Speaking For Sepak Takraw

18 May 2016

In the wake of recent notable performances in Malaysian sports, our National Sepak Takraw Squad has been maintaining its position as one of the elite teams set by standards of ISTAF (International Sepak Takraw Federation). Victory comes with gruelling training and  surprisingly, a lot of fun. Talib Ahmad, head coach of the national team shares some insight on why the sport should be given more attention.

Making our way to Gimnasium 2 in Majlis Sukan Negara is confusing; a huge sports plaza low in occupancy. The haze has hit and long hours outdoors it is not advisable, with no single athlete seen on the fields and tracks. Today’s mission however is to document the takraw squad, and the dedication to their sport was obviously audible. Instead of following signages, we tracked the sound of rubber-soled shoes followed by the distinctive sounds of rattan balls being smashed in courts. The sound echoed thru the hallway, exciting yet simultaneously intimidating. As our eyes caught a glimpse of the action inside Gymnasium 2, it was apparent why our takraw squad has been leading the game lately. The whole takraw team is a bunch of diligent young’uns, putting in hard work for the morning session. On one side of the gymnasium hall, a junior team is doing drills instructed by their fitness coach. Their daily training regime begins as early as 6.45AM, starting with an assembly, followed by running and physical exercises.

In another corner, the national squad dubbed as the “podium team” casually trains—mid-air bicycle kicks and fast high blocks on both sides of the court with gazelle-like agility.  For someone who is foreign to professional takraw training, it’s hard not to be in awe after witnessing what is described as a casual training session. The training session was conducted by Encik Roslan, the assistant coach. “Encik Talib will be here in a bit, he has a funeral to attend” he informs. He later explains that the podium team is getting ready for several categories; namely doubles (regu) and new four-a-side format.

Encik Talib has been serving the national takraw team as the head coach since 2012, after coaching several teams in his hometown Seremban. A sportsman himself, Talib represented the national takraw team in 1988, as well as actively competing in football leagues. He left his then career in banking and took interest in being a full-time coach, and at 45 years of age he has many accolades around his belt, including the team’s gold medal in the recent SEA Games. Always bearing a smile and soft-spoken, it’s hard to imagine how the team excels with little shouting from the head coach. But being on championship level is not all blood, sweat and tears. Add up a little fun and family-like motivation; and you get an undeniable team spirit and that’s befitting the quality of an elite team.

Seeing both Talib and Roslan coaching the podium team reminds us of that long-lost kampung brotherhood; casual but stern and serious at the same time. Talib later explains why the players in the main squad should not rest on their laurels, “There’s competition even within the squad itself, if we see a better player in the lower ranking teams, we might move them up. So, these top killers or strikers, feeders and tekongs (positions that consist of a sepak takraw team) cannot afford to slack off if they want retain their podium team status”.

“Not all of the players are here. Syahir Roslan (current poster boy for the sport with a following even in Thailand) is attending his class, and the evening session will be much more intense. I really want these athletes to put themselves first, (they need to think) how they can benefit the most from the system MSN (Majlis Sukan Negara) is providing. They need to be an all-rounder not just in sports, but their life careers as well. This is how I conduct my coaching, it’s not just sports.”

MSN has specially-prepared diets for the athletes aside from an academic outlet via Institut Sukan Negara. Diplomas and degrees related to Sports Science are offered and it’s a pre-requisite for all athletes, as well as grooming them with basic PR skills. Even Talib’s performance checklist is comprehensive, focusing on each player’s strengths and weaknesses to compensate each other in a team setting.

Fresh from a joint-training camp in Korea with their national takraw team, Talib identified that how a team brings itself is embedded in the culture of the country. The Korean head takraw coach holds a rattan stick in one hand and is not afraid to whip a lash or two; not as a punishment tool but as a reminder—agility is mandatory. The Malaysian team has a much casual attitude. Contrasting coaching styles, but what actually works in creating a champion?

“The will of the player. I am only the coach, MSN only provides the facilities and infrastructure, and families always give their fullest support; but only the will of player determines his path. That is the mark of a true champion”, Talib truthfully explains. When asked regarding the current coverage that the sports is receiving, it was all smiles. Ever since Sepaktakraw League (STL) was formed to promote sepak takraw on a national level, many new talents have emerged from every state—not forgetting the viewership of over 1 million during its finals. Even kids are now typing in “sepak takraw“ on Youtube and picking up the sport, a similar wave witnessed with badminton during the heydays of the Sidek brothers. Sepak takraw is well on its way of officially becoming an Olympic sport and accepted by the international sporting community.

While our national football team has been garnering a lot of attention paired with harsh criticisms, we wonder if it makes sense for people to pick up takraw instead as a pastime activity. After all, Malaysia has been in the top ranks for years, but it’s a shame that this traditional game is not as popular as football in the grassroots level. Talib explains, “Sepak takraw and football has a lot of similarities, but personally I think takraw is more fun. You don’t need a proper court to play, you can play it with friends of any age, it does not matter. It’s hard for me to explain, but once you try playing takraw, then you’ll understand what I mean”.

Go on, who knows we’ll see you competing in the 2020 Olympics.

Photos by Ahmad Saiful Ahmad Fadzil
Text by Smek Almodhzar

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