if there are people you don't ask out for a drink on a Friday night. And we're the same here.

"These are characters thinking about themselves first, thinking they should be picked, and it's our job to manage it - but I don't want to remove it, because it's key to what we do."

The leadership problem has been resolved by replacing previous head coach Andy Wood, who quit in December believing he had been undermined by senior management, with two new posts: a head singles coach and head doubles coach.

The singles coaching post has gone to Kenneth Jonassen, a man in whom Britain's badminton players appear to have near-unshakable faith.

Jonassen is a master of the singles game, having been European men's champion as recently as 2008 and having spent time as the world number two. He is the final piece in the three-person puzzle.

"As a player Kenneth was very determined - not a lot of outbursts, but very physical," said Grill, who saw plenty of his fellow Dane in action when he was coaching while Jonassen was playing.

"His real strength was the mental side of his game. He was never the most elegant but he got the results and got the wins."

Kenneth Jonassen

Kenneth Jonassen, new head singles coach at Badminton England, in his playing days. He is "hurt" by each defeat for his British charges. Photo: Getty Images

Jonassen, sitting bolt upright when we meet in a windowless room used to view tapes of matches, exudes the aura of the formidably driven. He talks formidable talk, too. We discussed his reasons for taking the post and recent British failure at the sport's flagship All-England Championships - where no British player made it past the second round - and he spoke as though a vision for British badminton played across his eyes.

"I enjoy it here, I like working with the players, they are very forthcoming and you can see they desperately want to achieve," he said.

"That's what I need. If I saw they were happy with the way things were, with the results they have now, then I'm not the right man for the job. When they lose, I lose as well, and it hurts me - it hurts me bad when we don't win and we had a chance to win. The All-England Championships? That was a bad day for me. That hurt.

"There's good talent there - some of them are a bit raw and need to be worked with to produce any form of champion. We need to be better at competing, they all know I want to see an improvement there.

"It's about your attitude when you go on-court. Getting that right every day in training is more important than at the tournament. People think they can just switch it on when they go on court in a tournament, and they can't. I want hungry players who will do whatever it takes to win."

Jonassen seems to hold a good number of the British squad under his spell. When asked about him, Chris Adcock - one half of the top British men's doubles pair, alongside Andy Ellis - leans in and says simply: "He's class."

Adcock and Ellis agree that Jonassen sees things others don't in their game, despite the Dane being nominally the head singles coach and not involved with doubles. The duo are visibly animated talking about the effect he has on them.

Rajiv Ouseph, Britain's best singles player and possibly the best hope at London 2012, knows more than most what Jonassen can do. When Jonassen arrived last year he made it his priority to work with Ouseph, 24, who duly gained 10 ranking places. He's now looking to break into the world top 10.

"I won't lie, Raj was a player that lured me here," said Jonassen. "He's massively skilful and I thought it could be interesting to work with a player like that.

"I've been able to push him a bit and work with very small details. If he gets them all right he'll have a huge impact. It's a huge step up to number one and two in the world but we're not that far behind the next bunch, and that will be interesting over the next six to 12 months."

Ouseph said: "I was at an age where I needed to press on and Kenneth coming in was crucial - it showed in the first tournament after he came, which I won.

"He can use so much of his own experience to help us. He's been there and done it. His badminton brain is the best thing about him - he's sitting behind our court and he'll see things very quickly and relay the messages to us.

"He's brought in a bit more competition between us all. Sometimes he gets involved as well and you don't really like losing to your coach, but Kenneth never wants to lose at anything: even when he's playing against us he never, ever wants to lose. He's brought a high intensity to training that can only be beneficial to us."

McPherson's identification of the failings, Grill's plan to set things right and Jonassen's marshalling of the troops at ground level will be the foundations on which British badminton's future is based.

Whether it's enough to make a real mark at Britain's home Olympics is another matter, and results have yet to experience any seismic shift since the changes took place.

But McPherson - who has now handed over to Grill and moved on - wants the players to understand that standards have to rise.

"UK Sport offers sports funding for a number of podium [i.e. top-tier] and development [second-tier] athletes - but you don't have to fill those places," she explained.

"Badminton did in the past. It wasn't a case of 'we've got 11 players good enough for podium so we'll fund them'. It was a case of saying 'we've been given 11 places so we'll find people for them all'.

"That's not the attitude of a lot of the other sports, who say you won't be funded at podium level until you've really earned it. That's something we've started to change.

"Some arguments from players who weren't offered a place on the programme have been entirely the wrong arguments, which shows they haven't understood that. 'I won the national championships,' is one of those arguments. Fine, but this isn't about funding people to win the national championships - where's the evidence that you're going to compete at Olympic level in future?

"For London next year we're looking at a minimum of one top-eight and a maximum of one medal. That's realistic. Then a lot of work over the next couple of years will be building sound foundations for the future.

"The goals for Rio 2016 haven't been set but that will happen after London and be informed by that. They will be based on a hard and honest assessment of our sport."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Great article again Ollie. Much more upbeat than last one. Hopefully the results will turn around soon. Good luck (especially) to Chris and the rest of the team this week. I would also like to say well done to Badminton England for raising a bit of camaraderie on the 1st day of the world champs.

  • Comment number 2.

    If they don't get the results its bye bye funding thats how it should be and after the Olympics are over all Olympic sports I think will and should find it more differicult to get their funding from "us" if the results are not good enough.
    Also are you going to do articles about the potential legacy of the games for both London and the country and how it will introduce young people into sport or are you just intrested in sport targets and medals which 5-10 years in the future will in the long run nor be so important?

  • Comment number 3.

    I just wonder whether the badminton coaches talk to the cycling coaches and the swimmers. They seem to have got the climate right. Sport is very parochial!

  • Comment number 4.

    It's sad though that badminton really is an area where Britain cannot excel whilst other countries like Malaysia, Denmark and China own the podiums. As much as sprinting, you can never look beyond Jamaica or the USA for medals. And yet players like Raj have such potential to look for the higher echelons of the ranking systems........................

  • Comment number 5.

    Is that the Badminton world's answer to Andy Murray in the video?

  • Comment number 6.

    Yet another little individual sport which feels it has a right to be at the top table in world terms and is "underperforming" with it's only solution to throw new people and money at it.

    When will people learn that when it comes to largely individual sports it is the talent that is key. Without it then no amount of performance directors will help.

  • Comment number 7.

    They have the talent! Some of the younger members of the squad have already been competing at the top end of the sport before a lack of direction and in fighting put paid to partnerships that were competing at the top of the sport. Many people, who don't have a clue what they're talking about have said it is a "lack of talent" and it isn't. There certainly is a lack of depth in that talent - which has always always been present in Britain - even when we were winning olympic medals.

  • Comment number 8.

    I agree with Hugh, there is talent there but this article is all wrong... MAKE NO MISTAKE! MCPHERSON DIDN'T DO JACK!!!! Kenneth Jonasson is world class no doubt but he needs a world class coaching team around him... that there currently is not. The results show it and now even Nathan Robertson has blamed the people around him!!! One of which is a life long friend of his. That's the type you deal with in Badminton though

  • Comment number 9.

    - and to prove my point - Chris and Imogen into the semis of the mixed after beating a top 3 ranked pair!

  • Comment number 10.

    Vicki McPherson did open the debate amongst players but perhaps the single failing of the whole sorry mess that had developed at BE is that those who had failed to give the leadership prior to the start of this season are still at the helm. Ok Andy Wood did the honourable thing and resigned but Adrian Christie still hangs on.

    Chris and Imogen fantastic but please not see Christie claiming any glory.

 

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