Swimming: To improve, Singapore should have a full-time, professional set-up, says former national coach Sergio Lopez

Former national coach Sergio Lopez directing proceedings at a clinic at St Joseph's Institution International yesterday. He encourages parents to view swimming as a way for their children to pick up life skills such as discipline and tenacity and not
Former national coach Sergio Lopez directing proceedings at a clinic at St Joseph's Institution International yesterday. He encourages parents to view swimming as a way for their children to pick up life skills such as discipline and tenacity and not just as a vehicle to get into a brand-name school.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

S'pore should replace volunteers with professional staff to improve, he says

Singapore swimming needs to have more full-time professionals in its set-up if it wants to be one of the best in the sport, said former national coach Sergio Lopez.

It needs to be run like a company, with professional, full-time staff, instead of relying on volunteers to run the show, he told The Straits Times yesterday.

"The volunteers may be very good and have good intentions, but they may not have time and are stressed out (by their day jobs)," he explained when asked how the country could improve in the pool.

By making it professional, those in charge can also be made accountable for their decisions, he added. "If I run a company and you don't deliver, you would be fired."

CHANGE NEEDED TO SUCCEED

The volunteers may be very good and have good intentions, but they may not have time and are stressed out (by their day jobs).

SERGIO LOPEZ, explaining what is needed for Singapore to make further progress.

Lopez, who announced last April that he was stepping down after the Rio Olympics, was in town to conduct a swimming clinic at St Joseph's Institution International yesterday evening.

When the 48-year-old took up the position of national coach in November 2014, he said he wanted to make Singapore one of the best swimming countries in the world.

But before he could realise that dream, Lopez cut short his coaching stint after less than two years. It was something he "had to" do, for reasons he did not want to reveal.

"People think I left for a better job, but I didn't leave for a better job," said Lopez, who is now the associate head coach at Auburn University in the United States and insists he is happy there.

"If I had said the true story (of why I left), it would have probably put more focus on me and the reasons why I was leaving, than on the kids trying to qualify for the Olympics, or the ones who had and were training, or Joseph (Schooling). And that's not fair."

Despite not being able to achieve his initial goal, Singapore won its first Olympic gold last year through Schooling and bagged a record 23-gold haul at the 2015 SEA Games during his watch.

 

FRESH POINT OF VIEW

I was able to do one of the things people told me was going to be very difficult - changing the mindset of swimmers and their parents.

LOPEZ, evaluating his own contribution to reshaping the culture of swimming.

But, in an honest assessment of his stint, Lopez said: "I cannot say that Singapore is one of the best in the world because Joseph won a gold at the Olympics...

"(Still) we achieved a lot of things. I was able to do one of the things people told me was going to be very difficult - changing the mindset of swimmers and their parents."

Nearly six months after leaving Singapore, he still maintains his ties to members of the swimming fraternity here, including National Training Centre head coach Gary Tan, who is a new father.

"We talk about life, being a dad... Hopefully Gary and I will have a relationship for a long time. He's been telling me things about the swimmers," said Lopez, who reiterated his belief that Tan and technical director Sonya Porter are the right people to develop Singapore's swimming talents.

But he added that for swimming to flourish as a sport here, parents have a role to play too. Instead of viewing swimming as a means to entering a good school, they should view the sport as a way for their children to pick up life skills such as discipline and tenacity.

"You work three, four, five hours a day for (a time of) 30 seconds. And sometimes, you are 30 seconds plus one (second) and the season is over. How fragile is that? Well, life is like that," he said.

And while Schooling's Rio victory might have piqued the nation's interest in swimming, Lopez said most parents do not understand the amount of work it takes to produce a champion.

"They only see a dream, a moment. They don't see what they have to do every day, the sacrifices... When things start getting tough, many people withdraw or they take their kids out," he said.

But Lopez still believes Singapore could one day be one of the best countries in swimming, even if he is no longer the national coach.

"Singapore has the potential, absolutely. Without me, absolutely."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'Bring on pro system: Lopez'. Print Edition | Subscribe