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58 Saturday, August 6 2011

THE NEW PAPER Saturday, August 6 2011 59




WINNING MENTALITY: Solomon Casoojee (left) has managed to instill self-belief in the Singapore players.




HERE were no adoring fans, armed with cameras and placards, when the national Under-21 hockey team returned from Hong Kong on Monday night. But they didn’t need that sort of adulation. The beaming smile etched on Silas Abdul Razak’s face said it all. Fresh from two successive best place finishes at regional tournaments – fourth in the Boys’ Under-18 Asia Cup on home soil in June and second in the recently concluded Asian Hockey Federation (AHF) Junior Cup – the sport is on a high. And it’s a welcome reprieve for the hockey fraternity and it’s governing body, the Singapore Hockey Federation (SHF), which came under fire after a dismal showing at last year’s Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. The Republic’s team finished last out of 10 teams in the tournament, culminating in a 12-1 spanking by South Korea and 2-1 loss to unfancied Oman. Singapore might have been the laughing stock of regional hockey then, but no one’s mocking now. Said Silas: “Just to see the 14th-ranked team in the world worried enough to walk off when we got a penalty corner is enough to make me happy.” He was referring to an incident in the final of the AHF Junior Cup last week, when the Chinese team stormed off the astroturf to protest the awarding of a Singapore penalty corner. When China returned to the pitch a few minutes later, any fears they had were justified as Singapore’s Karleef Sasi Abdullah duly converted the set-piece to level the scores at 2-2.

Distinct change SHF president Annabel Pennefather said that she has seen a distinct change in perceptions towards Singapore since the Asia Cup. She said: “It says something when people are worried about you and you have opposition coaches, for the first time in a long while, covering their backs and saying how tough it is to play us. “I had a top official from the FIH (Federation Internationale de Hockey sur Gazon) tell me, ‘I can’t see why these group of players can’t compete at the highest level. “I think this has to be one of the best crop of players we have had since 1973 when we won the South-east Asia Peninsular (SEAP) Games gold medal, definitely the most promising since the sport moved to playing on artificial surfaces (in the 70s).” Potential golden generation they might be, but Pennefather, SHF chief executive Mark Chay and hockey watchers, all credit the same man as the catalyst for the sport’s

SOLLY’S WAYS: ■ Embraces mistakes ■ Demands progress ■ Open discussion ■ Unwavering belief ■ Scientific approach revival in Singapore – national coach Solomon “Solly” Casoojee. Said Chay, himself a former sportsman of the year in 2001: “I played no part in hiring him, but I’m glad Annabel made that excellent decision five months ago. “I’ve seen a lot of youth development coaches and he definitely ranks as one of the best ones I’ve encountered.” So who is this man who’s leading Singapore hockey’s revolution? Perpetually passionate, the stocky man the hockey community refers to as Solly is a South African whose coaching career spans 18 years and three countries – his home nation, the United Kingdom and Australia. He’s a man of intriguing contrasts, ever approachable to his players with whom he shares a discernibly good rapport, yet stern on the training pitch where he is unflinching with his standards. Meticulous in every detail from diet to video analyses since he took the reins, the 38-year-old is intentionally oblivious of the BC (Before Casoojee) years. Despite the success he has achieved in his

“My approach is to allow you to make mistakes to take the pressure off failing. And I don’t believe in spoon-feeding, you need to take ownership. I encourage the players to form opinions and challenge me. I think it’s an approach they were not used to...” – Solomon Casoojee

short tenure, it wasn’t easy to convince his charges to subscribe to Casoojee’s revolution. He said: “In my first meeting with the team I had prepared a presentation and a 40-page document on my plans, but I could see from their faces they weren’t buying it. “I could tell they were thinking, ‘We’ve heard all this so many times from so many people before, what makes you different?’

Negative vibes “There were very negative vibes after the Asian Games. The supporters were disappointed with the team, the team were disappointed with themselves and some things had happened in China. “There was a real hangover from the Asian Games and I knew then that from day one, I had to be bang on target with my message, the tone I took and my actions to make this work.” Describing his coaching philosophy, Casoojee said: “My approach is to allow you to make mistakes to take the pressure off failing. “I think you should embrace mistakes, but not accept them. Sure, don’t be afraid to

Two best-ever placings at Asian level in just five months, Singapore Hockey is seeing a...

make a mistake, but if you make the same one five times, I’m going to be in your face. “And I don’t believe in spoon-feeding, you need to take ownership. I set minimum standards for training and I don’t accept anything less, but I’m very open if you want to come and talk to me. “I encourage the players to form opinions and challenge me. “I think it’s an approach they were not used to because for a while, there was a Mexican standoff when they were thinking, ‘who is this guy and what’s he really after?’ “But I think by the time I took the team on a training tour to Perth (in June), they were on board with me.” Not only are players on board with Casoojee, but they are also starting to mirror him. Even when facing Asian giants like Pakistan, Malaysia and China, they exude an obvious confidence. Casoojee’s belief in his team is unwavering, having previously told The New Paper that the raw talent in his ranks was “phenomenal”. He’s also consistently backed his team to perform against top-class opposition. Before playing then-defending champions Pakistan in the Boys’ Under-18 Asia Cup he said: “I think anyone who thinks (we can’t

Technology is his winning formula AT EVERY substitution, the same routine. The player walks right past the dugout and straight to the laptop sitting on an empty table. That has been the scene at the national hockey team’s matches. The players weren’t snubbing their coach or listening to songs on iTunes, they were receiving real-time feedback on their performances, as the match was being played. The software which facilitates this is SportsCode Gamebreaker and it is being used by national coach Solomon Casoojee to record and analyse his team’s performances in real time. Said Casoojee: “It gives us live game analysis and statistics recording. “For example, the players can come off the pitch and immediately look at a variety of things – like how they’ve pressed the opposition, played the ball out of defence or even how they’ve executed each penalty corner. “And each player can also see every touch he has made during the game. “What this does is it allows us to analyse what they’ve been doing and give them the necessary feedback to make adjustments when they return to the pitch.” It is especially important in hockey, where unlimited rolling substitutions mean players can leave and re-enter the action as many times as required. Technology is a cornerstone of Casoojee’s coaching philosophy.

In addition to the SportsCode Gamebreaker, the national Under-18 team wore heart-rate monitors so they could measure their conditions, and Global Positioning System (GPS) to track their workrate during June’s Under-18 Asia Cup. The Singapore Hockey Federation even engaged Malaysia’s Redzuan Ponirin, the SportsCode Gamebreaker resident expert in South-east Asia, to teach the players how to unlock the potential of the programme.

Empowering Said Casoojee: “It’s about empowering the players and giving them access to tools which can improve their game. “Until you actually see what you’re doing on video, you might think the coach is just giving you a hard time. “Tactically it’s really important because sometimes the difference is just one metre left or right or one second faster or slower. “Plus these are Gen Y boys, they will play computer games till the cows come home, so drawing pictures and diagrams doesn’t work any more. You have to put it in their context.” On the players’ affinity to the technological aids, midfielder Nur Ashriq Ferdaus Zul’kepli said: “I really like it. We have used SportsCode Gamebreaker before, but coach has taught us to fully utilise the programme. “It’s helps us see where we’re going wrong and allows us to better understand what coach wants from us.” – DILENJIT SINGH

win) probably hasn’t seen much of us. “And if they’ve watched us and still don’t think that, I’d question what game they were watching.” So it’s not surprising when goalkeeper Samudra Ong proclaimed after being pipped by China in the AHF Junior Cup final on penalties: “We only had eight training sessions before the tournament. Imagine if we had three months... we could have won it.”

Technology But Casoojee is more than a master motivator, he is obsessed with tactics and using the technology at his disposable to give his players an edge. During the Boys’ Under-18 Asia Cup, the players wore heart-rate monitors and Global Positioning System (GPS) to track the distance they had covered and regularly consulted laptops with videos of their performance for instant feedback on how they were faring (see story at right). But for all the early success of Casoojee’s revolution, the South African believes that the real test is still to come. “The biggest challenge starts now. Before no one cared to do their homework on us. Now they’ll even know what colour underwear we’re wearing.”

TEAM EFFORT: Players and official checking the data on the laptops after a game. PICTURE COURTESY OF SINGAPORE HOCKEY FEDERATION



Technology Negativevibes Distinctchange WINNINGMENTALITY: SolomonCasoojee(left)has managedtoinstillself-beliefinthe Singaporeplayers. TEAMEF...