One of the interesting developments in the Chinese national team in recent years has been the induction of international expertise. The most visible face of this is Kang Kyung Jin, formerly Korea’s head coach, who now handles China’s women’s doubles.
Helping China’s top mixed doubles pair Zheng Si Wei and Huang Ya Qiong is Spain’s Cristian Luque Manjon. Strength and conditioning coach Manjon joined the team five years ago, working with the top two mixed doubles pairs (Zheng Si Wei/Huang Ya Qiong and Wang Yi Lyu/Huang Dong Ping) and then Chen Yu Fei in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. After Tokyo 2020, Manjon’s exclusive focus has been on Zheng/Huang.
How did a Spaniard with a background in working with tennis players make his way into the world’s best badminton team?
In this two-part interview, Manjon talks about his foray into badminton, the differences between badminton and tennis, and his approach in working with the world’s best mixed doubles pair.
How did your association with the Chinese badminton team begin?
I was working in a tennis academy in China. Someone who was working with me in the academy started to work in the badminton team. The mixed doubles coach needed a strength and conditioning coach, and they contacted me. I started working with the two mixed doubles pairs – Zheng Si Wei/Huang Ya Qiong and Wang Yi Lyu/Huang Dong Ping and also Chen Yu Fei.
What were the main differences in tennis and badminton that you had to adjust to?
There are differences, of course, because of the distance of movements. The badminton court is much smaller, the intensity is higher. And then there are some smaller differences, but many racket sports have many common things. But for me, since it was my first experience with badminton, I needed to do a lot of research before I started to work with them, to learn the physiological demands of badminton, and also the characteristics about the different categories. At first I started with to work with mixed doubles. After a while, I started to work with Chen Yu Fei until the Olympics, and then I had to analyse the different characteristics of the different categories. But I could use many of the methodologies I was using with the tennis players with them.
In badminton acceleration is more important than maximum speed because the distance is too short. Since the distance that tennis players have to cover is longer, the characteristics of the running mechanics or the characteristics to develop maximum speed is more important. For badminton, it’s to generate power as fast as they can, in shorter distance.
Was it more challenging for badminton, given that badminton players also move in the air and backwards, which tennis players don’t?
For example, in mixed doubles, for women the most important are the lateral movements. And for the men, they are different according to the style of their game. In the case of Ya Qiong and Si Wei, Ya Qiong covers most of the front of the court, and Si Wei has to cover the rest of the court. Also, it’s important to adjust the training according to the style of how they play. Other players interchange positions, and they have different physical demands.
So your work is very player-specific.
Yes, for me, I’ve always tried to be very individual with the training according to many aspects, like if they’ve had injuries, or what is the style they play, and also the style they train.
I’m in charge of the strength and conditioning and training. In case they have any injury, I’m in charge of their return to play, working with the medical team. And then I help them with the warm-up before training and competition.
Before you joined they must have been following a system. Was there a lot of difference between what they were doing and the ideas you brought in?
The first thing when you join a team and more so the Chinese team, you need to understand the culture behind the country and the history because they have been the best team during the last 20 years and then I cannot arrive there and try to change everything. At first I tried to understand the system they had and then tried to introduce little things during training, not try to change everything at the beginning. And then we made some changes during warmup, for example, or preparation for matches, adjusting the load, according to the competitions. At the beginning it was small changes and trying to explain to the players the reason why we do all this because, for me, it’s very important that the players need to feel part of the process, not just me saying, we need to do it. Players have to also make decisions about their training.
Were there certain methodologies that you were required to follow? Or did the management just leave it to you to decide?
When I met with the mixed doubles coach for the first time, I was explaining to him my methodology of working. Of course, there were things that belong to the team that I needed to respect. But after that he gave me the freedom to develop my training methodology, because for me, it was very important to have the opportunity to develop the way that I see the training. Having the support of the coaches is always very important.
Zheng and Huang were already so good before you joined the team. So what exactly did you work on with them?
The first thing was, because they are number one in the world, they need to be consistent during all the competitions. Because every tournament they go out, the goal is to win. To try to maintain the physical condition is stable during the season is one of the main things. After they have a period of tournaments, we try to focus on recovery, and then adjust the load again. It’s not possible to be in peak performance during the whole year. The goal is to maintain in a stable state throughout the year because they compete to win. For Ya Qiong the training will be to improve the lateral movement, the hand and eye coordination, because she has less time as she’s close to the net. Si Wei has a style of game very aggressive and very powerful, so for him it’s injury reduction. And training for him was very important, and trying to develop the proper strength and the capacity to recover after competition and training, and explaining to him the importance of rest, sleep. All the invisible training was also a part of education.
They have been No.1 for many years. What special qualities do they have that’s helped them maintain that level?
I think you need to have very strong mentality, because they have been in many (difficult) situations. We had, for example, the last World Championship with the second round, they lost the first game, they were 17-14 down in the second, and they could change the game and at the end, win the World Championships. For athletes like them have a very strong mentality and are able to keep their calm in the important situations of the game.
Can this mental stability be trained?
During your daily training, you need to be 100 per cent focused and put a maximum effort. And then when you arrive to the competition, you can apply this, it’s not a big difference. The problem is if the intensity and the concentration in the training is not good, and when you need to apply it for competition, it’s going to be difficult.
Part 2 of the interview to follow