Success is no walk in the Park

Understanding coach: Park Joo Bong consoling a Japanese player.

THE legendary Park Joo-bong of South Korea is one of badminton’s special ones – revered for his success as both a player and coach. As a doubles great, he has won all the major titles – including the Olympic gold. Joo-bong has also excelled as a coach, transforming Japan into a powerhouse of the game. Starsport’s RAJES PAUL caught up with the 54-year-old former Malaysia chief coach at the Danisa Denmark Open in Odense to discover the ‘secrets’ of his success.


Q: Coach, how did it all start for you with Japan?

A: I joined Japan after the 2004 Athens Olympics. I’ve seen the Japanese players before and knew they were good. They had smashing power and their standard was not too far from the top players. But they lacked the strategy to win and I focused on that. I can’t believe 14 years have passed. I also picked up their language to make it easier to communicate.

Q: Was it easy to make changes?

A: Thirteen players participated in Athens. Except for the women’s singles, who went to the second round, the others lost in the opener. They had enough rankings to qualify for the Olympics but the level was not there. So, I had to make them understand that. I sent them to tournaments to let them see the difference in their level with top players. I wanted them to know how hard they have to train to narrow the gap. First, I had to change their mindset. Then, their objectives in training changed too.

For me, it was hard in the beginning because Japan’s training system was different. They were club-based and did not have a centralised training centre. I wanted centralised training but there was a tug of war with the clubs. There was an issue over control. I wanted the players to give priority to national call-ups without making the clubs feel that they were losing their players. The players were caught in between. But again, it was all about changing the mindset.

It was important to make players and their clubs understand why we needed to make a change. After the first three years, we set up a national training centre, similar to the NSC (National Sports Council), where it included all facilities – from the support services, best training gear to medical care.

Now, the players spend about 100 days training at the centre, another 130 days for competitions and the rest of the time, they are with their clubs. The system has slightly changed and it’s working for Japan. The clubs are very supportive now, as they see the results and they trust us.

Q: How much difference have you seen in your players?

A: They have improved tremendously. They know how to play, they do match analyses. We’ve many discussions with players. We identify problems and solve them, one step at a time.

They now enjoy many benefits. We used to have only two coaches – a women’s doubles coach and me when I started. Now, I’ve five coaches for the main group and another five for the second group. Six of the coaches are funded by the Olympic Committee of Japan (OCJ).

We have stronger support service. Now, we bring along a nutritionist and weight trainer during tournaments. We’re now trying to get a full-time manager to make all the logistic arrangements such as training court bookings, internal and external transportation ... I’m still doing all that now. I want coaches to give full attention to coaching.

Q: Since you came on board, Japan have produced Olympic, world and Thomas Cup winners. The players are regular finalists and winners in Open tournaments, even taking centrestage from mighty China. How are you handling this?

A: I’ve never thought that it will come to this. I thought I would only stay for the first four years. We reached the semi-finals for the first time at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and that became a motivation. I think the players, the OCJ and Japan Badminton Association (JBA) started to believe that it was possible to win more.

Badminton was included as one of the 13 core sports. I continued to do the programmes and it became very exciting and interesting. I was driven, and my coaches shared the same vision. Players became motivated and the badminton bodies became more supportive. My contract has been extended to March, 2021. And now, my mission is to deliver a gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020. If more, it will be good. There’s still work to do.

Q: You said the OCJ and JBA are supportive. Have they interfered?

A: I think my stint in Japan has been good because of my relationship with JBA’s chief executive Sekene Yoshio, now the vice-president – that goes way back to our university days. He trusts me 100% and he’s involved in badminton for a very long time too. Whatever I do, say and ask, I’ve his full backing.

Sekene, JBA and OCJ are supportive when I’ve problems too – they don’t turn around and point the finger at me for decisions I made.

I remember telling him (Sekene) the possibility of hiring Jeremy Gan as a mixed doubles coach. He noted it and a day later, all arrangements were made to hire Jeremy. Budget, sponsors, approvals – all were sorted. When you have support like this, it makes you want to do even more.

Q: Coach, you have been with Malaysia before, why didn’t we see Malaysian players winning majors too?

A: To be fair, I was the chief coach only briefly with Malaysia. It’s hard to compare. In Japan, there is this gap between the coaches and players – the players are respectful. In Malaysia, players, coaches and management are all friends – there’s no line that separates that. The culture is different. It also depends on the coaches – the players must trust and believe the coaches. It’s difficult to control players. Coaches must know their roles. I’m there to entertain the requests by players to train – some prefer earlier slots than the others.

It’s about accommodating and understanding them – not all are the same. I’m there in every tournament they go to, I watch their matches, I communicate with them. When they have the trust, they will listen to coaches’ advice. Both players and coaches must have the right attitude.

Q: What do you think of Malaysian badminton?

A: I’ve been there before and I want Malaysian badminton to do well. It’ll be good for the sport’s promotion if all countries are able to perform well and fans will be happy to see quality matches. I’ve seen many changes in Malaysia. After I left, Rexy Mainaky became a coach, then Morten Frost came and went twice, there have been others too. It looks like Malaysia don’t have long-term plans. It’s always short. Malaysia always offer big money to bring anyone in ... but I think, outside coaches are apprehensive now.

Coaches are sacked if there are no results – but it’s difficult to produce results in the short term.

I think, the roles of coaches, officials and managers are spelt clearly in Japan. We also have a coaching committee but my coaches and I get to select the players for tournaments, we do the planning for players. The coaches are given the freedom to manage the players and deal with their training issues. But of course, we plan according to the budget given by the association.

I’ve already done my planning from January to December in 2019. And the planning involves our first, second and third teams. I’ve set dates for centralised training programmes, I’ve selected players for all tournaments next year. There are 55 players in the national team and they know what lies ahead for them next year. Of course, they have targets to achieve.

Q: What is your response when your top players fail to meet certain expectations? How did people react when Kento Momota did not win at the Asian Games in Jakarta recently?

A: Everyone understood the situation. Kento has been doing well since April after winning the Asian Championships title. He lost to Lee Chong Wei in the Malaysian Open final, won all his matches in the Thomas Cup Finals and lifted the world title. As a player, I know it’s hard to keep winning. I know he will eventually lose but I didn’t know in which tournament. Of course, he lost in the Asiad. He was too tired. The association understood that too. There is no point putting undue pressure on players. Sometimes they win, sometimes not. More importantly, as coaches, we should know that the players have tried their best.

Q: Coach, we heard that Kento broke the national team’s rule by entering a female’s room at the national centre. How do you handle indiscipline?

A: It was a thing of the past (in May) and we had taken action against him. We don’t tolerate indiscipline. Kento is famous now and everyone is after him, including the paparazzi.

The focus is more on the team when they are successful. This is new to us and we’re learning to manage it. We’ve made a few new rules for players but at the same time, we also give these players their space. We’re not rigid.

Q: You are one of the vocal voices dealing with the Badminton World Federation (BWF). Have they done enough for badminton?

A: I’m still not impressed with their service height change. The calls are still unclear although better than before. They are doing their part and things are better but I expect them to do more for the players.

Q: You’ve been involved in badminton since you were 10 years old – from a junior player, then a successful top player to a coach now. Don’t you get tired of coaching?

A: Of course, I get tired. It’s the same thing – tournaments, training, planning, managing expectations – year after year. I keep it interesting.

I’ve my own goals and targets in every tournament. I’m motivated when I achieve small or big targets. This is my job – and I love it.

Q: Being as busy as you are, how has your family coped?

A: My family has been with me throughout my journey. They were there in Malaysia and now in Japan. My children study in international schools.

Now, during my free time, I follow my wife Lee Soo-jin to the market. I’m the driver at home (he laughed). My 25-year-old son Park Kwang-ryeol has graduated from a university in London and is a consultant in a company in Japan. My 19-year-old daughter Park Ji-min will start her university studies in Japan soon. I go for dinners with friends and the sports community here too. I value all these relationships.

Q: Will you consider coaching in other countries once you are done with Japan?

A: South Korea have been asking me to come back. They are struggling too. My focus now is on finishing my job in Japan. The new badminton stadium for the Olympic Games is impressive – it’s 25km from Tokyo. It can accommodate about 7,000 people. It will be great to see Japan players shine at home by winning gold medals in that stadium in 2020 – that’s my motivation now.

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