SINGAPORE - Pitcher Mathew Tan used to struggle to lift his arm after two days competing in an overseas tournament. The 16-year-old had no such issues at the Under-18 Men's Softball World Cup, which concluded on Sunday (March 1).
This was due in part to the team coaches incorporating strength and conditioning into the players' weekly training programme.
And the results showed on the pitch in New Zealand, as the Singapore team achieved their best performance of three wins in eight matches - including a stunning upset over second-ranked Argentina - en route to finishing ninth overall.
Singapore's two previous appearances at the age-group tournament came in 2012 and 2014, when they finished 12th and 10th respectively. They won only one match in those two outings.
After opening their 2020 campaign with an 8-3 defeat of two-time champions Argentina, world No. 17 Singapore edged out South Africa and Denmark 9-8 and 4-3 respectively. They lost to Canada (8-4), Australia (11-0), the Czech Republic (6-3), the United States (4-2) and Mexico (9-1).
"We got off to a good start but maybe the boys got tired or they were not used to a long tournament - we're not used to playing this number of games back in Singapore and they're not used to being away for that long," said head coach Farhan Harahap Amirudin, whose team arrived in New Zealand on Feb 20 and left on Monday.
"We gave some hope to the players and supporters in Singapore that we're not just here for exposure, we can actually contend also."
Since they started training last November, the team have had two strength and conditioning sessions weekly, in addition to field training, which took place between two and four times each week. The sessions were previously integrated into field training.
Mathew, a Raffles Institution student, told The Straits Times that his experience in this tournament was different from his previous outings, where he played between three and five matches due to the shorter duration.
"When we attended those tournaments, I wouldn't be able to raise my arms after two days... most of the time I would be pitching, but the quality would (decrease) significantly in both speed and accuracy," he said.
"But this time, I managed to pull through all eight matches and I felt more confident about my performance. I went in knowing that I could give my all in one match, because I could still perform well the next day."
Aside from strength and conditioning, coaches Farhan and Koh Ruoh Jie believe a bigger talent pool and their greater in-depth game knowledge have also been key.
Farhan observed during selection trials that there were more talented players than before and believes this is due to the Singapore Baseball and Softball Association's focus on youth. It introduced age-group teams from Under-16 to Masters (above 35) in 2011.
Coaching standards in schools have also improved and he pointed out that the team of 16 had representation from five to six schools.
Captain Huzaifie Noorham said the experience has boosted the team's confidence.
"Beating Argentina (showed us) that our training has been useful and we can beat the top teams, but throughout the week we got fatigued and that made us realise the importance of strength and conditioning," said the 17-year-old.
"We want to be better so we will work harder - we know where we stand and how we have to improve."