FORMER general secretary of Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM), Datuk Ng Chin Chai now holds a key position as head of BAM development committee to shape the future of the sport loved by millions of Malaysians.
As is the case with development in sports, progress takes time and champions like Lee Chong Wei only emerge after talent is honed by years of discipline, but the system that breeds success stories like this must be given due support in order to produce results in the shifting landscape of competitive sports.
StarMetro was able to catch up with Ng during the Astro Junior Championships (AJC) in Juara Stadium to get his take on the state of badminton at the national junior and youth levels.
Q: What is the scope of your new portfolio as head of development committee?
A: The committee basically looks after the development of players under 18, and our role is to groom players for the national squad.
The players that fall under this category come from the Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS) national training programme as well as 15 state associations around the country.
At the same time, we come up with policies that guide state associations and provide funding to train players aged 18 and below, with some as young as nine.
Q: What about those below nine who are just starting to learn about the sport?A: That is beyond the purview of the committee and driven by passionate parents, coaches and teachers in schools and private clubs. However, the state badminton associations do provide a platform with competitions funded by BAM – at least two age-group competitions in each state each year – where youngsters can compete.
The good ones are then identified and selected by the respective state associations that have autonomy to carry out their own training programmes.
Q: How is our development ecosystem compared to other nations?
A: Our existing ecosystem is quite good but there are always gaps and room for improvement.
Looking at our neighbouring countries, some of them are growing by leaps
and bounds, so we must always check ourselves. We recently had a workshop that involved all 15 states to get feedback and reports on their youth development and competitions at state level to see how we can move forward.
Many people think we are just spending money on the national team and that we don’t care about development. That is not true.Our programmes, competitions, training sessions and coaches’ salaries come up to some RM8mil yearly for both the BJSS and state associations.
Q: What is the selection process for players to enter BJSS?A: The main way is through the six junior (Under-12) circuits in different zones all around the country followed by a grand prix final. The eight quarter finalists in the singles and four semi-finalists in the doubles of the grand prix are automatically called for selection.
On top of that, the semi-finalists of the MSSM Under-12 also qualify automatically.
For states that don’t have players who make it to any of the above, it is their prerogative to identify two boys and two girls to attend the talent identification sessions.
They will be chosen based on their showing in past tournaments, a skill test as well as physical ability.
Again, this is a process which we are always looking to improve on and, of course, sometimes we miss out players, but there are specific periods where players are admitted or asked to exit the programme.
Q: How are our youth compared to those in Japan which has a robust development programme, given that physical ability is something we are not lacking?A: I do not want to make excuses, but the Japanese people are brought up differently. They are generally very disciplined, resilient, obedient and are team players.
The other factors have to do with their education system and cultural values.
They also have a completely different system when it comes to the national and national junior squad, which affects the whole ecosystem.
For example, their national association does not give the players a salary. Instead, it is corporations which have a relationship with clubs that the players belong to, that pay them. Here, very few corporations want to employ our players under them.
So the players come under BAM’s employment, making the responsibility a heavy one on BAM as we are just an NGO which is dependent on the government.
If we can have corporations employ athletes, not just for badminton but all sports in Malaysia, that will be a good step forward.
Q: What are the challenges when it comes to preparing the youth to be successful?A: Malaysian youngsters generally have a better quality of life now and cannot endure hardship. But to perform internationally and be a world-class player, they must be able to endure hardship and be highly disciplined.
Another one of our challenges is balancing badminton with education, because as our society becomes more affluent, education is prioritised.
Some players have chosen not to enter BJSS because they prefer to be back in their comfort zone with their families and friends.
Some believe that the schooling system in BJSS is not up to par, which made us look into introducing a tuition-based system.
Then there are some who only want to play badminton and do not wish to study, but we cannot allow that.
We have offered a place in BJSS to some very good players from all over the country, but for their own reasons, they do not wish to enrol.
Q: Has the formula for success in the sport changed?A: The thing to note is that the game is always evolving. From the time it changed to the 21-point system, it became very fast paced. But then from an average of eight strokes per rally from our research, it is now about 20 strokes per rally.
So now, it is slowing down and is becoming a game of endurance again but with a much higher standard. Of course, this means that we have to constantly look at the way we train our players
To succeed in badminton, the player must be able to go through hardship and be highly disciplined. Mental strength and a strong character also make for good badminton players.
Q: How do programmes like Astro Kasih’s Kem Badminton and AJC help BAM?A: We are thankful for the private initiatives and Astro is one of our biggest supporters and partners. They are one of BAM’s sponsors and we also have an MOU with Astro Kasih to support their Kem Badminton and AJC (Under-15 mixed-team competition) because it gives the youth a platform to showcase their talents in a national competition and helps the grassroots to grow.
The AJC team competition introduced last year has involved some 640 players in total so far; it has helped them take the sport seriously and also gives them a goal to attain.
Being in a team event, they also get to experience something that is not common because of the dynamics that involve team spirit, selflessness and supporting each other. These are values that they can carry on in their lives.
Coaches are also motivated to go out and scout for talent to pick players
for their clubs as well as groom their players to be better.At the same time, our coaches are also at the tournaments to look at players whom we did not select when they were 13, as part of our external monitoring process.
Their other initiative, Kem Badminton, is held around the country each year where they select the best juniors and bring them together for centralised training in Kuala Lumpur before an overseas training camp in Japan to expose them further.
To-date, Astro Kem Badminton has impacted the lives of some 15,800 children across the country since 2012 and was also recently expanded to players from as young as seven years old, so they are actively engaging the grassroots from the age of seven to 15.
In fact, about 70% of the Form One students who enter BJSS were also part of the selected players who attended the Japan training stint and are active in the circuit.
Q: What are some of the changes that will be made under the development committee moving forward?A: For the first time, we will be focusing heavily on the current Under-16 players as they will be developed to target the 2022 Summer Youth Olympics in Senegal.
This group will also see out the 2028 Olympics in USA, as successors of the Project ‘24 when they are about 25 years old.
About 10 or 16 of them will be selected from the current national development programme and will be training more than studying moving forward, because this is how successful badminton nations are doing it.
For example, they may have tuition three hours a day only on core subjects, something like the International General Certificate of Secondary Education programme.
Although they will focus more on badminton than education, it will be sufficient to carry them forward if they choose to specialise in a field of their choice after their sports career.
Due to limited resources, we are pooling a small group of players first, so they will receive the best of what we can give them in equipment, training, tournament exposure as well as better quality coaches.
We will closely evaluate the players who are under the programme and they may come and go based on their performance.
Apart from the elite programme, we are also looking into giving state associations more autonomy to run their own programmes and incentivise their performance.
It was about equal for all states in the past in terms of funding, human resources, expectations and KPIs but we are looking at redistributing it differently.
Of course under the development arm, we also train coaches and we will be re-checking the quality of our coaches.
Q: What is the aim of this programme?A: To be able to fast track talented players as they are the ones who will bloom.
If possible, they will be roped into the senior team when they are 16 and if they can play as the third single in the SEA Games or Thomas Cup, why not? It is to give them a chance to knock at the third step, not specifically to win. And by the time they are 19, they could be the first single.
Q: Isn’t this putting all your eggs in one basket?A: No, the elite programme will run along with the existing national and state programmes. This is crucial as players will come and go and this is something extra we are doing, which will give us three groups of players to work with.
In sports there are late starters, like Chong Wei, who only surfaced in his late teens after spending eight years with us and came up through our state development programme in Penang.
Q: Badminton is a big sport for Malaysians and many have opinions on the state of the game, but how do things look from BAM’s point of view?A: Yes, millions of Malaysians have comments on how we are performing. There is a lot of criticism but there are also a lot of positives that go with it.
It is a huge challenge, but at the end of the day, we cannot rest on our laurels. We were successful on the world stage before and we know the many gaps we have so we are doing something about it.
Q: Can you speak of the performance of our players at the 2019 Badminton Asia Junior Championships in July?A: Unfortunately, we did not do well this year but it was not because the players did not perform.
Our players had less international matches due to a lack of resources, and did not rank highly internationally. When you do not rank highly you do not get seeding, which results in a tough draw. This can be seen as an excuse, but that is also the reality.We were grouped with Indonesia and Japan, who are in the top three in the world and we lost 5-0 to Indonesia and 3-2 to Japan, which meant we were out of the quarter-finals for the first time in many years.
This time at the 2019 Badminton Asia Junior Championships we will be aiming to make it to the quarter-finals and remain in the top eight in the world.
Q: Did Chong Wei’s success set Malaysians’ expectations of badminton too high?A: Not really, high expectations can be a good thing. The higher the benchmark, the harder people will strive and work to reach it. So even if we fall one or two steps below, we might still be able to gain a medal. We know we have to produce. After we dropped out of the top four ranking, we have about 30 million Malaysians screaming at us, but that keeps people like me on our toes.
Q: How do you find this new portfolio one month in, after nine years with BAM as its general secretary?A: I am enjoying the change very much, especially getting to see young players who have so much potential. It is something different compared to the national elite players who are already at the top of the game and have less room to grow.
I think I will enjoy this journey and I believe that our upcoming initiatives will bear fruit in years to come.
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