Empowering Coaches Empowers Sport Personalities

By Ivan Ng

May 2023 FEATURE
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Source: hafizjohari © 123RF.com

FOR A COUNTRY with a population of 33 million, Malaysia has had quite an impact in the world of sports with notable achievements in badminton, squash, hockey, cycling and diving, just to name a few. I believe talent has never been an issue when it comes to Malaysian athletes. However, consistency in the nurturing of talents is something that has proven difficult.

Since young, I have had the opportunity to try many different sports, encouraged by my parents, who often brought me along to their weekly games with their various sports friend groups. At age ten, I was enrolled in a squash academy and spent a significant portion of my time, till my late teens, training and competing outside of schooling hours.

I got my coaching certification during my SPM year and started coaching beginners in the grassroots programme. It was my way of giving back to the sport. After returning from my studies overseas, I continued to coach, and went full-time as a state coach in 2018. From my time as a player in the system to coaching for about a decade, I’ve been able to observe some hindrances to the development of athletes and sports in the country. While I cannot speak for other sports, I can imagine similar things plaguing other sports.

Sports vs. Studies

The perception of sports as an unviable career is an old but existing issue that needs to shift for the nation to achieve success - one where we can consistently churn out world-class athletes to compete on the biggest stage.

Among middle - and upper-class families, success in sports has always been seen more as a stepping stone to better opportunities for education rather than a career worth pursuing. For the less fortunate, a child who is successful in a particular sport may earn a scholarship to an institution or their talent may remain unrecognised for lack of money and training, and of participation in competitions.

Most parents see sports as an elective to be dropped when exams are around the corner, often completely during the child’s SPM year. Tuition classes are often prioritised; it is not uncommon to see junior athletes skip training because it clashes with their classes. While I am not suggesting that parents start neglecting their children’s education, I also think that a better balance between sports and education is possible.

A Systemic Problem

At this time, the Ministry of Education is perfectly positioned to help the nation produce better athletes. A revamp of the national education system is needed to provide student-athletes with a more balanced life. Did you know it is now a norm for students to be sent to multiple tuition classes after just a short break from school? They spend more hours in classrooms than we adults do at our jobs. Students spend half their day in school, then approximately two or more hours in tuition classes right after, with some students coming out of tuition classes as late as 10pm, regardless of their competency level in studies.

Tuition or extra classes used to be for those who have learning deficiencies or have trouble keeping up in school. This points towards a systemic problem where the learning done during school hours is no longer sufficient, signalling a need for serious restructuring.

 We talk of work-life balance, but is there such a balance among urban youths today? When there is effective learning in school, as should be, students will have time after school to freely engage in sports or other activities that allow them to develop into more well-rounded individuals. At this stage of their lives, they are most able to explore their talents in sports and discover what they are good at. With chances to take part in inter-school, state, national and even international tournaments, the school is a gold mine for the next sports superstars.

Funding the Interest

Funding in sports is another obvious issue that needs to be addressed at the grassroots level. As someone who was involved at the grassroots in a coaching capacity, I am commenting on funding for coaches in my area of sports.

Now, before we talk about coaches hired to train those competing at the national and international levels, there would have been many coaches who went before and laid the foundation for them. And while these sought-after coaches cost high-dollar to hire, there seems to be lower-than-living-wage remuneration for those involved in grassroots coaching. While I do not want to directly compare occupations in sports (coaches, physiotherapists, analysts and other support staff in the industry) to doctors and lawyers, they are still specialised jobs that require a lot of time and dedication to develop.

I was fortunate enough to come from a supportive family that did not pressure me to earn large wages, but it may not be the same for others who have a similar passion as I. Seeing job vacancies for less technical occupations pay higher wages than one that involves developing the nation’s future athletes may be a source of discouragement. Just as how athletes and their families may view sports as a less lucrative path, professions in sports are also often seen as such and avoided.

The situation is different at the elite level, where there are coaches who are well-paid, but that is because they are often foreign coaches who are seen as more qualified than local ones. Many of our badminton coaches have gone overseas, and the same is happening in squash with coaches being exported to various national setups and universities, most notably former National Men’s Number 1, Ong Beng Hee, who is currently the head coach of US Squash.

Living Up to the Standard

Of course, policies and incentives should not all be done for the benefit of the coaches and support staff. With better compensation comes stricter standards. There should be proper and consistent performance reviews to properly evaluate the work done by those in the industry to always hold them to a high standard.

Athletes are often subjected to fitness tests to determine if they deserve a place on the team or not. I believe that those working with athletes should have to meet similar standards of work. In some industries, individuals are required to attend training courses to meet a minimum required amount of hours per year in order to keep their practicing licenses. By implementing a similar system for the sports industry, we can also ensure that those working with our athletes remain sharp and kept close enough to have open dialogues to ensure a better and more progressive style of work.

 Heavy involvement from the governing bodies of the sport will be a step towards ensuring each sport and the people within it produce consistent and quality athletes. It will empower individuals in sports such as the coaches, medical staff and administrative figures to strive for excellence with continued education and discourse within their respective sports. It will also pave the way towards a better succession plan, reducing gaps between generations and ensuring that we constantly produce quality individuals within the industry to prevent a sudden void of talent when a group retires.

Ivan Ng

was formerly a squash coach in the state programme before returning to the insurance industry. He now contributes to the sport as a committee member of the state association with some private coaching on the side.