Singapore Sports: Elite give back by grooming youngsters

Ex-world champion bowler Remy Ong showing youngsters how to deliver the ball. He says ex-sportsmen are aware not only of the technical skills needed to succeed but also the mental strength required.
Ex-world champion bowler Remy Ong showing youngsters how to deliver the ball. He says ex-sportsmen are aware not only of the technical skills needed to succeed but also the mental strength required.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
From top: Former national swimmer Mark Chay coaching at X Lab. He wants to impart life values to his trainees as well. Ex-world champion bowler Remy Ong showing youngsters how to deliver the ball. He says ex-sportsmen are aware not only of the techni
Former shuttler Derek Wong, a 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, explaining the correct grip for a badminton racket.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

While they aim to churn out top players, they also face challenge of running viable businesses

As Singapore's sporting best grew in prominence in recent years, accomplishing feats never before achieved, the number of national athletes staying in sport after retirement - albeit in different roles - has also risen in tandem.

Many of them have a hand in grooming the next generation of talents, setting up and running academies after their elite careers drew to a close.

Such academies had previously been limited largely to a select few in swimming - former Olympians David Lim's Swimfast Aquatic Club and Ang Peng Siong's Aquatic Performance Swim Club are among the most notable.

However, they have since expanded not just in quantity, but also in sports. While swimming academies still form a large majority of such set-ups, the list also includes sports like badminton, bowling and table tennis.

COMING TO FRUITION

For some, helping to unearth future champions for Singapore has long been an ambition, put on the back burner until their own playing career are completed.

Former paddler Li Jiawei, a two-time Olympic medallist who retired in 2012, told The Sunday Times: "I came to Singapore when I was only 13, and every thing that I've achieved and have today is a result of what Singapore gave me.

"So it's been important to me that I give back. I've always wanted to, but I've been splitting my time between places since I stopped playing, so I only really got down to it in the past year or so."

Li, now 35, has collaborated with the Chinese Swimming Club (CSC) and will see the first intake of budding paddlers at the CSC-Jiawei Table Tennis Academy in July. She will head the academy and will continue to commute between Beijing and Singapore, but maintained that she will take a hands-on approach when it comes to the curriculum and direction of the academy.


Above: Former national swimmer Mark Chay coaching at X Lab. He wants to impart life values to his trainees as well. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

For former swimmer Mark Chay, however, the desire to pass down his sporting experience via an academy took a long time after his competitive career ended to be ignited.

Having dabbled in sports management as chief executive officer at the Singapore Hockey Federation (2010-2011), talks about a swimming academy began only late last year for Chay, who retired from competitive swimming in 2007. The two-time Olympian also runs a private education academy.

The 35-year-old admitted the "Schooling effect" - spurred after Joseph Schooling won Singapore's first Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro last August - played a part.

Said the head coach at X Lab: "It was in the celebration of Joseph's win when I felt there was a chance to contribute in a meaningful way.

"I wanted to take a values-based approach to swimming, helping to provide a winning mindset and mentality that translates into other aspects of life. For me, I count success in the growth of the individual."

Trainees under Chay's tutelage interestingly spend considerable time training away from the water - and often times, even in other sports.

The former Sportsman and Sportsboy of the Year said he offers his athletes the chance to try different sports in a bid to impart physical literacy, arming them with knowledge in areas such as nutrition.

COMPLETE PACKAGE

It is perhaps this newer, all-encompassing approach - with the extra perk of training under one of Singapore's former top athletes - that has given such academies an attractive edge to young athletes and their parents.

Said Fanny Tan, whose 14-year-old son Nam Wei Xun has been training at X Lab since January: "The training here is very professional. The coach knows how to help the swimmers and is able to draw on his own past experiences."

In just a few months, Wei Xun shaved 15 seconds off his time in the 100m breaststroke - from 1min 32sec at the January time trials to 1:17.77 at the Schools National meet last month.

So while the daily commute from home in Tampines to X Lab's training base at the Gems World Academy in Yishun is laborious, Tan maintains it is worthwhile, having seen the improvement her son has made in just a few months.

Added Fo Kee Kheng, 45, whose three sons aged 10 to 14 all train at X Lab: "The image of a former top athlete is different. It's encouraging for a young athlete to be under someone like that.

"My children used to dread training and say they don't want to go any more, but they now look forward to training."

From bowler and former world champion Remy Ong's perspective, not only do former national athletes know exactly the kind of technical skills needed to reach the peak in sport, they also understand the mental strength needed.

He said: "We've been there and done that, so we know what a player is going through under pressure and we know how to empathise, and how best to help a kid handle that stress."

THE BOTTOM LINE MATTERS

But the marketplace also holds unique challenges for former athletes, who are more acquainted with the test of the sporting arena.

Having spent their entire sporting careers geared on winning trophies and breaking records, they have to be mindful of simply letting high-performance be the only thing driving their academies.

They are running businesses after all, and must do what it takes to remain viable. Said Chay: "Competitive sports generally doesn't make you money. You need to manage a business, and how to actually be good at those things."

The biggest liabilities that such ventures take on would likely be "real estate" such as cost of facilities and human resources, said sports marketing expert Terence Khoo, an ex-national rugby player who recently invested a seven-figure sum in Little Swim School.

  • EX-STARS' 'BABIES'

  • Some academies recently set up by former national athletes

    SWIMMING

    • X Lab (Mark Chay)

    • AquaTech Swimming (Richard Chng)

    • Tao Li Swimming Club (Tao Li)

    BADMINTON

    • Derek Wong Badminton Academy (Derek Wong)

    TABLE TENNIS

    • Chinese Swimming Club- Jiawei Table Tennis Academy (Li Jiawei)

    • Wang Yuegu Table Tennis Academy (Wang Yuegu)

    BOWLING

    • National Service Resort and Country Club Bowling Academy (Remy Ong)

The 46-year-old, who started Enterprise Sports Group in 2005 and has helped broker many multi-million dollar sponsorship deals worldwide, feels the viability of a sports academy has much to do with the sport itself.

"It's sport-specific," he said. "Use national statistics, sports participation surveys as a start. It will help if you have people interested and doing that particular sport regularly, and you assess whether or not the need is adequately served."

It is perhaps no coincidence that the handful of academies are in sports that Singapore has proven performers and a track record in. They are also played regularly by a sizeable portion of the population or, in swimming's case, seen as an essential skill.

Said Khoo: "If you don't take on too much liabilities, you know your income stream, then there's very little risk.

"The biggest hurdle comes when a coach decides he is getting off the pool deck (to go into management). You've got to ask if you have the business acumen to run this set-up because it's chalk and cheese.

"There has to be some sort of demand, and there is. Sport in Singapore has come a long way as we start to become more mature as a society.

"If you're the top few in your sport then you immediately have a brand. The consumer is prepared to pay a premium if there is a brand because that connotes process and quality."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline 'Elite give back by grooming youngsters'. Print Edition | Subscribe