A Conversation With Badminton Legend Peter Gade — 13 Years Later
It’s a cold winter night in Copenhagen in the middle of December in 2018. I have just arrived in Denmark for the first time on business. I don’t have many connections in this country, but I really wanted to interview Peter Gade, a player whom I have followed and respected for some time.
A week ago, I DMed Peter on Instagram, to which he replied and agreed to an interview, but he didn’t see my subsequent messages. I can’t lock down a date and time before my trip. I assume he must’ve gotten busy and I lose hope.
It’s dinner time and I Yelp a restaurant 20 minutes away on foot from my hotel in Nyhavn. Halfway through my walk down Gothersgade Street, a figure suddenly walks out of a door to my left and is about to pass me. I do a double take. After countless hours of watching his games on YouTube, I immediately recognize him.
I first met Peter in 2005 when I was 17 years old volunteering as a liaison officer at the World Badminton Championships in Anaheim. He was sitting down by himself at the players area when I went up to ask him for a photo, to which he kindly accepted. That year, he won the bronze medal in men’s singles with Lee Chong Wei.
It’s been 13 years since that moment — what are the chances of me just randomly running into him? However, I didn’t know the best way to introduce myself, I tried to open my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He’s was already walking past me, this was my chance.
“P-peter?,” I eventually blurt out.
“Yes?” he turns around as he’s holding his daughter’s hand.
I introduce myself, but I’m nervous because I’m not even sure if he wants to talk to me. However, he couldn’t have been more gracious. He apologizes for not having the chance to respond to me as he’s been busy with his Academy.
He then introduces me to his daughter and says he had just finished a meeting with a friend. He gives me his contact information and invites me the next day to his badminton academy for a last minute interview.
Anyone versed in the badminton world will know the name Peter Gade. Despite being from a non-Asian country, where the sport often lacks resources and capital, the Danish player has carved himself a place in the history books with fans all over the world. His accolades include topping the world rankings, often times in the #1 spot from 1998 to 2001, an All England Open title, five European Championships, and 22 Grand Prix titles.
Aside from paving the way for more Danish badminton legends to come, Gade has also revolutionized the game by fathering some of the most creative trick shots the world has ever seen.
With so many accolades and achievements, it’s no wonder Gade is known as one of the “four badminton legends” among Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, and Taufik Hidayat.
Gade’s academy is located inside the Gentofte Badminton Club, a club founded in 1931 that’s won hundreds of titles and housed Danish legends including Morten Frost, Lene Køppen, Poul-Erik Høyer, Camilla Martin, and Peter Gade himself. His academy, eponymously named The Peter Gade Academy, opened last May and he’s been working hard to develop his players since then.
I arrived at 11:00 a.m. as Peter is finishing up training his students. Shortly after, he walks over to greet me and we go upstairs to a break area to start our interview.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you like coaching so far since retiring?
“I actually started coaching already before retiring, doing different youth projects here in Gentofte as well. I also did some projects from 2002 when I was injured in my right knee, and I was away from the court for one year. I took a job in France as a national coach for three years, which was a great experience. The coaching role is something that I felt quite attached to. This sport is still such a big part of my life. I have a big, big heart for it. A big passion for it. I love working with players everyday and the daily practice.”
What is it about coaching players that makes you so fulfilled?
“Badminton has been a game of mine since I was six years old. I made a living upon it. The combination of this with developing players as human beings are closely related. This is about pushing limits all the time trying to be better at something and at the same time, working on the mental part to learn how to deal with pressure situations. To learn how to deal with different parts of your game that you have to develop. How can you optimize your possibilities of developing? And that’s everything. It’s how you eat, sleep, and everything you do on court — and how you do everything off court. It’s a big thing. It’s not something you learn in one year or two. It’s a lifetime. So being a badminton player on high level is a lifestyle. I think that combination is something that I really like and I want to pass my experience on to other players.”
Athletes can dedicate their lives to a sport and never get that gold medal they dream of. Lee Chong Wei is still fighting hard for a World Champion and Olympic Gold Medal despite all his fame and accolades. What advice do you give your students when it comes to this topic?
“Badminton is more than just winning, it’s a whole lifestyle. It is the process of developing as a human being. That’s what you will remember when you finish playing badminton. Of course, you want the results. Of course, you want the evidence to say to everybody, ‘Hey, what I’m doing every day is worth it.’ I believe that if you sacrifice enough, if you commit and dedicate 110%, I believe the results will also come. But sometimes, whether you win the final or not, it can be a matter of many different things.
“For Lee Chong Wei, I actually don’t believe it matters so much whether he wins an Olympic title or not. He still sacrifices all his life for badminton, and he did amazing performances and achievements. He has been a role model for players for many, many years and still is. That’s far more important than one medal to win.
“Of course, I also admire Lin Dan for having the ability to peak in the right times. That is a special ability. It’s not to take anything away from that. It’s just to say that to look at whether you are champion or not is a bit more complicated to answer.”
I guess keeping a balance is important.
“Yes, balance, and in the end, to understand the big picture. You need to understand the value in the process, the value in the journey. Because that’s what gives you the tools to handle different situations as a human being, on court, outside court, in your personal life, etc. That’s what makes this sport so interesting for me. It contains so many elements, so many perspectives that you can use as human being.”
You’ve played as a pro since the early 90’s, all the up until retirement in 2012. How has the game changed in these last three decades?
“I think that one of the things, especially during the 90’s compared to the 2000’s and later part, is that you had to develop a more complete style. Before, in my early years, you had attacking players and defensive players. You don’t have that so much anymore. You need to be a complete player. You need to be able to handle every area of the game.
“I actually don’t think the men’s single has developed that much during the last 11-12 years until now. But of course, especially in the 2000’s, I think a lot of things changed. In my later part of my career, I had to adapt to one style. I also had to put on a more complete perspective on how I wanted to play because in the beginning, I was a very attacking player. My role models were Haryanto Abi, Zhao Jianhua, Yang Yang, all who were attacking players. Today, you need to add more elements to your game.”
YouTube didn’t exist when you were growing up, how did you keep up with the badminton landscape?
“I watched so many hours of VHS video. I recorded everything I could on video when badminton was shown on television. I watched it over and over and over again. Watching strokes from Haryanto Abi, doing this stroke or this stroke. Another stroke from another guy. Playing it in slow motion, over and over again.
“This was not something anybody told me to. This was something I just wanted to do. To copy certain elements of certain players and then taking that onto the court. At that time, you didn’t have the luxury of having a mobile phone or computer, so you needed to visualize. You needed to remember these things.”
It was pretty much an obsession for you.
“Yes, you can say that. I could spend hours and hours. But it was not only badminton. I also watched so many hours of tennis and football as well, learning how they handle every aspect of the game, the mental part. I loved that.”
You’re very, very focused — especially before your matches. What’s your process when it comes to mental preparation before games?
“You can never make a general assumption that you have to do it like this or that. You have to get to know yourself, your body, your legs, your mind, as much as you can control before a match — that’s what you have to aim for.
“There are many ways to approach this. It’s a question of how you eat, how you sleep, how you wake up in the morning. Do you have to go to the gym in the morning at the hotel to do a bit of stretching? You make sure your grip, your racket, your clothes, everything is in order so you don’t have to fix these things last minute before the game. You make sure you watch your opponent. You write things down.
“I want to see each individual be curious about this. That’s my most important message; You cannot sit back. If you do nothing, you change nothing, and it’s not going to make you better. You have to be very, very curious about it. You need to learn. You need to watch other players. You need to see what are they doing and ask, ‘Is that something I could do?’ It’s not something you figure out when you’re 16 or 17. It’s a combination of many things you learn and see from around you.”
Were you like that, too, during your career? Were you obsessively watching opponents that you were about to play?
“Yes, yes. I was. All the time, just watching VHS. But I have players here and also in France, where I have been a coach, and I ask them, ‘How much video did you see of yourself, of other players?’ And sometimes it’s none. It has to be a normal part of your daily life to watch video, to visualize, to see how other players are doing the strokes, and try to pass that onto your own game.”
Denmark is probably the only European country that’s has been consistently able to challenge the Asian countries. Why is that?
“I think it’s the culture. It’s the tradition, it’s the history. Where you’ve got players, coaches, clubs, everybody knows how to make a badminton player. They know it’s about long term thinking from when you’re young. They don’t think about only the next game. They also think about, ‘Hey, I want to take you to be one of the best players in Denmark, one of the best player in Europe in the future.’ They think we have to build you up. You have to build up the different parts. You cannot start working footwork when you are 18 or 19 years old. You need to do footwork when you are 9, 10, 11 years old. That’s where you need to put the base for how far you can go in the future.
“I still believe that Denmark can do a lot better on this part, but I think we’ve done better than a lot of other countries. You have a lot of good coaches in Denmark in many different places all around the country. You have small stadiums, halls, venues that are made only for badminton. You don’t have that many small venues only with badminton courts in any other country. That is an amazing thing and something we have to be very proud of.
“For the young players growing up, they’ve always had good players in the top of the world to look up to like Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen, Morten Frost, Flemming Delfs — that’s an important thing. As a young player, you have role models and players with experience from being at the highest level, and they can pass on that experience.
“That’s how I grew up playing in the club. There were so many older talented players. They played for fun, as a hobby. They weren’t professionals, but for me growing up playing against them was amazing, and it gave me so much competition, so much toughness to beat these older guys in my younger years.”
Do you feel that the sport has just grown over the years in this country?
“I think we have a challenging time now because there’s so many other sports and hobbies people can do compared to 30 years ago. Where I grew up, there was only badminton, football, and handball. Now you have 20 different things you can choose from.”
What are your goals for the Peter Gade academy?
“I want to create a more free role for myself. I want to be able to work together with clubs and national teams. I’m not a competitor to a national team or to a club. I want to work together with people. That’s how I want to bring out the best in players.
“I have no intention of taking ownership on my players here. If a player comes to the academy, they can gain whatever experience and learn from us as they want. I’m not here to take credit or ownership. I’m here to take the player from A to B. And it could be many different areas. It could be a national coach from a European country saying, ‘Peter, I want you to work with this player for two months or one month or two weeks on this area or this area or this area.’ This way, I can do my best to work together with the coach. National teams, clubs should see me as a more as an…”
“Yes, as an asset. As a part of a possible team around their player or players.”
Has Denmark ever asked you to work for the national team?
“Of course, I have had communication with the national team during the years, but I have no intention of going in this way for the moment. I love my country, and I will do whatever I can to help. I’ve been very open from the beginning when I started the academy and say I’m ready to work together with the national team and with other clubs in Denmark if they can use me. If they want to cooperate in any way, I’m ready. I want to improve players, and of course, I still have a very, very strong feeling for my country.”
What kind of students do you have currently?
“Our players so far are mostly between 16 and 25 at quite a high level. Then we have some younger players coming in now and then. Some players at 14, 15 years old, we try to make room for them. Scott Evans is part of the academy as a coach, and we were a bit unsure whether we were able to handle these ages. But actually we’ve shown ourselves and hopefully also the clients that we are capable.
“We’ve had many different processes with different players so far, and it’s been very interesting. I’m looking forward to taking the next step. In every way, we try to form the academy the best way we can to help the needs and the demands from players. It could be from Europe, Denmark, or it could be from India. We have quite a number of players from India coming. And they could be from other parts of the world too.”
What do you think of the new generation of Danish players like Viktor Axelsen and Jan O. Jorgensen?
“I think we have a very proud traditional of producing high level players. I think Denmark also showed that they are still capable of doing that. But Denmark is going to have to work hard in the future to be able to retain the same position as they did before.
“Still, on the resource part, Denmark is not very strong. We don’t have a lot of resources to support our players, to support our system compared to Malaysia, China, Korea, and Japan. So, I think it is still a challenge for Denmark to keep up in different ways. I think they have shown that they have the coaches and the knowledge to keep producing players like Viktor on the highest possible level. That’s amazing. It’s an amazing achievement. I really hope that the system can still be capable of doing that in the future.
“We are in a situation where a lot of things happen with badminton. We don’t know in which direction. We are still caught in between an old school sport an old fashioned sport with the associations controlling. Are we heading toward something like tennis or golf in the future? We don’t know that. We have to wait and see.”
Your last game was an exhibition match against Lin Dan, and when you won and shook his hand, you went up and said something to him. What was it?
“I cannot remember the exact words, but for sure I said something about, ‘I really, really appreciate this, thank you so much for being here today. Thank you for doing this.’ There was a huge amount of respect from both sides. He came to Copenhagen. He did the event with me. I was very honored about that. This friendship, this respect, we kept this on ever since. So when I see him at the Legends events and so on, we still have the same mutual respect for each other, and I hope it’s going to last. Now he’s getting closer to the end of his career, and hopefully he will have a good end to watch that because that’s the most amazing career you can have. And at that time I was just really honored and happy that he was willing to do this last match with me.”
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