School sports: Youth development hit by cancellation of National School Games

Jurongville Secondary School (in yellow) and Bartley Secondary School during the B Division boys' sepak takraw final on April 21, 2021.
Jurongville Secondary School (in yellow) and Bartley Secondary School during the B Division boys' sepak takraw final on April 21, 2021.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Beyond having to grapple with student-athletes' disappointment and lack of motivation, some coaches and national sports associations (NSAs) say that the cancellation of the National School Games (NSG) for a second consecutive year is a setback for youth development.

This year's NSG had been suspended from May 8 owing to a spike in community cases and was eventually axed this week.

Netball Singapore told The Straits Times that the cancellation has impacted talent scouting for its age group zonal squads as selectors usually attend matches across the four zones to identify potential players and invite them to trials.

In place of the NSG, the association instead held an Under-14 trial, compared to two previously, in March with safe management measures in place and opened the registration to all players in the age group.

Netball coach Ong Wan Theng, who coached the Under-14 East Zone team in 2019 and helped conduct this year's trial, said this format was trickier as coaches only had one chance to watch players in action.

Ong, 25, said: "We can't have a full-court game and at NSG in previous years, selectors also got to watch players multiple times and see them in different situations.

"This was a one-time thing and let's say the player can't make it or they don't want to come, we wouldn't know there's such a player with this potential to grow and we might not spot them early enough."

But she added that the trial was a good experience for the players, most of whom have not competed in the NSG before, as it gave them some form of motivation and encouragement and allowed them to see the standard of their peers.

Beyond talent scouting, coaches were more concerned about the impact of the lack of competitions on the athletes' development.

Noor Izwan, 41, a badminton coach in the national training squad, said: "NSG plays an important role for local players to show their talents and develop their mental and emotional aspect of the game. Without it, they'll lose out on the competitive edge.

"From my observations for these two years, the standards of players have dropped slightly in terms of consistency and quality of shots probably due to the lack of training and competition opportunities.

"They will also develop slower because these competitions are for them to apply what they learnt in training and without them, they cannot see their weaknesses."

Afiq Yahya, 30, a Centre of Excellence (COE) coach at Singapore Premier League club Tampines Rovers, added: "The boys coming in may not be as match fit or match smart as the current batch. In training, we try to copy the intensity of how we play in games but it's quite different from match situations where there are opponents and the quality of play is different."

Keeping players motivated was another challenge, said national men's hockey coach Krishnan Vijayan Naidu. The Singapore Hockey Federation has three youth squads (Under-14, Under-16, Under-19) with a total of 70 players.

Vijayan, 56, said: "Every player looks forward to tournaments and I feel for them. It does handicap our future in a way because with only training and no matches, it's very hard to keep their interest and motivation up. This will be a big challenge for national coaches later on because the boys who come in are at a certain age where they should have a certain level of tactical knowledge but they'll be coming to us with minimal knowledge."

But he added that the senior players will have to step up and mentor these new players and "give them confidence so that they don't feel they're way behind".

To motivate players, some coaches organised mini internal competitions. Besides simulating a tournament with internal rankings and matches, Noor Izwan also sets goals for his players to achieve after a year of training.

Some of the Under-21 Tampines Rovers players were also given the opportunity to train with the first team.

Afiq said: "Those players might struggle in terms of intensity but they can learn a lot of things from the pro players."

But St Joseph's Institution hockey coach Suketu Khabaria, 43, said that nothing can beat competition experience.

He added: "There are limited things we can do with small-sided games. They're good but now everything is still internal. More learning comes when you go out and play with better schools, then you know where you need to improve."