Coach Highlight

Coach Focus: Shahril Shahidan

Coach Shahril is one of those success stories that proves that there is life after playing professional squash. The Terengganu-born came through the Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS) system and ventured into the Professional Squash Association (PSA) Tour before deciding on a different career path. Now 35, Shahril has spent the last 10 years as a schoolteacher whilst also working on his coaching credentials. Here he talks about his transition journey from a player to a coach.

How was your playing career like and do you have any regret stopping?
Well I started squash when I was 13. I came to Bukit Jalil Sports School to enrol in the national programme then and I was literally from the same junior batch as the likes of Dato’ Nicol David and Timothy Arnold to name a few. After my junior career I went to play on the PSA for a while and I made it up to No. 120 in the world rankings. In fact I also had a short stint in Amsterdam at one point, together with Nicol and Sharon Wee. But I decided to stop playing professional squash during my second year of studies at the University Putra Malaysia (UPM) because I was struggling to balance between studies and squash. Furthermore I was also going for a lot of practical trainings as a teacher and my time was very limited.
But I had no regrets because I always knew that my long term plan was to become a coach. I went for the most logical choice and I picked education as a career path because I knew becoming a schoolteacher was also a pathway to becoming a coach.

What are you the challenges you faced as a player turned coach?
For every player-to-coach, the main challenge is that we always feel a bit privileged when we first pick up coaching. There is this mindset, that we used to be decent players so becoming a coach is a natural and easy thing for us. I too, at first thought that I would easily become a good coach at the start. But the reality is, there is a very different set of responsibility being a coach. As a player we focus on ourselves and nothing more but as coaches we have to learn how to handle different types of players. We don’t focus on ourselves instead it is always looking at the bigger picture. Fortunately, I had a strong basics in coaching as I attended all the coaching courses available. Right now I have my Level 3 coaching certificate and also my Level 3 in sports science so I would say that helped me a lot throughout.

What is your style of coaching and who’s been your biggest influence in your coaching career?
I would say I’m strict and also happy-go-lucky. I’m not strict just for the sake of it. It’s only when players do something wrong or when they do not follow instructions. But I’m also pretty easygoing because I don’t keep things bottled up. I can be angry now but I’ll be your friend again five minutes later. This is a method that I’ve picked up during my years as a schoolteacher. I believe it’s more than just coaching as it is also a lot of teaching and guiding the players, especially the younger ones. That is why I usually have a good relationship with my players.
As for influence, I would say Major (Rtd) S. Maniam has been the biggest influence on me. He has encouraged me a lot throughout my coaching career. He kept pushing me to get my coaching credentials and that is one of the reasons why I am the youngest Malaysian, to receive the Level 3 coaching certificate, having earned that when I was 27. Besides that, he always encourages players to push hard as coaches. I would say that a good player doesn’t necessarily make a good coach and as new coaches, we have to be willing to learn and to prove ourselves first. That is how it has always been for me as the learning process never stops.

So what kind of programme have you set for the players and how have they responded?
It is a lot of running outdoors so far. We started with one run with intervals and then a long run for three sessions a week. I’m trying to mix things up a bit especially on the running sessions – throwing in different routes and variants just so it becomes a bit more interesting than running on a treadmill. After the first few weeks I’ll also slowly be throwing in ghosting sessions and these would probably take over the outdoor sessions more when the event draws closer. The idea is to get a good high intensity session going. And to be honest, the response from the players has been very good. We’ve chucked a lot of information at them and we’re also trying to put more responsibility on themselves. I want them to fill in their own time, find their sessions instead of waiting for me to tell them what to do. They need to see the point and progress behind these sessions and it’s sort of like a reflection for themselves.

What is your current role in SRAM and what do you see for the future of local coaches?
Right now I have a lot of roles. My main role is to work with the BJSS players and some of the senior players like Lai Wen Li, Farez Izwan and Ong Sai Hung. I have also been involved in the grassroot development of squash at the state level and that is still one of my responsibility. Besides that, I am also the SEA squash director of coaching so I’m pretty much covering all bases. To top it off, I am also the instructor for the SRAM
coaching course because I really do love squash a lot and I’m also eager to train players to be coaches.
As for the future of local coaches, it’s a tough question. To be honest, I feel that a lot of them do not want the challenge of working in the national setup. There is big responsibility being in SRAM because we prioritise quality. At state level the work is easier because it is more on the development side. But that’s why I’m willing to take up the challenge and to push players to consider coaching as a career as well. I’m also encouraging a lot of schoolteachers to take up the coaching course. They may not be good players but they will play an important role in promoting the game of squash.

What are your own targets as a coach?
Of course I would love to be head coach one day. It is a big challenge for sure and I do feel it’s a bit too early as well. There is still a lot to learn because becoming the head coach is not just coaching, it is also a lot on planning and other responsibilities. I am still learning and Major encourages me a lot. I would say that I’m not really rushing to land that job but I’m definitely working towards it. Even if I don’t get it, it doesn’t matter because I am taking it one step at a time.

Lastly, what is your proudest moment as a coach?
Definitely the 2017 SEA Games that was played in front of the home crowd. It is good to see a lot of the juniors that I’ve worked up stepping up on the such a stage. There are also a lot of other tournaments with good results that is worthy to be proud of. It’s also nice when some of my players like Aira Azman start winning titles. You know you’re doing a good job when your players produce results and it’s really a happy moment because we spent so much time with the players, even more than with our own families.

Coach Focus: Andrew Cross

The long-serving Andrew Cross will get an elevation in status when he takes over the role as assistant head coach to Ajaz Azmat in June. The Englishman, who has been in Malaysia since 2007 still has a lot of work on his plate especially when it comes to charting the success for the national juniors. Here he talks about the preparation for the main goal this year – the World Junior Championships in August.

How would you describe the juniors start to the year and how that is leading up to this year’s main goals?
We started the year with the British Juniors just like how we always do. We had some decent results and then we went on to the Asian Junior Team Championships in Pattaya. The girls won it but the performance there was only acceptable and it certainly needs a lot of improving. The main target this year is the World Junior Championships, especially with the girls’ team event and we are trying to do well there. It’s what we’re aiming for and the girls’ performance didn’t quite live up to it at the Asian Junior Teams.

With that said, what has been done to set that right?
Well we’ve started a new programme a few weeks ago which was based a lot on fitness. We found a big block where we could get in a lot of fitness work. So far, we’ve been through seven weeks and I’ve seen a lot of increases in their fitness levels, as it was an area that we lacked during the British and Asian Junior Teams. Basically, I needed the players to be able to play for two weeks back-to-back. I tried to replicate as much as possible what would likely happen in the world juniors, where the team event will happen immediately after the individual event.

Was the fitness level of the players really that bad?
Their fitness wasn’t terrible. But a lot of players, and not just Malaysians, tend to lose interest after losing their individual matches. But in the world juniors I’m going to need them to be back on court the very next day. Defeat is a defeat but I will still need them to play in the team event. It’s the kind of mentality that I’m trying to instill and get them prepared for it. I just want to avoid situations where players will complain of being tired because at junior events you need to be able to play in the morning and then in the afternoon. It’s a bit different to the PSA where you play one match a day.

So what kind of programme have you set for the players and how have they responded?
It is a lot of running outdoors so far. We started with one run with intervals and then a long run for three sessions a week. I’m trying to mix things up a bit especially on the running sessions – throwing in different routes and variants just so it becomes a bit more interesting than running on a treadmill. After the first few weeks I’ll also slowly be throwing in ghosting sessions and these would probably take over the outdoor sessions more when the event draws closer. The idea is to get a good high intensity session going. And to be honest, the response from the players has been very good. We’ve chucked a lot of information at them and we’re also trying to put more responsibility on themselves. I want them to fill in their own time, find their sessions instead of waiting for me to tell them what to do. They need to see the point and progress behind these sessions and it’s sort of like a reflection for themselves.

Was the first leg of the CIMB National Junior Circuit any indication of progress?
I thought there was progress definitely. Aina (Noor Aina Amani Ampandi) looked great and (Ooi) Kah Yan also did pretty well. But a lot of it was feedback from the players themselves. They said they felt great even after matches and felt completely fine after finishing a tough match. And that is just what I’m looking for because I want them to get to a stage where they know they have their fitness in the bank. They need to have the confidence in themselves that they can handle long matches.

Lastly, the World Juniors is the main target but is the Asian Juniors any less important?
Of course, the end goal this year is the world juniors. But the Asian Juniors (June 26-30 in Macau) is still just as important. We are not discarding that at all because we still want to win as many titles as possible. A lot of the players who will play at the world juniors will also play at the Asian juniors. And they should be winning at the Asian juniors if they evern hope to do well at the worlds. Besides it’s about a month away from the world juniors with the National Championships sandwiched in between so it’s a good gauge to see where they stand and to sort out anything that they need to.

Coach Focus: Peter Genever

After seven years with the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM), head coach Peter Genever is ready to call time on his stint here and return to England. Genever or PG as he is fondly known, has however found time to dish out some thoughts on his time here and what he thinks of Malaysian squash going forward.

How do you feel about leaving SRAM after seven years?
It’s mixed feelings really. I felt that the time is right for me and family to move on having completed the Commonwealth and Asian Games cycle. I am leaving some great players whom I would love to continue working with and I have made a lot of good friends in Malaysia so it is a shame to leave that behind in that respect.

How tough was your time here in Malaysia?
At the start it was very tough. I faced a lot of resistance when I first came in. From myself and from some of the players as well. I thought the programme that was in place here was fractured. No one was really working together and there wasn’t really a team ethic in place. But we’ve managed to turn that around quite well and the players and coaches deserve the credit for it. What we wanted was for the coaches to look at all players, be it SRAM players or state players, as Malaysian players rather than ‘my players’. In a way we wanted to keep up the competitive edge but not at the expense of another player. I’m proud that it worked out well over the years and I do hope that the next head coach, whoever it is, continues to grow that kind of environment.

Do you feel that you’ve achieved what you’ve set out to do with the Malaysian team?
In retrospect, I pretty much pieced things together over the years. When I first started I had a rough idea but I was mostly doing a lot of observations – from players to coaches as well as the dynamics between the association and support staff. It was important that we had everyone pushing in the same direction, which I feel we’ve achieved. Also, another thing was to work alongside SRAM’s strategic plan of becoming a powerhouse in squash. I felt that powerhouse was not the choice of words for me because there were processes to it which we lacked. But I feel that we are in a decent place now. We’re not quite the finished article yet but we are in the right direction. I think we’ve put the pathway in place for that to happen and we can see that at junior level, especially at the British Junior Open. At the British Juniors, the general vibe was that players from Malaysia are good and that’s quite pleasing.

What are you most memorable moments with the Malaysian team and which are the lowest points as well?
Winning the men’s Asian Games team gold medal in 2018 was without doubt the most pleasing. It was a two-year project and for the best part of that most of the guys were here (in Bukit Jalil) working on it and we got them into place where they were good enough to win it. Individually, Nafiizwan (Adnan)’s bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 was amazing. To beat Nick (Matthew) and then back it up against Joel (Makin), who plays at a top 20 level, in the bronze medal match was pretty remarkable. The silver in the Women’s World Team Championships in 2014, where we narrowly lost to England in the final was also a fantastic result. Sivasangari at the Asian Games last year was pretty amazing as well and she was just so close to beating a legend in Nicol David.
As for low points, I think losing in the final of the 2014 Asian Games men’s team final was a tough one to take. That was the year Azlan (Iskandar) made a comeback but it didn’t work out. I still believe we made the right team decision…although Ivan (Yuen) may disagree with me on that. It was probably the one that got away so it was pretty disappointing. Apart from that, the men’s team at the 2017 SEA Games…that was a big disappointment as well. I think the guys involved learned a great deal from it but the fact is we should have won and it’s terrible that we didn’t.

So what do you see for the future of Malaysian squash after you leave?
The trend now is for players to choose studies and SRAM is pretty supportive of that. It is a shame however to lose players to studies because many players, the men especially, and not just from Malaysia, tend to fall off the radar after choosing studies over squash. SRAM is however supportive of players wanting to study and are ready to help them make the right choice of where to study because obviously the US isn’t the only place for studies. Players however should also understand that there is also equal opportunities if they decide to go full-time, provided they are willing to put in the hard work. Players need to believe that they can transition from junior to senior if they keep up the hard work. Senior level is an extra level of commitment and its always going to get harder so they need to be prepared to step up psychologically and physically. I believe the future is certainly bright although it’s also important that squash receives some funding because we don’t have a club system unlike England or Egypt or other squash playing nations.

Finally, what’s next for you after your return to England?
I’m still looking to do a bit of coaching albeit at a lower intensity. I don’t think I’ll be able to give up squash since I love the sport. I would also like to collect my thoughts and go through my diaries and journals and maybe put that down in writing at some point. I’m also looking to spend more time with my kids. I missed a fair bit of that being here for seven years. And of course I’m also willing to help out the Malaysian players if they ever decide to drop by in England for stints. That’s the plan for 2019 so far and we’ll see how it goes from there.

 

Heartfelt thanks from Malaysia

Peter is very passionate about the sport and with passion, he definitely cares about what he does. I’ve definitely learned quite a bit from him and the results in my last few years on the tour speaks for itself – I was stuck in the 30s of the ranking for a couple of years and then managed to break into the top 15.

Unlike most coaches I’ve worked with, he’s a man of few words, so you had to be proactive to pick his brain. One of the things I learnt from him was that hard work always pays off. He’s contributed to the success of Malaysian squash in recent years and I’m grateful I managed to learn from him. I wish him the very best in his next endeavour. Delia Arnold, former world No. 12.

It’s really a big shame for Malaysian squash to lose PG. He has helped me a lot in my budding career and the results really speaks for itself. I’ve been climbing up the rankings at a good pace and a lot of it is down to PG. He has taught me a lot since I came under his guidance two years ago and he’s certainly opened my eyes to professional squash. I believe he could have helped me even more but I respect his decision and I wish him all the best. Ng Eain Yow, world No. 37.

I’m saddened by PG’s decision to leave. Everyone at the crossroad have a decision to make and he made the decision to leave, even though I tried to convince him to stay. PG is a professional and meticulous coach who has the command and respect of the players and coaches. He is truly committed to the job as what you would expect from a professional. It’s going to be hard to find a replacement as capable as him. Above all, I’m truly thankful to his pleasant demeanour and his ability to work in a cooperative manner for the betterment of the team and the players. I’m definitely going to miss the astute leadership he brought to the coaching team. Major (Rtd) S. Maniam, SRAM director.