Coaching and the Gift of Running

“I want you to feel like you’ve just died. Yes, the feeling is similar to death. If you don’t understand what I mean after the race, then I’m sorry, you didn’t give it your best.” Motivating people is hard work. The approach is always the same, but the persistence makes for a tough job. The boys will look up at you and nod, they will give you some assurance. But in the end you’ll need to remind them again and again. The world out there is full of temptations; it isn’t easy to stay motivated.

I volunteered to take charge of the long distance component of the school Track and Field team. The school I was working at being St. Andrew’s Secondary School (SASS). There were two reasons for this. Firstly, it was because I was from the exact same track team six years back. The teachers still remembered me from back then and when they invited me to coach the boys, I was thrilled. Those days on the track were some of my fondest memories of SA. Secondly, it was because I basically loved to run. It sounds crazy, but there was something to be said about the feeling of taking long strides with the wind in your hair, hearing nothing but the sound of birds and cars, the sound of your own heartbeat, being with no one but yourself. It was amazing to me, and it brought me through tough times, school, and army, as well as dealing with being on my own. It helped me appreciate a lot of things. So yes, I latched onto this opportunity like a lazy sloth on a sturdy branch.

In the first few trainings, I could sense that there was a lot of work to do. The two teachers in charge, Madam Alifa and Miss Fernandez had been struggling to get things done because the coaches kept changing in the past and a lot of the boys were half-assed about track. I really admire their efforts because they didn’t have substantial background in track, and it was made harder because the school didn’t give it as much support as the niche sports (mainly rugby). At the first training, some of the boys would start walking during warm up, or weren’t serious in their stretching. I had to give them some talks about pursuing excellence and what not, but I wasn’t sure if that was particularly effective. I concluded that the boys didn’t have that desire. The culture was lopsided and they lacked an identity. A lot of them were in it for the points. Just like the problem I had with teaching literature, many of them chose the CCA simply because they had no other sport to join.

I was determined to change that. The methods are simple, but the persistence is hard. I made sure I was there beside them for the first month, running with them, shouting at them as we went along. Then just when they were about to give up I would shout, “SERIOUSLY, YOU’VE DONE FIVE SETS JUST TO GIVE UP ON THE SIX? ALRIGHT, GIVE UP NOW. I DARE YOU. GIVE UP LAH, COME ON, YOU LOOK LIKE YOU WANT TO GIVE UP ANYWAY!” A lot of them gave me exasperated looks, and some even gave up now and then.

Pushing them hard on the road...

Pushing them hard on the road…

And on the track.

And on the track.

No matter, I told them, I wasn’t going to give up even if they did. Upon reaching home I would text the group, prepare them for the next training, or tell them to jog over the weekends. I had to keep reminding them that it was a marathon, not a sprint. You cannot just hope to do things at the last minute and not put in consistent effort. I always linked it to studies and how you can’t study for the ‘O’ Levels one month in advance. I probably bored them to death, but I was persistent. I was once their age, and I know that with regards to running this sort of motivation is needed. In soccer or rugby it is very easy to find motivation; the entire world seems to be glorifying ball sports, and so it’s very easy to get caught up in that. What running instills in you is something more deep seated, and that is a sense of personal achievement. This was a mindset that was sorely missing in these boys, one that I had to help them discover.

I think being relatable helps, and it helped them believe in me. Madam Alifa and Miss Fernandez had a lot of experience in guiding the boys and planning out trainings, but they valued me because in all probability, I could relate better to them. I was in the boys’ shoes just a few years before, after all. We would talk and joke during and outside trainings, and it always made them feel at ease. The pain you feel would be less than the actual pain if you knew it came from a benign and understanding source. I had to be that cool, kind coach that only wanted the best for the kids. The balance between tough trainings and supportive coaching had to be discovered there and then.

I remember this, we were celebrating Madam Alifa's birthday and were deliberating whether we should smash her with the cake. Thankfully, we didn't.

I remember this, we were celebrating Madam Alifa’s birthday and were deliberating whether we should smash her with the cake. Thankfully, we didn’t.

What really encouraged me was our Intra School Cross Country. The upper secondary track boys got 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th! One of the lower sec boys clinched 1st, with two others in the top twenty. Sure, it was only within the school, but it was highly encouraging to them, and even more encouraging for me. A few weeks later, some of the sprinters attained second for the 4 x 100m during the Akira Swift Track and Field meet. They were presented with their medals before the entire school. Those were proud moments for us, and I told them later that nobody was going to shove us around, not rugby, not soccer. WE are runners, and as runners, we have to be the best at running. In time, we showed the entire school that we certainly weren’t just a bunch of ball-sport rejects, but a serious force to be reckoned with. I was in charge of these boys and no one was going to belittle us.

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The almost-clean sweep of 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th for the Intra-School Cross Country.

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Closely followed by a 2nd place for our 4 x 100 team at Akira Swift!

Training continued from that positive result, up till now. There was an Inter-School Cross country in between, but we didn’t fare as well for that. I kept telling them that they should only focus on themselves and not the competitors from the other schools. If you feel you’ve tried your best, it shouldn’t matter what your competitors did. They’ve probably trained harder than you in the past, so you cannot expect any miracles. Miracles are for the operating theatre, not the start line of a race. The miracle comes from the months of hard training, the sweat, the tears and the cries of I WON’T GIVE UP! The true miracle is the persistence of your mind. Well, I didn’t actually say that word for word (it would be epic if I did), but I articulated these thoughts to them well enough.

Sad as it sounds, I will be having my last training with them come Friday. I would love to continue with this bunch and send them off to the nationals in April, but I have my own commitments to attend to by then. I really do wish them all the best for that. They’ve been such a joy. Some of the less motivated boys would even text me now and then asking me “Sir, how should I train over the weekends”, or “Is my method of training good enough?” I am encouraged that some of my persistence has paid off, that this “culture of excellence” thing is slowly creeping into their minds. I think that beyond the long runs, dietary advice, painful stretching and reminders to run on the weekends, the best gift I could offer them was a renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. It is a special gift the running gods had granted me so many years back, so I feel it is only right if I helped them discover it as well.

For one last time, Up and On!

You guys will be missed. continue training hard and do your school proud! Up and On!

You guys will be missed. Continue training hard and do your school proud! Up and On!

The Lee Kuan Yew I Know

During history lessons, you will always find me tucked into a comfortable position and dozing off contentedly. I was never a history buff. The first of Stalin’s five-year-plans were… David Marshall did a certain something when he was in a certain political party and then after that… Franz Ferdinand, if let’s say he wasn’t shot, and he didn’t die… You would lose me right about here.

 So you get it, I didn’t really participate much in history classes. Neither was I conscious for very long. I drew mind maps at the end of term to try to memorize some of that dreaded content and then hopefully pass my exams. I wasn’t exactly your model student.

And then there were some lessons on the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Like many people my age, we were born into an era where the man had already performed his magic and built up the nation. All that was left, it seemed, was to carry on the legacy. I do wish I had listened a bit harder in history class, because right now, I only know three things about him with absolute certainty:

  1. He watched as Japanese soldiers beat a man up during the occupation years.
  2. He teared when Singapore was on the brink of independence.
  3. His wife passed away recently, back in 2010

That is basically all I can say with absolute certainty. Sure, he also founded the PAP, that one we all know, right?

I’m saying all this very casually, not because I have no respect, and certainly not because I have nothing better to say. I’m being casual with it because part of me believed that this great man would never see his deathbed. This is a man who vowed to rise from his grave if anything bad happened to us. He was the exuberant speaker in his heyday. We would see his face on the TV screen, his movements in real life, his words in books, and his voice on the radio. Of late, we even see him appear on viral memes on facebook and twitter, portraying him as the “badass” we all know him to be. He was everywhere, and though of late his appearances have become less commonplace, he would still pop into vision now and then like the sun peeping out on a cloudy day.

I am twenty-one this year. It is a pretty idealistic age where we tell ourselves to let go of our childish ways and look forward to the future. I believe that like most people my age, we will feel some sort of sadness at his passing. Sure, there will be some youths out there who will be totally indifferent, and I understand that. He may have built us up in the past, but his efforts may not seem as relevant today. Some people call this unappreciative and heartless, but it’s just the side effect of a generation raised in relative comfort.

It was a Wednesday, and it was rumoured that our founder had passed away. This was not inconceivable; he had been in intensive care for more than a month by then and his condition had deteriorated. There were WhatsApp messages spreading around and some news agencies even confirmed his death. I felt an immediate pang of sadness, though it wasn’t just sadness. It was also emptiness, one that couldn’t be explained in a few words. This was a man I only knew three things about, a man who I didn’t think much about, a man that I took for granted all this time. And yet, my heart sank there and then.

Thankfully, those rumours proved to be untrue. Anger at the authors of such a hoax gave way to some measure of relief. The man wasn’t gone after all, not yet, at least. Not yet. But then you can’t help but feel, that the clock was ticking, that at one point such news would prove to be true. And then what?

And then we brace ourselves for what is to come. As a nation, we have always had things go our way. Virtually nobody wore masks during the SARS outbreak. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami didn’t touch our shores. The Bird Flu, Mad Cow Disease or Ebola was either well controlled or unheard of here. We have had no major terrorist attacks, and our airport has been voted the best in Asia for as long as anyone can remember. There is a lot that has gone our way, so much so that we forget that there was a time when things didn’t go our way.

“Lee Kuan Yew had raised Singapore out of the slums into the first world wonder that we are.” This sort of statement brings with it some baggage. He is a man that had been questioned for his actions, a man who stood by everything he did and denied his critics their time in the sun. We always take this kind of success story with a pinch of salt, and don’t appreciate this the same way our elders do. Perhaps in the annals of history, he will always be that force of change and progress; one man who fought against a thousand ideals to forge what he felt was best. Perhaps this is true, but to my generation, I believe that he will always be the guiding hand that rode above all criticism, the assuring figure overlooking it all.

I don’t know whether to feel proud of his legacy, or sadness at his waning health. I am at a loss as to how to feel about these things simply because I always believed him to be with us through it all. When I was younger, my family would huddle together in front of our television on the ninth of August. And he would be there; smiling and waving at the crowd during the National Day Parade. Every single year, he would be there. His hair would grow whiter and maybe thin out a little, but he would be there. I always believed that this one man would weather all storms as he had in the past, and prove everyone wrong time and again.

After the storm has past, perhaps he will prove us wrong. One day, he may be gone but within this generation, his ideals will be stronger than ever. Because Mr Lee, the single biggest gift you have granted upon us is hope for the future. You have fought for us tirelessly and given more than just your life. You’ve had to make many tough and unpopular decisions just to give us what we have today. Sure, we may not yet be perfect, but you have given our people the platform to work towards it. Whether someone else could have done a better job or not is irrelevant. Because beyond just politics, you have shown us what it means to be Singaporean, and by and large, we owe this identity to you.

This is a man that goes beyond the history textbooks. He has reached into our lives from beyond history itself, and given us more than we could ever hope for. Thank you, Mr Lee, for everything.

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courtesy of fivestarsandamoon.com