Powwow puts water polo in right frame of mind for SEA Games, Asiad

National men's coach Dejan Milakovic and the players reached an understanding during a frank discussion following the team's return from the Philippines SEA Games with just a bronze. PHOTO: SNOC
National men's coach Dejan Milakovic and the players reached an understanding during a frank discussion following the team's return from the Philippines SEA Games with just a bronze. PHOTO: SNOC

SSA outlines four-pronged plan to regain supremacy after shock SEA Games setback

The pain of losing the gold medal that Singapore had won 27 times before last December's SEA Games may still sting, but the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) and the men's water polo team are ready to move on and make amends.

After embarking on a two month-long comprehensive review involving players, coaches, alumni and the community, it has mapped out a game plan to help the team reclaim their crown at next year's SEA Games in Vietnam.

SSA vice-president (water polo) Dominic Soh said four key areas of improvement had been identified after "very frank and open discussion" with the different parties.

These were the limited pool of players for the national squad, mental resilience in competition, leadership in the pool, and the team's issues with coach Dejan Milakovic.

Identified as a longstanding issue, the lack of a large base of players meant limited choice, particularly in attack.

This was evident at the Philippines Games, when the loss of left-handed right-winger Wayne Chong to injury hit the team hard in their 7-5 loss to eventual champions Indonesia.

Singapore took home the bronze after a 6-6 draw with the hosts in the round-robin contest.

"Our recommendation is to build a larger pool of players so that there is greater diversity and abilities, and one key thing is to improve the flair of attack," said Soh at a media briefing on Tuesday.

Even before the biennial Games, the SSA had kick-started plans to grow its pool of players in 2018 by establishing a national development squad to identify talents earlier, put them through more structured and systematic training, and provide them with greater competition opportunities and exposure.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Maybe the loss of the SEA Games gold gives us the impetus to look deeper in the system, to see how other sports are successful.

LOH ZHI ZHI, Singapore water polo player.

SIGHTS ON GOLD

Our immediate target is to regain the SEA Games gold… we had a target for the Asian Games and that is still relevant.

DOMINIC SOH, SSA vice-president (water polo).

Since 2017, it had worked on developing the club scene, doubling the number of players from 300 to 600 in that period, said Soh.

SSA will also work with national governing body Sport Singapore on its ActiveSG water polo academy, which will be launched in the second quarter of this year to get more young people to play the sport and identify future talents.

SSA's recommendations also include increasing opportunities for selected players to have extended stints with overseas clubs, organising more competitions and getting diversity in sparring games for the national team.

A mental skills coach or sport psychologist will be recruited to work with the team to improve their mental endurance and resilience and leadership within the team will also be strengthened.

They are also studying the systems used in countries such as Japan, who are joint seventh in the men's world rankings (2016-2020) and now sit comfortably among top European nations such as Serbia, Croatia and Italy.

In order to increase retention of players and reduce the number of early retirements - a third of the 2019 SEA Games team were debutants - training schedules will be customised to help them cope with study and work commitments.

Soh admitted the team lost some senior players owing to "assimilation issues" caused by Serbian coach Milakovic's "hard" coaching style and cultural differences, but the coach and players had come to an understanding after a frank discussion.

Two senior players, former captain Loh Zhi Zhi and Bryan Ong, have since returned to the national fold. Loh, who played for Singapore from 2010 to 2018 and won four SEA Games golds, said he had decided to retire after the 2018 Asian Games to focus on his family and his job as a data analyst.

The 30-year-old told The Straits Times he had already decided to rejoin the team before the SEA Games as he wanted another shot at the 2022 Asiad in Hangzhou after finishing sixth in Jakarta.

"Maybe the loss of the SEA Games gold gives us the impetus to look deeper in the system, to see how other sports are successful, like what football is doing with its (ActiveSG) academy," he said.

"I still think we can achieve something at the Asian level if players get enough exposure and the team stay together long enough."

Loh added half of the 2019 squad have stayed on, and they are in discussions with the others who are considering their options due to work and study commitments.

He noted the team have always had to train smarter and have begun discussions with Milakovic on maximising their training time. Players could work on their fitness on their own, leaving the coach with more time to focus on tactics during training, for example.

With the game plan underway, SSA president Lee Kok Choy said: "I have absolute confidence that we will regain the gold medal in 2021."

Beyond next year's SEA Games, the SSA is also targeting a podium finish at the 2026 Asian Games in Nagoya.

Soh added: "Our immediate target is to regain the SEA Games gold… we had a target for the Asian Games and that is still relevant.

"There will be supporters and there will be doubters. The positive effect of losing this is that people have become open and accept that we need to do more for water polo and we're getting more support."

Well aware of the task ahead, Loh wants the class of 2021 to build "a new legacy" for water polo in Singapore. He added: "This new legacy is a story of resilience.

"There was some negativity around the result and we want to show the resilience of the sport and its players, and the resilience of our country. Yes, this is a setback but I believe we can bounce back."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2020, with the headline 'PowWow puts water polo in right frame of mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe