SPORTING LIFE

Coaches who encourage magic by using the philosophers' tone

It is possible you adore all sport, can speed-read reams of statistics and flip channels with Federeresque wristwork. It is probable that you discuss swing planes studiously and convincingly argue Leicester's future. But what would be really impressive is if you can identify those people you find in arenas, with arms often crossed, mouths sometimes dry, hearts occasionally lurching and faces often unmoving.

The coach.

Not those hand-waving, penalty-whining, press conference-frothing EPL fellows. I'm talking about the invisible tribe. The rowing coach who builds Olympians for a small salary; the dutiful sailing sage who never makes a front page; the inspirational wrestling guru who gets asked at events, "So what do you do?"

Of course coaches can be lousy, dictatorial, sloppy and cheats. But there are also coaches who are insightful and driven. Like Singapore swimming's assistant coach Gary Tan, whose wake-up call is at 4.40am. Like the guy with the silver hair who sits behind shooter Jasmine Ser. Two years ago his hair wasn't silver and he was many kilograms heavier. A nutritionist told Kirill Ivanov there was no secret to his new self. It was stress.

He shrugs. He's a coach, this is an Olympic year and perfection is his business. Of course he's anxious.


National air rifle shooter Jasmine Ser with coach Kirill Ivanov. A former world champion with a 1988 Olympic bronze medal, he says firing a gun is always “easier” than teaching the skill to another shooter. ST FILE PHOTO

Coaches use patience, whistles, discipline and invention to excavate talent and there's something altruistic in trying to find the best in somebody else. In effect you're waking early for someone else's dream. Ivanov used to be a world champion in the 10m air rifle and has a 1988 Olympic bronze in the 50m three-positions, but firing a gun is always "easier" than teaching it.

"It can be quite frustrating," he says. "You train well but there is always something not perfect even if you shoot well in competition. Improvement has no limit and this is sport." When he speaks it makes you consider that in the list of great philosophers, just after Confucius, Descartes, Plato, come these coaches. Introspection is their daily bread.

Ivanov's job, of course, is a quieter pursuit than Tan's, for the latter can be found cheering on the pool deck or, if furious, hurling a clipboard. He can do that because during a race the swimmer cannot see him. "But after the race I'm calm," says Tan. "You let your emotions go during a race and then show a poker face."

Swimming is raucous, dramatic, flooded with adrenaline but shooting is slower and sombre, as if every emotion is buried under those bulky shooting jackets. "The sport is emotional," says Ivanov, "but we have to block it out and concentrate on our technical skills." The shooter must show nothing during competition, the coach even less. "I can't show her my stress," he says, "I hope I don't show it." I asked Ser: No, he doesn't.

Of course coaches can be lousy, dictatorial, sloppy and cheats. But they're also coaches who are insightful and driven. Like Singapore swimming's assistant coach Gary Tan whose wake-up call is at 4.40am. Like the guy with the silver hair who sits behind shooter Jasmine Ser. Two years ago his hair wasn't silver and he was many kilograms heavier.

A nutritionist told Kirill Ivanov there was no secret to his new self. It was stress.

Ivanov's stress is more intense before competition, in the day-to-day sandpapering of talent, in trying to turn a human being into a flawless instrument that can repetitively fire a tubular weapon. The coach may have four years to do this, yet there are never enough years. Says Ser with a grin: "I can tell when he's stressed. His tone changes."

Once an Olympics begins, the coach often becomes a silent study in helplessness. His athlete is like a child let out into the world: The time for hand-holding is done. "If she makes mistakes during competition," says Ivanov, "there is nothing I can do. Sometimes I call her out to speak, sometimes it is not reasonable because of the time limit." In one or two minutes it's not always possible to turn a bad day to a great one.

Swimming coaches don't even have that tiny luxury for there is no mid-water conference. So, says Tan, they study turns from the pool deck, they look for smoothness, they examine body language. And when a race is done they also know that sometimes honesty is not the most sensible tactic.

"There is a lot of psychological warfare involved," explains Tan. "Even if a guy has looked terrible we might tell him he looks great because he has a few more swims left. You can't afford to tell him the truth right then. Only if they have given up, we tell them. And it's very clear when they give up. It's easy to tell because they don't struggle. You can tell a guy is taking a bath."

Through the long, lonely days and endless struggles, athlete and coach can build trust and harmony. "I can say anything to him," says Ser. "Sometimes I start to speak and she understands," says Ivanov. They are readers of sport and also of each other. "I look at her (during competition)," he says, "and think about what she should do and I hope she will get my thoughts and do it."

I ask him if he prays and he pauses. "Prayer brings nothing." Only practice does. There are 87 days of it left before Rio and in an uncertain sporting world one cannot guarantee fame or fortune for a coach but perhaps at least this: Ivanov's hair will not change any more colours. It will probably only fall out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Coaches who encourage magic by using the philosophers' tone'. Print Edition | Subscribe