Spanish badminton has come a long way in the last 10 years and with Carolina Marin becoming World Champion in August and Beatriz Corrales brewing up a storm on the International scene, Spain is in an enviable position of having two of Europe’s top female shuttlers a role models for the foreseeable future.
Behind every great player there is a great coach and Fernando Rivas has been the man behind the success story of his two star pupils and to whom much of the credit must go to for the change in fortunes of Spanish badminton.
Rivas has been involved with the Spanish national set up since 2004 where he started immediately after the Athens Olympic Games. After obtaining a degree in Sports Science Rivas decided that the normal route to top level badminton coaching was not for him and decided to broaden his horizons in a search for knowledge.
“Before starting with Spanish federation in 2005 I had spent 5 years away from Spain. After getting my degree in Sports Sciences I decided that I needed to go further with my education and knowledge on badminton. I chose a different path than usual mainly not following badminton courses but doing research applied to badminton under a postgraduate framework. That took me to France, Germany and Holland where I changed my vision of the way of looking at many things.”
It was not all plain sailing in those early days as a different outlook on coaching coupled with a reluctance from his peers to accept him played heavy on fledging coaches’ mind.
The situation I encountered at the Spanish national center in Spain was a group of “veteran” players (Jose Antonio Crespo, Sergio Llopis, Dolores Marco) and some new comers like Pablo Abián, Yoana Martinez. It was very difficult to get the confidence of them because I had never been a better player than they were, I had always been beaten by them back when I competed in nationals. Second of all, the reigning approach in Spain was the Chinese style. Before I came there was a Chinese coach who left a big legacy in the veterans and they did not seem to be willing to embrace a more comprehensive and proactive approach. If you combine the previous two factors with the fact that I had no experience in high level coaching… that made it extremely difficult to me to be able to work and make the changes I thought were necessary to aim higher than we were used to.”
Rivas also had a different opinion on the existing training methods and systems and encountered much resistance as he set out to stamp his mark on the internal set up.
“On the coaches’ side. There were also veteran coaches, who in my opinion were not well educated at all, but they pretended they were. Practice sessions lacked tactical contents and the Chinese style was omnipresent. Badminton was considered as a physical sport. Some of the coaches were willing to embrace a new approach (mainly young coaches with little experience as players) but others just stuck to their principles (I rather think they did not want to explore further than their comfort zone. They were scared to reveal themselves) and didn’t consider to develop as coaches. They progressively disappeared from the front line. Furthermore there was NO teamwork, nobody seemed very interested in sharing knowledge to help on the development of badminton as a whole country. Just to be clear and my words are not taken in the wrong way, I have nothing against the Chinese approach, and it works pretty well in China. I just say that we cannot import it since the culture in general is different and there is no tradition of badminton in Spain.”
Dealing with veteran players and coaches was not the only problem for the ambitious but soulful Rivas. As with most sporting organizations there is the underlying political upheaval to deal with and the situation in Spain at the time had Rivas threading on egg shells.
“There was a somewhat turbulent political situation at the association that took some years to cut through so that I could work with no worries and no energy wasted on the political side. Although it took some years to deal with this situation, I am convinced that was one of the keys to success at the association; I deal directly with the president if necessary, nobody from the council is in charge of the political arm of the high performance.
I had to confront these three sectors at the same time, and I must be honest it was very difficult. I worked long hours and many problems got in the way, some of these problems usual from daily work some others were a clear sabotage to the project (or to me). I must tell you, although very tough and energy consuming, that gave me more motivation to prove them wrong.”
The Right Place at the Right Time
As the years past all involved in badminton in Spain soon came to realize that the man in charge was there because he deserved to be there. A firm commitment to developing the sport in badminton coupled with a work ethic that would be the envy of most top level CEO’s commanding much high salaries soon silenced the doubters. The emergence of both Carolina Marin and Beatriz Corrales is hardly coincidental given the changes taking place in Spain however Rivas remains philosophical about his prodigies and their emergence on the world badminton stage.
“As a book I once read called ‘Outliers - The story of success’ says, I think we all have been fortunate to be at the right place and the right time.”
Speaking about his charges future and their development, Rivas is knows he has special talents on his hands but also knows that both players are going through crucial development phases in their careers.
“I think both can go as far as they want. What I mean is that the most important thing is they embrace new challenges we are setting in the daily training that match the needs they will face in tournaments from tactical, technical, physical and mental point of view, and that they do so in the most committed and responsible way there is. Currently they both are in a transition moment, Carolina is in the threshold of having a certain stability at the Super Series scene and Beatriz is doing the transition from BE to BWF circuit. It is a crucial moment in which we have to go very thoroughly into small details and analysis. I must say that one of the main differences in this generation of players, in comparison to the last group I coached is that they strongly believe they can make it; I do too.”
Rivas knows that dealing with ambitious girls on a daily basis takes a lot planning mixed in with a huge dollop of that special human touch. Rivas has a strong belief in the differences between the psychology of male and females athletes and is something that he personally has gone to huge lengths to educate himself about.
“Everybody needs affection in a way, especially girls. I think I have found a good balance task-human relationship, caring about what is important to the girls in every stage of their development in both sides of the personalities. I have a strong commitment with them and their project, they know they can rely on me, especially when things are not going well. They receive as much attention as they need and the communication is open and honest in both ways. Although some coaches do not believe in differences between men and women’s psychology, I strongly do and I have been interested in reading a lot about it and I think that is a key factor. Last but not least, I also had a very good mentor (probably the best) in female sports at the sports sciences faculty in Granada.”
“I have adapted to them rather than making them adapt to me”
Rivas is not the kind of coach that tries to enforce his beliefs and structures on players. He is a man with feelings and most important to him is the welfare of his players. He has become a coach who listens and listens constructively.
“I think it is very important to listen to players, their opinion and feelings. What I mean from listening is not just giving them the chance to talk so that you take your turn to convince them. Information from them is crucial to make a change. At the end of the day they are the most important thing in the process and I have learnt to adapt to them rather to make them adapted to me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t give them what they want but want they need. What I mean is that there is a great deal of talking about how to develop better and all opinions are welcome and valid. Coaching with more empathy has been a real change in my approach and they appreciate it more this way.”
This approach was borne out at the tail end of 2013 when working with Corrales through a key development phase whereby Rivas was happy just to sit in the coaches’ chair and not get involved with any mid game interval discussions with his player.
“I was immersed in the middle of a development process in which I cared more about the players’ feelings. Beatriz had won playing on her own in Romania and France, and had been runner up in Finland, three finals in a row. In our planning I was traveling with her to Dutch Open and I was worried to interfere in what had been a near to perfect performance. Therefore I called her for a meeting and I was frank with her and then I ask her what I could do to influence in a positive way her routine. She thought about it and a couple of days later told me what she needed from me, we agreed in all terms and so we did: she won again and played brilliant.”
“Although sometimes it was a challenge, I respected our pact. As a coach I think it is more important the approach you have in the daily training to make players not dependent on the coach. That is something I am really proud of both girls. Nowadays, and since she faces a higher level of opponents, where there is no much room for errors, I asked to reconsider the process during an adaptation process and so she did. It is nothing to do with being mad or some rumors that are running on the social media concerning a bad relationship ;). But if we have chosen to go this way, training, preparation and evaluation gains even more importance for me as a coach. It was a great opportunity for me to grow as a coach; I learnt a lot.
I know it might not be the most common relationship coach-player but, why not? It is all about the players not the coaches. I must say that I am currently quite comfortable with disagreement, and there are only two situations in which I make the call; when I think the rule is not negotiable (not being late at the training, no phones allowed at the hall…) or when we cannot achieve a consensus.”
Embracing every opportunity to develop
As with all sports funding is always a thorny issue when it comes to minority sports such as badminton. Like the rest of Europe Spain has gone through a turbulent financial history in recent years but once again Rivas’s mentality is to glean the positives from every single situation and work with what you have. The Spanish coach has had to sacrifice his travelling to tournaments with his players in recent years all in the interest of their continued development.
“Many see funding as a threat to the project but this is the way it is and we have no direct influence on the funding we got. We had two choices, either we complain about the situation or we embrace it as an opportunity to develop.
It was not about me not travelling because the budget was only for the players, but a decision based on if I travelled there was less money for one of them for the next tournaments and so on. Therefore, I thought it was the best option at that time while things were going back to normal. We just needed to find out how to work it out best. Luckily we had been using video analysis since Carolina is 14 and Beatriz 16. I have worked on their awareness of what they need to analyze and they do it quite well. I think that was another step towards autonomy in which they performed great as well.”
Rivas also had the insight to bring Danish legend Tine Baun to Spain for a week to work with his players. Rivas believes top female mentoring is an important aspect of his female player’s development and accredits Bauns visit to Spain as a priceless piece of business as he continues to push the boundaires of coaching within his federation.
“I must say that having Tine Baun working with us for one week has been priceless. I was so pleased to interact with her and share some knowledge on badminton. Plus getting to know the woman behind the champion has been amazing since she is a great person.”
“My idea was to get some mentoring to the girls. We had her conducting the practice and having individual and collective meetings with the players so that she can open a broad view on living as a champion. What it takes to get there and so on… There is an additional reason, if I remember correctly when Camilla Martin retired, Tine was WR16 and “nobody” in Denmark would have thought (besides her and her coach) she would go number one, the same as Carolina was when she was there (#16). I think it was nice to listen what it took to get from #16 to #1 in the world.”
A future based on Youth
Both Carolina Marin and Beatriz Corrales are not exactly veterans in badminton terms. Both are only three years out of juniors but Rivas knows it is vitally important to develop their successors as well as focusing on their junior male talents as the Spanish boys play catch up to their girls.
“We have prospective young players like Clara Azurmendi and Isabel Fernandez coming through. Clara still has so much to learn and needs to develop more physically. But the good news is, she really wants it and she has got what it takes. When Tine Baun was in Spain and saw her training told me that Clara reminded herself when she started. Isabel Fernandez who recently won the Spanish Jr International is training at the national center. She will also need to focus on training. Furthermore, there are some other coming for the regional centers who have shown some potential.
It is true that we are so far missing strong male players in comparison to Pablo Abián, but the truth is that he has got much attention and funding for a long time, preventing the rest to develop properly, which has probably been a bad strategy from our side. However, there is a very nice group of juniors at the national center really keen on training hard, developing and improving. Some others will come next season from the regional centers. Their level is quite even which makes practice quality really good.”
From a personal perspective Rivas has a driving passion to develop coach education. Better education, he feels, is crucial in order to have a positive influence on players. Sustainability is another driving motivation for the Spanish head coach, results that can be achieved over and over again long after the current golden generation have hung up their rackets.
Both Marin and Corrales achievements to date have been a direct result of Rivas’ dedication to his job and his players. It has been a tough road as head coach but there can be no doubt as to his impact in Spain as his two prize fighters explain.
“Fernando was the person who went to saw me at the national U15 and he saw something special in me. He is a very special person to me, because when I came to the national centre when I was 14 years old he was my coach of course but also like my father. He is so important for me now because we have been working for 7 years and I know if it was not for him I would not be where and I am and won the titles I have won. He always wants the best for me as a person and for my badminton career.” Carolina Marin
“In my humble opinion I think one of his best values as worker is he is always creating new ways of innovation and improvement to get a better performance of his players and for badminton in general. He is a person who is totally dedicated and committed to fight for his dreams, no matter what people believe or say, he really believes that he can do it and he works for it. So, for me, as player, he’s being a good reference to know that with a good quality way of training and being committed in every step I have to do for my career, everything is possible.” Beartiz Corrales
Article by Mark Phelan. Photos by BadmintonPhoto.