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!

Why St. Andrew’s?

I recall an instance when somebody exclaimed “my blood runs white and blue! (white and blue are the St Andrew’s (SA) school colours)” To that, I smiled back and nodded in approval, for deep within, I knew exactly what this person meant. I’m not the most knowledgeable in regards to SA, but what I do have is a load of experience here. I have been in the Saints family for over fifteen years now. I started my journey at Ascension Kindergarten, then moved on the the junior school (SAJS), followed by the secondary school (SASS) and then finally ended my run in the Junior college (SAJC). Or so I thought. After army, I found myself holding a red pen and some markers, walking around SASS as a relief teacher. So yes, in a way, I’ve gone full circle, all the way as a student through St. Andrew’s and just to come back as a teacher. I thought it was a good conclusion to my time at the school. It was also good for me to give back to the school that raised me before I went off to uni. So as you read all this, you may be wondering: why St. Andrew’s? To answer that, I have to first go way back.

From Primary School...

From Primary School…

To Secondary School...

To Secondary School…

To Junior College!

To Junior College!

Recently, I’ve been meddling a lot with the thought of what makes a Saint? A Saint is what the students here are generally addressed and identified as. However, the term Saint didn’t roll off the tongue very well for me. It was just a mere label, and I already formed that conclusion late into primary school. I looked around when I was in Primary 5 and decided that there was nothing special or spectacular about the students here, and so the term Saints, with all its grandeur and prestige, meant nothing to me. Coming back, I did take some time to register some fleeting opinions on what this school meant to the boys. I got a lot of lacklustre answers such as “like that lor,” or “everyone is here because of the affiliation from Junior School.” I smiled at these responses because they were so blatantly honest, and an exact reflection of how I felt back then when I was in secondary school.

So what would lead to such an opinion of St Andrew’s, even within the psyches of the students? It all began with the notion that no one is here by chance. These are the words displayed at the entrance of SAJC which ironically requires much more than just pure chance to enter. To me, this motto applies more to the junior and secondary school. It is the notion that the school will accept anyone with various backgrounds and abilities and work to value add to every individual. It is a highly idealistic notion, that no one is here at random, and that every student serves his role; that every student has a higher purpose here. And from that assumption the school is willing to go all out to develop each child.

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And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That's my best friend on the left by the way)

And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That’s my best friend on the left by the way)

However, any lofty ideals I have reserved for this school have been shelved in a deep corner of my mind. In the final analysis, there isn’t much about it really. Besides our strong rugby culture and some signs of life from our school band, what else is there about our school that really stands out? I’m not putting down any efforts made by the school to improve itself, but one must recognise the nature of competition out there; not just in academics but in sports. It is ruthless and goal oriented, and many institutions we are up against are backed by prestige and substantial funding. I just want to make the point that ideals aren’t something that makes this village stand out. To me, what this school represents is the struggle of the average Singaporean student. There will be distractions and there will be hardships, and somehow that student will just have to suck it up and battle through it all. That’s the reality of our education landscape, not the dream stats of 50% straight A’s and 99.9% University eligibility some schools effortlessly achieve.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

But a lot of how I felt has since changed. I still accept that this “four schools one village” concept is a far cry from perfect, and that a lot of problems lie deep beneath the impressive facade you see as you pass by St. Andrew’s Village (SAV) on the PIE. I accept that these problems have led to a lot of unhappiness both inside and outside of the school, because back in the day, I faced some of these problems myself.

But then, what’s the big deal with problems? Parents make a huge fuss of it because they want to protect their precious children. Teachers fuel their staffroom talk with student problems, administrative problems, etc. But then when you think about it, it makes sense that every educational institution has it’s own problems. In fact, there are no perfect institutions. Even the comparatively ideal schools at Bukit Timah and Bishan get the occasional student outcry that goes viral on the blogsphere. Problems will plague any system that caters to the masses, so saying that we have problems is as good as saying that there are clouds in the sky. It would be mighty weird if the sky was cloudless all day, wouldn’t it?

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Except it WAS cloudless on this day when I took this shot of our neighbourhood!

Problems aside, I believe that in those formative years, we made the most of what we had and learned to have fun in the process. That was my most important lesson learned. In a strange way, this was only possible because our school gave us space. In the secondary school, we were a fun loving bunch, that was often immature and didn’t get our priorities right. We did silly things and never looked back. There was this once that a group of us decided to skip lessons to leave school and study ourselves outside. Well, that was what we explained to the discipline master the next day, and I was sure he didn’t believe a single word we told him. But the truth was, we were really studying outside. We studied and laughed in between conversations, and received multiple phone calls from different teachers telling us to come back. We diverted our attention to how we could cover each others’ butts on the next day. Thinking back, it was really silly to skip school just to study on our own, but somehow this memory remains a very fond one. Why? Because sometime in those few years, I learned how to have fun and not regret it.

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Being young and having regrets were two mutually exclusive events. We had fun and weren’t sorry for it.

I see a similar culture in the staffroom. Not the skipping of lessons, of course, but the learning to have fun part. There are jokes exchanged and students discussed. Amidst all the administrative problems, and the occasional lack of motivation, I would suddenly see a packet of fruit juice on my desk or a Ninjompeipakoa (throat relief medicine) suddenly pop up. We weren’t afraid to help each other and that made my experience strangely heartening and fun.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you're thrust into a new environment.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you’re thrust into a new environment.

Of course, I’m not saying that fun is absent from other institutions, or that SA is especially fun. I’m just saying how I felt, and what I remembered. In other words, I’m talking about memories. And these are memories that I have no other school to compare to, as all my memories were forged within these walls. The feeling that you had fun or that it was worth it are all attributed to what happened in the past and how we choose to remember certain phases of our lives.

Memories are dredged up every now and then as I go around my business at school. I’ve bumped into a few primary school teachers who (to my surprise) still recognised me (must be because of the occasional teachers’ day visits). Travelling out to have lunch I’d sometimes end up on the same table as my SAJC teachers. I had a relatively smooth time in those institutions, and nothing exceptionally bad happened under the watch of these teachers. So with that assurance I was able to snuggle up in the warmth of my recollections from three to ten years back, and feel a sense of closure. This was the sort of closure I didn’t intend to seek, but was more of an indirect result of my return. Like I said, it was about going full circle, and right now, this circle feels pretty complete.

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Of course, I’ll always choose to remember the good times.

To round it all off, I’m glad to say that my blood, too, runs white and blue. I’ve had my doubts before, but right now I’m more sure than ever. The school has stuck firmly with the values of our forefathers, and because of that, I was accepted into this community. St. Andrew’s has accepted me and taught me a lot through the years and I can never forget that.

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn't realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement, the guy in the pink shirt, even followed me through army!

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn’t realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement (the handsome guy in the pink shirt) even followed me through army!

So, back to the question: why SA? I must be honest, there has been good and bad, from feelings of absolute joy to outright misery. I was allowed to dream, and occasionally pounded headfirst into the cruel depths of reality. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with the most fun and diverse groups of people imaginable, and many of us still keep in close contact. There are memories, good and bad, but in the end these memories made me who I am, and I am glad for that.

There’s no reason really, nothing for me to utterly convince you as to why SA should be an institution you would want to invest in. This is not an institution that is spectacular in any way, nor does it pride itself in being over-the-top or elitist. But alas, after being here for so long, I can say that this school is as much a part of me as I have been a part of it. And for me, that has always been enough.

Thank you SA, you've always been enough.

Thank you SA, you have always been enough.