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Netball: Rapport a big factor in former national coach Ruth Aitken's legacy

Ruth Aitken said Singapore's 46-43 victory against Malaysia to win the SEA Games gold last year "was a fabulous opportunity for netball to really connect with a wider audience". Under her guidance, Singapore also won the 2014 Asian Championship.
Ruth Aitken said Singapore's 46-43 victory against Malaysia to win the SEA Games gold last year "was a fabulous opportunity for netball to really connect with a wider audience". Under her guidance, Singapore also won the 2014 Asian Championship.ST FILE PHOTO

Connection with players a major reason why Kiwi looks back fondly on her Singapore stint

As she gathered mementoes of the life she had made in Singapore over the past three years and packed them into boxes to be sent home, Ruth Aitken thoroughly understood how leaving a place can be much harder than getting there.

She was filled with memories and friendships at the end of her stint as Netball Singapore's technical director and head coach, but the New Zealander also returned home last week feeling like she had left a part of her heart behind.

What the 60-year-old thought was going to be a brief assignment that would not stretch beyond two years turned out to be shorter than what she hoped it could be.

"It's very hard to leave and I feel very sad about going," Aitken told The Straits Times a day before her departure. She is taking up a position as performance manager at the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic, a Kiwi team in the ANZ Premiership, New Zealand's elite netball league.

If not for the need to tend to family back home, she would have stayed on for another year "or even more". The feeling was mutual, given the heights to which she led the sport.

VALUABLE LESSON

I come from a down-to-earth background where you just get on and do it. You don't ask others to do it. As a teacher, you plan, but you then do it.

RUTH AITKEN, former technical director and head coach of Netball Singapore, explaining her personal philosophy.

But it was not simply success - Singapore won both the 2014 Asian Championship and last year's SEA Games on home ground under her - that makes her tenure stand out. The bond she formed with Singapore went far beyond trophies.

The rapport she built with her charges translated into victories on court but also continued off-court, with many players attesting to the motherly figure as one who cared about more than just wins or shooting accuracy percentages.

Said shooter Charmaine Soh: "Ruth has a personal touch. She keeps up with every player (and cares about) how things are going for us even outside of the court. She doesn't care just about performance, but also about our personal development."

Her hands-on approach when it came to planning - and executing - programmes would have surprised those who expected one of the most recognisable names in world netball to delegate more.

Netball Singapore chief executive officer Cyrus Medora said: "There are no airs about her. She works with everyone at every level and treats them as equal and that's something that's very refreshing."

Rather than see herself as someone who won the world championship as both a player and a coach with the Silver Ferns, Aitken, born in a small town called Paeroa in northern Waikato, says she is instead guided by the values of her rural upbringing.

Said Aitken, whose nurturing method finds its roots in her early years as an English teacher: "I come from a down-to-earth background where you just get on and do it. You don't ask others to do it. As a teacher, you plan, but you then do it."

The only way Aitken has ever known how to commit is to do it wholeheartedly. So even as she laboured over development programmes, she also learnt Majulah Singapura on YouTube so she could sing along each time the team lined up on court before a match.

She said: "It feels right to me to sing it. It's a wonderful connection because I'm committing myself to Singapore and to this team at this point in time.

"It's actually really lovely when you're standing on that line with your team, sharing that moment. I look up to the Singapore flag and I think, 'Right, we're going for it.' I just feel a real privilege to be connected to the national team."

Coming from the professional and semi-professional netball climate in New Zealand, Aitken admitted she had doubts about being able to relate to her players here. Those fears now seem "silly".

She said: "The commitment that Singapore's players have and their dedication on top of everything else they do in their day is inspirational.

"That's what's kept me going too, knowing that they're really putting themselves out there to be part of the national programme."

The jitters Aitken felt at times, like when Singapore beat Causeway rivals Malaysia 46-43 to win the SEA Games last year, were also comparable to the fierce rivalry between New Zealand and Australia.

Recalled Aitken: "I remember thinking before the SEA Games, 'What have I gotten myself into?' But the kind of support that you do get along with pressure is amazing.

"That was a fabulous opportunity for netball to really connect with a wider audience."

If there is any credit Aitken will claim for Singapore's netballing success in recent years, it is for merely being "the face of it".

To her, the machinery functioned well only because of many unsung heroes who oiled the cogs.

"You need a lot of things to be right to have successes like we did. There was a great group of players, a great administration behind the scenes that got things right and it all came together. I'm just a part of it - that's the reality," she said.

"We've had really good times over the years. That's something that I will always remember and which will be a very important part of my life. I'm inextricably linked to this group wherever I am in the world and I will be keeping a close connection because I do care.

"This has just been magical. I'm so grateful for people and for Singaporeans welcoming me into their hearts - and they will stay in mine for a long time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Rapport a big factor in Aitken's legacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe