Taiwan’s Chou Tien-chen is taking the unusual step of gearing up for next year’s Summer Olympics without a coach, with his long-time physiotherapist and confidante shepherding him toward Tokyo gold in badminton.
The soft-spoken and boyish 29-year-old, known for pointing to heaven to thank God at the end of a match, parted ways with his trainer early this year.
Since then the world No. 2 has been on a hot streak, winning the men’s singles at July’s Indonesia Open to claim his first title in a Super 1000-level event.
“I do a lot of homework a coach does before a game and spend more time analyzing opponents and what I should do under what circumstances,” Chou said at a practice session in Taipei.
Cheering him on from the sidelines has been physiotherapist Victoria Kao, who has shouldered some of the traditional roles of a coach by acting as Chou’s mentor, cheerleader and chief critic.
Kao accompanies her charge on and off the court, handing him drinks during match intervals and chaperoning him at charity events.
She said that her main job is to “maintain his health and character” in a training regimen that includes Pilates and belly dancing sessions.
However, Kao said that she also has a duty to keep Chou grounded in the wake of his recent winning form.
“I will pour cold water on him and tell him it’s just one victory, it’s over and you need to calm down,” Kao said. “But when there are setbacks, I will tell him: ‘It’s okay — embrace your dreams and persist’ to try to lift him up emotionally.”
Competing in professional badminton without a personal coach is almost unheard of among top players from the sport’s traditional Asian powerhouses.
Chou still has access to Taiwan’s national coaching team and regularly consults experts, including a retired physics professor, on improving his form.
However, his decision to take tactical matters into his own hands, with Kao’s support, has earned him a series of wins on this year’s tour.
He triumphed at the Thailand Open two weeks after his Jakarta victory and took a record third title at the Taipei Open in September in front of rapturous home crowd.
It was in Taipei four years ago that Chou saw off Chinese great Lin Dan in the semi-final and established himself as one of the world’s best, despite his ultimate loss to China’s Chen Long, who eventually snared Olympic gold at the 2016 Rio Games.
Chou hopes to match Chen’s feat next year in Tokyo, but said that he faces an uphill battle.
“There are still a lot of things I need to learn, to improve,” Chou said. “I can’t stay at where I am now.”
Chou credits his streak to a self-awareness that he lacked when he was younger — something that changed after a health scare in 2013 during a bout of appendicitis. He dismissed his stomach pains as an anxiety attack and flew to India for a tournament before he was rushed back to Taiwan for surgery.
He was told that it nearly developed into life-threatening peritonitis.
“I was a relatively proud person and didn’t pay attention to the information other people tried to give me … but I’ve come to realize that I can gain more when I am humble,” Chou said.
The sudden death of South Korean Olympic medalist Chung Jae-sung last year also prompted a bout of soul-searching.
Off the court, Chou has devoted himself to charity, including working with special needs children and teaching badminton to kids in remote parts of Taiwan.