Sunday, 24 September 2023

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It all starts with the schools

by Lim Tean

Yesterday, I made a post expressing my admiration for how well run the National Softball Association (NSA) is. And they have the results to prove it- a historic 1st gold medal in the South East Asian games in the Philippines in 2019, beating the hosts, who are one of the giants of the game, in the finals.

I suggested that the Football Association Of Singapore (FAS) learn from the NSA if it wants to revive the fortunes of the National football team, especially in the wake of the 7-0 debacle against Malaysia and the 2-2 draw two nights ago against Papua New Guinea, who had arrived less than 24 hours before the kick-off.

I am no expert in sports, but I offer the following suggestions:-

1. For our football to progress, we must have a serious youth programme. It is no use hiring the Beckanbaurs or Mourinhos of this world to coach the national football team if the foundational competence of the players is not there.

I believe this is the main reason why the softball team clinched the gold in the 2019 SEA Games, although softball is not a national sport in Singapore, unlike the Phillipines.

In Singapore, there is a trio of schools where softball is taken very seriously. They are Raffles Institution (RI), Catholic High and Anglo-Chinese Schools (ACS) like Montfort and Maris Stella also have excellent teams.

When my son entered secondary one in Catholic High, my wife and I decided to enrol him in the Sports class. My son had always excelled in sport and he was keen on the idea.

We were a bit hesitant initially because of worries whether he could cope with the heavy academic demand as well as the vigorous training program of the sport which was demanded. That was the pioneer sports class, and the students of the class were expected to represent their school in national competitions. The sports played by the students in the class included softball, track and field, basketball etc.

Just to give you an idea of how demanding the training program was, my son would wake up at 5 am in the mornings to be in school by 6 am. Thereafter there followed 90 minutes of softball training before school started.

In the afternoons, after school ended at around 2 pm, it was back to the training grounds and training often ended past 7 pm in the evenings.

There were many nights when I would pick up my son at close to 8 pm after his training. So in effect, my son was training virtually like a professional. He was spending 7-8 hours a day on softball.

You may ask, where would there be time for studies? Remarkably, the sports class inculcated in the students tremendous self-discipline, and they would use all the available time in school to study and do their homework.

I believe the students in that class not only excelled in sports but in their studies too. Certainly, that was the case with my son, who achieved a double first in engineering and economics and also took the economics prize at the National University of Singapore (NUS) when he graduated.

This idea that one has to sacrifice academic excellence if one pursues sport is an outdated Singaporean one. It is an idea that the parents of my generation had.

When I was growing up, my mother, a Chinese teacher for over 40 years, absolutely prohibited her children from playing sports for fear we would fall behind in our studies.

Whenever we played sports, she would admonish us and tell us that Lee Kuan Yew said that sportsmen could not make a living.

I don’t know whether LKY actually said that, although I know that in his time, he was the best golfing Prime Minister in the world with a very low handicap of around 4.

He had taken up the game when he was a student at Cambridge. What might he have achieved if he had taken up Golf earlier and more seriously? Perhaps he could have won the Open Championship or the Masters.

I am sure RI and ACS had equally vigorous programmes for softball because these big 3 were always battling it out for the national championship.

I used to watch many of these championship games from the time my son was 13, and I came to know the players and the parents from the other schools quite well.

And over the years, we saw the boys getting taller, faster and stronger. The beautiful thing was that from the time they were 13, these boys knew each other well. They may have been very different schools, but year in and out, they were competing against each other.

When secondary school ended, they moved to do their A levels, and here the strong JCs in the sport were Raffles Junior College (RJC), Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC), Hwa Chong and I believe Victoria Junior College too.

They continued to compete against each other, except that now a few of their former rivals would be their teammates, and their former teammates might be on different teams, depending on which JCs the players went to.

So over the course of the two years of A levels, the interaction and familiarity of the players with each other deepened.

When my son was in RJC, he was part of the National Youth Team, which qualified for the World Youth Championship in Canada.

Singapore was one of the two teams from Asia which qualified. The other was Japan. There were 16 teams in the Youth championship where the creme de la creme of softball was represented, including giants like America and Argentina.

Fast forward several years, after all the young men had finished National Service, and you find that the core of the National Team was made up of the boys who started competing against each other when they were 13 or even younger and had gone to the Youth championship together.

The familiarity with each other and the Espirit de Corps they had built up over many competitions served them well, and they won the gold medal in the SEA Games. When these young men won the gold, they were in their prime as sportsmen, around 23 years old. Most of them had known their teammates for over a decade.

Softball may be a badly funded sport in Singapore, but I believe it offers the blueprint for how Singapore can excel in a sport including football. If you have a good and serious youth program, it can go a long way towards compensating for the lack of funding support by the national bodies.

There is no substitute for starting young in any sport. I read that unless a person starts Golf before he or she is 10, the chances of him/her becoming a world-class player are practically zero.

The one notable exception was Nick Faldo, who was introduced to the game at 14. But after that, with dogged determination, he spent 14 hours a day playing golf until he achieved his goals. But for the rest, like Tiger Woods, who started between 2-4, Ben Crenshaw, who started at eight and Phil Mickelson, who was taught before he was 10, the story has been a consistent one.

2) Please do not get Brigadier Generals or lawyers to administer sport unless they were former national players!

This 2nd piece of advice is a natural corollary of my 1st.

In Singapore, you don’t become a BG or a general unless you have excelled in your studies. You are most likely to be a “scholar” as well.

These people are likely to have come from families which emphasised academics and discouraged serious participation in sports.

Do you think such a person has the natural love and understanding of the game to be able to elevate the national standard? Unlikely!

Same too for lawyers, doctors etc!

This was first published on Lim Tean’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission. Mr Lim is the leader of a political party, Peoples Voice and a practising lawyer in Singapore.

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