News Singapore Premier League • October 14, 2020

Staying motivated and getting back into the groove: SPL coaches on coping during a pandemic


Lion City Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar

SINGAPORE, 15 OCTOBER 2020 – The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about entirely new challenges for head coaches in the 2020 AIA Singapore Premier League (SPL), who saw their well-laid plans disrupted after just four rounds of matches.


From the suspension of the league on 24 March through the Circuit Breaker period and Phases 1 and 2, they have had to contend with unique issues.


Now that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel with the SPL set to resume this weekend, explores how they coped during the past months.


Different outlook

With training venues off-limits early on, clubs relied on technology as fitness plans were devised and players gathered virtually to work out.


“We made use of the time to work a lot on players individually via Zoom, such as strengthening work and utilising GPS applications to track their runs,” Geylang International head coach Mohd Noor Ali said. “All we could do was some basic physical work so that they are not simply just resting at home.”


When SPL sides returned to the pitch from 19 June onwards in Phase 2, it was in small groups of five that could not be changed in composition once decided. The coaches had their work cut out to keep things fresh in face of the limitations, such as outfield players not being able to work with the goalkeepers.


“It is really unusual for any team to start organising training sessions with groups of five players,” Lion City Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar said. “Me and (assistant coach) Noh Rahman had to be a little bit more creative, just as every other coach did, just to keep the mental stimulus at a good level.”


His Hougang United counterpart, Clement Teo, did draw some positives. “In groups of five… the individual players get to know each other a bit better,” he said. “That period was not ideal, but it surely brought the players closer to each other.”


Geylang International head coach Mohd Noor Ali

Staying motivated

With no competitive games to look forward to for perhaps the first time in their careers, it was hard for the players to feel a sense of purpose.


Balestier Khalsa head coach Marko Kraljevic admitted his foreign players felt homesick, especially as they could not return home due to travel restrictions. “Fortunately for us, the four of them stay together (so they had each other),” he said of Kristijan Krajček, Šime Žužul (both Croatian), Ensar Brunčević (Serbian) and Shuhei Hoshino (Japanese). “Once there are games to look forward to, these issues will not affect them as much anymore.”


Others got creative. At Geylang, tennis and badminton games added variety to training. Meanwhile, Tampines Rovers head coach Gavin Lee stressed the importance of looking at the bigger picture.


Tampines Rovers head coach Gavin Lee

“We talk a lot as a team… (and that is) something that we have spoken about,” he said. “We just need to reframe our thinking, in the sense that we have to appreciate that in this global crisis, we are still quite fortunate to have a job doing what we all love to do. As compared to many people out there who are suffering, what we are facing is negligible.”


Lee added that the “maturity” of the senior players has helped. “I think that the younger ones sometimes may not be as aware, or at least they are not as conscious about what is happening or the repercussions,” he explained. “That’s where the seniors come in as role models to spread the message, which rubs onto the younger ones.”


Balestier Khalsa head coach Marko Kraljevic

Getting back into the groove

The resumption of full-team training on 1 September marked another milestone and understandably brought about palpable relief.


With fewer restrictions, Kraljevic noted that they could now “really focus” on more tactical work. At Geylang, Noor revealed there was a “team bonding camp at Sarimbun Scout Camp for some fun”.


Pointing to the increased number of injuries witnessed during the restart of the major European leagues, Vidmar believes teams are stepping into the unknown upon resumption due to the lack of match fitness.


“The game intensity is completely different from training,” the former Australia international said. “You want to make sure that you’ve given them enough load during training, but also then you have to get them sharp and fresh for that first day, so we have to juggle (that) a little bit.


“In my opinion, when it comes to real full match fitness, no one is going to know until probably two, three or four weeks into the season.”


Young Lions head coach Nazri Nasir

Nazri Nasir observed that more of his Young Lions charges have fallen victim to minor niggles more often – a groin pull here, a hamstring strain there.


“Definitely, I have had to pay more attention to the training load… some players tend to go all out (when perhaps they might not be ready),” he said. “When we’re playing games (during training), we have to monitor and adjust (the intensity) slowly. For example, last week we did three sets of 15 minutes… and then we are planning to maybe extend to 25 minutes per set this week.”


Squad depth is another challenge for him. Five players have been drafted into National Service (NS) and two more will enlist before resumption. “There will be a lot of rotation, playing-wise and position-wise,” Nazri added. Meanwhile Noor revealed that some of his younger players are allowed certain days off training to study for exams.


Kraljevic foresees more errors being made. “You can see in Europe, there are plenty of penalties and misjudgements after the restart,” the Croat said. “It is normal after a few months without playing. The fitness will slowly come so, more or less, we have to rely on the mental strength of the players.”


Hougang United head coach Clement Teo

Raring to go

It is clear that all the SPL teams are raring to go again, though Teo was keen to reiterate the importance of staying vigilant.


“We have seen in the (English) Premier League, this player plays on Saturday and the following Wednesday, he’s tested positive,” he said. “These things happen, so… the regular swab tests are important… We, including the players and officials, have to keep safe and stick to the regulations.”


For Lee, he “cannot be prouder” of his team. “It has not been easy but they come into training and still display the internal motivation that they have every day… I can only applaud them for that,” he said. “We are all just excited to see how we do out there on the pitch again.”


Vidmar, in his first season with the Sailors, believes it will be “sort of a second season” for them after a lacklustre start.


“I am a new coach in this country,” he said. “While I am always confident in what we are doing, it is going to take a little bit of time and we had a slow start. We have made some changes over this period and had a lot of discussions. Especially in the initial part, there were a lot of meetings and trying to iron out what we need to improve on. Now there is a much better understanding for what we are trying to do.


“Everyone knows each other more, everyone knows me a lot more and what the expectations are. When you are doing it for a long period of time, it just becomes a habit. What we are trying to develop here are good habits, (to hit) those standards every day and improve on them. I am reasonably happy with our work so far, but the proof is always in the pudding… Now we need to go out and perform.”


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