by Alex Tan (16S03B), Karen Cuison (16A01D), Rachel Lim (16A01E)
To every batch of soccer girls, coach Mr Leong Chee Mun tells the same story that has almost attained the status of a glowing myth, lodged in their collective narrative. In the past, when he was teacher-mentor of the Outdoor Adventure Club (ODAC), which met twice a week, Mr Leong and Mr Tan, formerly a PE teacher, would use the time they had on the other weekdays to join the soccer girls for training.
On one of their regular sessions, they discovered that the Soccer Girls, who were then not allowed on the main field, were not where they usually were: they had been doubly displaced, displaced from the second field by the soccer boys (who were displaced from the main field by the rugby boys) and had to train at Bishan Park. So Mr Leong, in a spirit of stirred rectitude, decided to request for mentorship of the soccer girls in order to establish for them a structured training program with proper grounds and equipment, to ‘do something for them’, and the rest is history.
‘The only thing I did,’ states Mr Leong by way of summary, ‘was to find a permanent place for the girls to train where they don’t get chased about. Every CCA must be given the minimum entitlement of time and space to train; they cannot be deprived.’
This founding myth is recounted to us matter-of-factly by the man himself, and is echoed by captain Goh Ming Wei,whose voice brims with the affectionate fondness one would speak of a close friend, or a father. ‘The hardest thing for me as a soccer member… is when Mr Leong tells us to study and we have to leave the field,’ she confesses in an endearing near-whisper. Her passion for the sport shines through.
‘Aiya, Mr Leong is the best la,’ she adds with a chuckle, ‘But I’m biased. You can’t ask any of the Soccer Girls. We’re all biased.’
When one speaks of a fledgling sports team close to home that regularly outperforms its competitors, the Raffles Soccer Girls are one of the first to pop to mind. But trophies and accolades alone certainly aren’t the girls’ only, or even their greatest, claim to fame amongst Rafflesians. Instead, the team is widely known for being incredibly bonded as team mates on the pitch and friends off, brought together by an unwavering love for the game and a very encouraging coach, who is passionate, obsessed with the game and also happens to be an avid triathlete and member of the Singapore Everest Team.
Prior to their two-year stints on the team in Year 5-6, few were soccer enthusiasts, much less active players of any sport. ‘Many of us started as beginners, and most of us weren’t even from sports CCAs in secondary school,’ says Ming Wei. Being unfamiliar with the rigour required in a sports CCA, many were initially uncertain about what they could, or should, expect from soccer. Some had never run more than 6 rounds in their entire lives, quite a far cry from the 10 rounds they now have to run every week in the first 3 months of their soccer journey.
A glass-half-full type of person, Mr Leong happily states the positives of the girls’ beginner status. Compared to many other sports CCAs which welcome an arrival of talents from sports appeal and Direct School Admission (DSA), there is less pressure on the soccer girls to achieve in terms of medals, allowing Mr Leong much more autonomy over how he designs the soccer girls programme.
‘When I meet the girls for the first time, I always tell them, “I want you to become the best CCA in Raffles”,’ says Mr Leong. Yet his vision of a ‘best CCA’ is not measured out in medals and victories, but in terms of ‘how you carry yourself as a CCA’. Soccer Girls is more than a sport, a CCA; it is a philosophy, a way of life by which its members are identified, a consistent dignity pervading their behaviour on and off the field.
Translated into practice, this philosophy replicates the ‘Messiah Method’ (the 7 Disciplines adopted by the Messiah College soccer program from America). Visibly pinned to their notice board and purposefully reinforced during training, this method has no doubt been infused into the Soccer Girls’ consciousness, woven into their creed. The list of seven disciplines, complete with incisive tenets such as ‘Winning: Never the purpose but always the point’, ‘Success begins by redefining it’, ‘Friends first, soccer players second’ and ‘Forced family fun’, captures the importance of not letting winning define them. The Soccer Girls, however, cannot just ‘try’ their best, they must give it. Losing a high-stakes game is inevitably disappointing, but Mr Leong exhorts his girls to remember where they started.
‘Lose never mind, but must win’ is one of Mr Leong’s favourite maxims, which Ming Wei repeats with conviction. This paradox perhaps accounts for why Mr Leong can be upset even when the Soccer Girls win. “It’s not just about winning; it’s about performance – do you let yourself down? They must walk away with no regrets, knowing they have given their best,’ Mr Leong explains. ‘Confusing or not?’ he cheekily follows, as if this incomprehensible riddle has already bamboozled generations of Soccer Girls.
But surely they grasp it eventually, by putting it into practice and living it. This philosophy, coupled with the constant level of physical intensity, has united the Soccer Girls and, in Mr Leong’s words, built a family before building a soccer team. That the Soccer Girls started out inexperienced and alien to the mechanics of soccer makes it all the more fascinating that they have warmed to the game so comfortably. Others looking to foster a feeling of profound connection might take a leaf or two from Mr Leong’s book: ‘PT (physical training) is the best way to bond!’
‘Many of the girls are actually very talented. They don’t come from sports CCAs, and they don’t realise the potential in themselves,’ Mr Leong says. ‘Once they’re given the opportunity, they realise they can do a lot of things. And this will be good for them. I will tell them: Carry the lesson with you. Anything in life can be done – just have the desire and belief.’
Whereas the Soccer Girls used to be hantam-ed by Victoria Junior College (VJC), one of their fiercest rivals, they are now able to persist in holding out against them for much longer, losing by a narrow margin of 1-0, representing a world of a difference from their 10-0 losses in the past. For Mr Leong, this demonstrates that the girls’ mental states are key, that belief is essential.
In fact, the word ‘believe’ is printed on the Soccer Girls’ jerseys every year. With a careful, focused and almost scientific attention to language, Mr Leong deliberately uses the same words to cultivate an identity in precise detail, the common catchword that runs like a thread through all the batches. The philosophies, like a set of traditions, remain the same across batches. The accomplishments of each batch pave the way for future successes, like a path continually extended as every successive batch goes where their predecessors have not.
The Soccer Girls, too, are not foreign to a matrix of rituals put in place to strengthen their bonds. Senior batches are encouraged to organize pizza parties and barbecues for their juniors, and award ceremonies reward the player who has invested the most effort and the player who has improved the most.
Having been through exceedingly tough training sessions together, pushed themselves to their limits and seen one another through every challenge, the Soccer Girls have decidedly fostered a common sense of grit and tenacity. In exchange for their dedication, Mr Leong promises the Soccer Girls a place in the team. ‘I will not kick a Year 6 out because I have a better Year 5,’ he says. ‘By the time they come to National Schools, they would have played about 15-20 friendly games; That’s why they are in a soccer team: to play and enjoy the game’
Regrettably, despite Mr Leong’s best efforts, not every player gets the opportunity to play every game in the A Division tournament. But ‘they really care for the team’, as Mr Leong is at pains to emphasise. Many prioritise the team’s overall interests and have volunteered to give up their spots in favour of a more skilled player. Their faith, hard work and willingness to commit make the Soccer Girls as much Mr Leong’s source of motivation as he is theirs.
Perhaps what is most impressive about the Soccer Girls ethic is how intricately it is fashioned into a life, an ever-growing family tree. The girls’ journeys are likened by Mr Leong to their progress through life. Each batch’s first match is as momentous as ‘watching your baby walk for the first time’, and the first National Schools game is akin to sending them off for their first day in school. Mr Leong keeps in touch with every batch through Facebook, and ceremonially ‘awakens the ancestors’ every year when national schools season starts . ‘I will awaken you next year!’ Mr Leong reassures them at the end of each season.
We asked Mr Leong what is likely to make him smile when he looks back on his career as a coach, 10 years later. ‘I’m smiling already!’ he reveals with the satisfaction of an aged father, from a perspective of distance, retrospectively looking back upon the manifold accomplishments of his children, the beautiful lives he has helped bring into fruition. The present is a happily ever after.