Independence key to Asian success

Alan Ma, coach of China's national tennis team, admits Asian culture emphasises obedience, which may hinder a player's independent thinking.
Alan Ma, coach of China's national tennis team, admits Asian culture emphasises obedience, which may hinder a player's independent thinking.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Back in 2005, Chinese national coach Alan Ma, who was already coaching Peng Shuai, was asked by the Chinese Tennis Association to coach Li Na as well. Surprisingly, he declined the offer.

Ma recalled: "I even told them, 'You can shoot me right now'. It's impossible to coach two strong personalities at once."

Li went on to become China's most successful tennis player, winning the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open in 2014 before retiring later that year.

Peng, Ma's protege since 2004, is also a two-time Grand Slam champion - albeit in doubles. But the 30-year-old also reached the 2014 US Open singles semi-finals.

Both players succeeded because they broke out of the norm, and Ma, 52, did not mince his words when discussing what is wrong with the Chinese system of grooming its tennis players. Speaking at the sidelines of the Singapore Convention on Health, Fitness and Sports yesterday, the Chinese-American said China players have to take greater ownership of their careers, instead of relying on government funding and support.

"The path is too easy for (the Chinese players). You have to work for it and not have everything provided for you," Ma said at Aperia Mall.

"If you always have the full support of every single dollar, you won't learn how to deal with the pressure of losing and you don't pick up problem-solving skills - which you need on the court.

"The players have to learn what professionalism means and not have that sense of entitlement."

Li and Peng were among a handful of players to "fly solo", when they broke away from the national state-run sports system and employed their own coaching staff.

Ma has also helped arrange foreign coaches for top Chinese players including world No. 27 Zhang Shuai and No. 77 Zheng Saisai.

He noted that while Asian culture typically emphasises respect and obedience, it makes the players over-reliant on their coaches, thus suppressing independent thinking and hindering their progress.

"When they lose a match, they blame the coach, saying 'you didn't tell me what to do.' But do you expect me to prepare for (all sorts of) scenarios? Tennis is different," he said. "We have the opponents, the environment and you have to learn to make the decisions all by yourself."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'Independence key to Asian success'. Print Edition | Subscribe