SINGAPORE — Stung by their failure to retain the SEA Games gold medal for the first time since 1967, the Singapore water polo fraternity has vowed to focus and intensify their development efforts in a bid to bounce back to the top of the podium at the 2021 SEA Games in Hanoi.
Since losing the gold to Indonesia at the SEA Games in the Philippines in December last year, the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) has wasted no time in conducting a review of the state of men’s water polo in Singapore.
It has identified key areas of improvement, such as building a larger pool of national players to diversify the team’s playing styles; identifying more playmakers and captains in the national team; and ironing out communication issues between the players and national coach Dejan Milakovic.
“We engaged the players, coaches, the water polo alumni and community to identify issues that have affected our progress to ensure we did not leave any stone unturned,” SSA said in a media statement on Tuesday.
“While the loss was a big blow, many in the fraternity felt we have what it takes to regain the men’s water polo gold at the next SEA Games if the fraternity galvanises together.
“SSA has mapped out a game plan and are confident that it will enable us not only to regain the crown but widen the gap between us and the competition so that we can continue retaining the crown thereafter comfortably.”
Four key findings after review
In the media statement, SSA listed the key findings and recommendations gleaned from their post-SEA Games review. There are four key findings they have reached after “frank and open discussions” with their stakeholders:
A limited pool of players in the national squad. This in turn limited the choices of attacking players and the versatility of the team. It also meant that a shorter time for younger players to be developed and trained in the national squad before playing in the SEA Games. The limitation was also compounded critically by the retirements of key senior players due to work and study commitments.
Inadequate mental resilience during competition. The team’s ability to deal with stress and the pressure of the game needed strengthening.
Leadership in the pool also needed to be strengthened.
Assimilation issues between the coach and the team, resulting in the departures of several senior players.
National coach willing to adapt
Addressing the issues between Milakovic and the players, SSA vice-president (water polo) Dominic Soh said that the Serbian coach has now better understood the players’ various commitments outside of the sport, and indicated a willingness to adapt training schedules according to each of the players’ needs.
“Dejan comes from a top water polo country where national players train full-time. Initially, he wanted our players to have a similar commitment to training, but this has led to some senior players unable to devote the necessary time to train outside of their full-time careers,” Soh said.
“We have had frank conversations between the coach and the players, and have come to a mutual understanding on changes that need to be made.”
Already, a couple of senior players, former captain Loh Zhi Zhi and Bryan Ong, have returned to the national squad.
To strengthen the mental resilience of the squad, SSA will secure the services of a mental skills coach/sport psychologist to work with the team on their mental endurance.
The team will also appoint assistant captains in both their attack and defence to provide better leadership and guidance. They will also identify more playmakers to better steer the game play.
Identifying potential national players earlier
Outside of the national team, SSA will step up its intensity in building a larger pool of national-level players, in order to take advantage of recent rule changes in the sport that allow for a bigger diversity of playing abilities and styles.
The rule changes, introduced in early 2019 to discourage excessive physicality in the pool, creates opportunities for a more mobile style of play, and this suits Asian teams, whose players are smaller-built than players from the traditional European powerhouses such as Serbia and Hungary.
A National Development Squad (NDS) has already been established in late 2018 to increase the pipeline to the national team. SSA plans to identify potential national players earlier, so that they can have a “longer runway for more structured and systematic training” to prepare them for the national team.
According to Soh, SSA has also started work on developing the club scene since 2017, doubling the number of players from 300 to 600 during that period. It will also work with Sport Singapore on its ActiveSG water polo academy, which will be launched later this year, to get more young people to play the sport and identify future talents.
Under Milakovic’s direction, NDS players will have more opportunities at regional and international competitions. Younger players will also have more interaction with senior national players to assimilate them early into the team’s strategies and play.
Selected players will have more chances to be attached at overseas professional clubs for a longer period of time to gain more exposure to higher-level competitions. SSA will also organise more sparring games for the national team against a diverse slate of regional teams which offer a variety of challenges.
Confidence in regaining gold
With the game plan, SSA’s immediate target is to regain the SEA Games gold medal, and its president Lee Kok Choy said, “I have absolute confidence that we will regain the gold medal in 2021.”
Beyond that, SSA remains committed to eventually reaching the podium at the 2026 Asian Games in Nagoya.
"There will be supporters and there will be doubters. The positive effect of losing (the gold medal) is that people have become open and accept that we need to do more for water polo, and we're getting more support," Soh said.
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