HS Prannoy 2.0: How being uncomfortable got him a Worlds bronze (and more)

HS Prannoy won his first BWF World Championship medal of his career in the 2023 edition. Shi Tang/Getty Images

HS Prannoy wants to put himself in uncomfortable positions, doing things he hates but finding enjoyment in it.

Things like doing breathing sessions for 30 minutes straight. Or not setting long term goals. Or training the very next day after a gruelling World Championship campaign that saw him win his first, and biggest senior individual, medal.

This is a purely a mental thing, a shift that has changed the trajectory of his career at 30 years of age; a time when athletes are considered old, Prannoy found his peak.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, the discomfort is part of what made him find 'Zen' mode. And it has taken him to his most successful, and consistent version yet - a first BWF World Tour title in May, two BWF finals for the first time since 2014 and the big one in August - a first World Championship medal; his biggest senior individual metal to date, sealed with a heroic victory over Viktor Axelsen, the best player of this generation.

So, what changed in the last few years? For Prannoy, it was all in the head.

"If you're not able to get up in the morning and train, you should realise that you're doing something wrong. I think I had that realisation in 2020 and I knew I had to change something," Prannoy tells ESPN.

"I needed to do things which I'm uncomfortable with. I thought one thing which I hate doing is breath [control], so let's start with that, focus on something which I really hate, and it might give me something positive in the game. In the game, you're always on the uncomfortable side and constantly fighting to get out of that."

"That's why I started psychology sessions with breathing. For me, more than getting the breathing right, it was to get that uncomfortable 20 to 30 minutes of session, because I really hate doing that and I find excuses to skip that session. It is a constant battle to do it and then find answers in the game through breathing. We are putting myself in different situations and trying to focus as much as possible to get to that Zen mode, put away everything else and just focus on what you need to do."

The answers are there, as seen at last week's World Championships where he beat former world champions Axelsen and Loh Kean Yew is back-to-back three-game battles. But Prannoy is ever realistic: "I would say, probably from last two years, I've gotten 10% better."

There have been many factors behind Prannoy needing a turnaround in the last two years. A very talented player who stood out right from his junior years, someone who had eye-catching wins over badminton legends as a youngster, he fell behind due to a series of injuries and health issues.

In March 2022, when he reached his first BWF final since 2017, he spoke about how he is getting back by fixing his physical limitations, monitoring his diet, gut health and breathing. For instance, he plays all matches with a glucose monitor on his arm. But the big change was mindset.

The journey of the HS Prannoy 2.0 we see today started two years ago, coincidentally at the time of the 2021 World Championship - where he was late entrant but reached the first of his three consecutive quarterfinals, the first Indian man since Prakash Padukone in the 1980s to do so.

"[In 2021], I started with a lot of people... psychologist, nutritionist, strength and conditioning. To work with a team that connected well was very important for me. I started to work with the Bangalore-based team and things started to fall in place slowly."

The first half of 2022 saw results: reaching the final of the Swiss Open Super 300 in March, slowly climbing up the rankings from below world No 25 and then the highlight - India's historic first Thomas Cup win in May, where he had the responsibility of the decisive match.

"From thereon, it's been about trying to consistently do the work. Physically also, it took a while to understand what needs to be done. But later when we started to travel, and I could get my trainer for a few tournaments, we could slowly and steadily figure out what works well for me. Since then, I think we have been playing well."

There was no other silverware in 2022 but there were simple markers to understand his growth - regular runs to quarters or semis at big tournaments, being the only Indian man to play the season-ending BWF World Tour finals where only the best 8 of the year qualify (and where he got a win over Axelsen.)

Tangibly, the year 2023 was when the results showed it. The Malaysia Masters title in May, the Australian Open final in August, breaking back into the Top 10 and becoming the highest ranked Indian singles player.

The World Championship bronze is the biggest of it all, more so given the manner in which it was won. To beat the last two world champions in subsequent matches which went the distance requires a special kind of mental and physical stamina.

The match against Loh was tied at 19-19 in the decider after Prannoy had a 11-4 advantage. The match against Axelsen was at his home ground in Copenhagen against a partisan crowd. And Prannoy - a veteran of over a decade on the circuit as he reminds - showed his evolved tactical nous by noticeable changes in how he approached both - fire in one, ice in another.

"Sometimes you need the emotions. Against Loh Kean Yew, if I was playing calm and silent, I would have lost that match. You need to show that aggression against somebody who was just on fire. Against certain players, like Viktor, it was really important to be in the present, because the entire crowd was backing him. You know that you don't have an option out there to go full throttle and lose your focus. So that's why I was a little bit calmer and was focusing on the strategy the coaches were telling me," he explains.

Imagine being the unflappable one when playing Axelsen, but Prannoy has worked hard to reach this level. This ability to regulate his emotions didn't come easy to Prannoy. He had to adjust his outlook to his life and career.

"I've done a lot of mistakes in the past," he says when asked if he a goal-setter, which he isn't anymore.

"Three-four years back, I used to set goals. But I realized you're building so much pressure on yourself, sometimes changing your course of action to safeguard that goal, and not taking the right decision because of that. And if you don't get to that goal, you're not motivated enough... I would get emotional, and it was not helping," he explains.

Now, he takes things as they come, setting goals for only the coming week and in badminton's packed calendar, it's a wise move.

"I've switched to myself to a process-oriented person, the process to get better, at least 0.5% better on a weekly basis. This happiness kind of keeps me going now. I'm loving that process to be honest."

It's an elite athlete's mentality. It's what makes his say that he doesn't have a specific motivator except being on the journey to get better. "I think I've started to like the journey post 2021."

On a physical level, to find one's best at his age is another balancing act - on-court training, finding time during tournaments to recover and stay strong and carve out extended periods for extensive, endurance training whenever there is a small break in schedule. His often marathon matches don't exactly help, but that's nothing when he has a renewed mental perspective that keeps him going.

Up next, is the China Open Super 1000 and then the Asian Games - both big tournaments. There is also the ongoing Olympic qualification cycle, also crucial because Prannoy is yet to be an Olympian. But amidst it all, is a 31-year-old pushing his physical limits, expanding his mental horizons and achieving new peaks at an age once considered past-prime. What's so uncomfortable about that?