KUALA LUMPUR: It’s only been three months, but already coach Matthew Wong Kee Hing can see huge potential in the Myanmar squash team.
Despite the language barrier and the different mind set, the 52-year-old is determined to get the Myanmar players ready for next year’s KL SEA Games.
Matthew used to coach the Squash Academy of Penang from 2008 to 2013 before taking up the challenge offered by the Myanmar Squash Federation in August.
“I first learned of this opportunity through Allan Soyza, the SEA Squash Federation coaching chairman. He told me that Myanmar wanted to start a squash programme and that they were interested in hiring Malaysian expertise,” said Matthew.
“It’s quite a challenge to coach in Myanmar. Aside from the language barrier, the players’ mind set is quite different too.”
With the 2017 SEA Games in mind, Matthew has been tasked with starting a junior development programme to popularise the sport in Myanmar.
That’s no easy task, not when football and chinlone are the two most popular sports in Myanmar.
But the squash programme has quickly gained momentum.
Starting with 17 players, it doubled to 35 a week later. There are now 43 trainees in the programme.
“The programme in Myanmar is doing well. There are three squash centres – in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, which is also a centralised centre for the elite players,” said Matthew.
“Many of the players come from really poor families ... some don’t even have shoes or tee-shirts. We rely on help from countries like Malaysia to provide them with equipment and apparel.
“Most of them are also pretty new to squash. Quite a few of my players used to be athletes from other sports like diving, tennis, table-tennis and pencak silat. Those sports are no longer active.
“But there is potential ... they’re fast-learners.”
And, for the first time ever, Myanmar have sent four players to compete in the ongoing Redtone KL Junior Open, their first overseas tournament. The four are Thukha Thant, Nyi Lin Phyo, Zin Min Htet (boys’ Under-17) and Aye Aye Thin (girls’ Under-19).
“In Malaysia, players train regularly for tournaments and there will be build-up periods before a major tournament. That’s not something the Myanmar players are used to ... previously, all they did was just train,” said Matthew.
“So, it’s an eye-opening experience for them to be here at the KL Juniors. It’s the first time for them being overseas, sitting in a plane and even going to a McDonald’s.”
Malaysian squash players seem to be quite in demand for coaching jobs in the region, especially in preparation for next year’s KL SEA Games. Former national No. 1 Kenneth Low is with Thailand while Valentino Bon Jovi Bong will take charge in the Philippines in January.