SINGAPORE: “I always aim to annihilate the opposition.”
Those were the words of the late Kobe Bryant, an NBA legend and one of the fiercest competitors the world had ever seen.
The sentence sounds harsh, perhaps even wrong, but when taken in the context of the “Mamba Mentality” he coined, it fits seamlessly into the gladiatorial ethos of the sportsman.
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On at least one level, you can imagine Kobe nodding his head at the Singapore Sports School (SSP) B Division boys who thumped the Assumption Pathway School (APS) 32-0 in the National School Games football competition two weeks ago.
KOBE’S MAMBA MENTALITY
The Mamba Mentality was about winning at all cost, not in the sense of cheating or cutting corners, but paying more than just your dues in terms of preparation and commitment to training, then executing every move honed when you step out onto the sporting arena.
With this mentality, Kobe’s teams would respect opponents enough to work harder than they did, then show the same respect in the sporting arena by giving nothing less than their best.
The SSP boys did just that, but their massive win has divided opinion in the sporting fraternity in Singapore.
SPORTS A VEHICLE FOR VALUES
Some believe SSP should have taken their foot off the pedal, especially after they were reportedly 20-0 up at half-time. Other critics assert that the SSP coaching staff should get sacked for allowing their better-resourced, better-trained kids to run wild and humiliate their opposition.
I wonder if that is the best approach.
Such moves would tell the winning team that it is okay to toy with your opposition, and for the losing side, that there will always be a stop-gap measure to save you when things go horribly wrong.
Both are poor lessons to impart, and what is sport if not a vehicle for life values, especially at this - a school-level competition?
A SYSTEMIC GULF
The word from the grapevine is that SSP did not play with their preferred first eleven, and even set conditions before players were allowed to take shots on goal.
READ: Commentary: Why success should not be the only factor in deciding what is Singapore’s national sport
It also was reported that the SSP players applauded their opponents, with coach Isa Halim addressing the APS players after the game, praising their fighting spirit.
That was a decent show of sportsmanship from SSP that has in place a football programme that has produced several national players such as Safuwan Baharudin.
Under the programme, their students train up to six times a week, and test themselves against some of the best academies across the world - as close as it gets to living and breathing football in the Singapore school system.
APS is a specialised educational institution aimed at transforming and empowering students who are unable to access or complete secondary education to help them achieve personal success.
Football is understandably not a dedicated focus for the school that just last year, lost 20-0 to Marsiling Secondary School.
Why then are these two schools, worlds apart in their approach to sport, facing each other in a match where there are seemingly few benefits on offer for everyone involved?
KID-FIRST APPROACH EXISTS
Before Kobe’s tragic death in the helicopter crash that also claimed the life of his daughter Gianna and seven others, the LA Lakers legend had rekindled his love for basketball - through coaching 13-year-old Gianna and her team.
Despite the monastic approach of his Mamba method that saw him rise at 4am so he could train up to four times a day, Kobe’s approach to coaching was a tad different. It was aimed at providing kids a foundation to help them understand the amount of work and preparation that it takes to be excellent - if it was what they wanted to do.
He called for parents “to put the kid first, not the sport”.
To its credit, the Ministry of Education has already moved to implement a more kid-first approach in its National Schools Games, with a tiered competition format that is designed for schools of a similar level to play against each other - once the competition progresses past the preliminary rounds.
This is in stark contrast to the zonal system of earlier decades where schools were grouped by location, and those unfortunate to be in the same vicinity as traditional powerhouses could find themselves booted out of the tournament after just three games.
In its current format, football sees a five-tiered system that provides schools opportunities to give their students more matches, more game time, and against opponents they are likely to be competitive against.
The system could possibly be tweaked even further to prevent such big scores in the preliminary round.
HARD LESSONS ARE HARDLY BAD LESSONS
Or perhaps there could just be a management of the different and sometimes difficult lessons that can actually be drawn from situations of a gross mismatch as was the case between SSP and ASP.
SSP played to the best of their ability - the greatest respect an athlete can give an opponent - against a team not ready to handle their on-field prowess, then showed heart-warming sportsmanship at the end of the game.
And by all accounts, APS matched SSP’s respect for the sport and the sporting arena, by doing their best and not allowing the game to descend into frustrated cheap shots known to occur in amateur league matches here.
Nor did they throw in the towel and walk off the pitch at some point in the game – which would have been tempting for a team of teenagers to do rather than face a more humiliating result – and instead courageously played till the end. That tenacity deserves applause.
The APS footballers would have now seen just how far they are away from being a top school-level team, and hopefully acknowledge the work that needs to be put in, if they want to aim for football excellence.
It is with this knowledge that they will now go into the next stage of the tiered league format competition - a hard lesson, but hardly a bad lesson to learn.
It may not be perfect, but it has shown - in this case at least - that with the right approach, even within its systemic limitations, school sports can still deliver values and maybe even sow the seeds for Singapore to grow little Mambas of our own.
Perhaps we should calm down, let the kids learn for themselves exactly what is required for sporting excellence and annihilate every opponent put in front of them - or at least try to - that is the essence of sport, no?
Shamir Osman was a former sports journalist for 12 years before crossing the aisle to work in public relations.