In football, it is not uncommon for coaches to be fired within months, sometimes weeks, of failure.
But in badminton? Not often heard of.
Yet it is the very course of action taken by the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA), on the back of what president Lee Yi Shyan acknowledged as a year of “faring poorly” at tournaments like the Li-Ning Singapore Open and the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
The association has parted ways with singles coach Luan Ching and doubles trainer Yoo Yong Sung, both of whose contracts were due to run till the end of the year.
SBA officials confirmed that China native Luan ended his four-year tenure by consensual agreement while Yoo of South Korea resigned from a post he had held for only a year.
“They both made valuable contributions during their stay here,” said Lee at a press conference on Wednesday at the Singapore Sports School. “But we have to move on, so we can continue to raise the standard of the team.”
The man tasked to do so is Liu Qingdong, who will occupy a newly-formed, all-encompassing role as chief coach overseeing singles and doubles players in both the national team and its feeder, the National Intermediate Squad (NIS).
Assisting the 44-year-old in coaching duties are his fellow China-born, naturalised Singaporeans Liu Fan (singles), Jiang Yanmei (doubles) and Ding Chao (NIS).
Liu, formerly the coach of the NIS, has already responded to his promotion by declaring to the media his philosophy of settling for nothing but the very best.
“Every competition, I tell my players: you are going out there to get gold,” he said in Mandarin. “Otherwise, don’t bother.”
The ex-China national youth team captain has his work cut out for him, judging by the recent run of sub-par performances by Singapore’s shuttlers.
They went from five medals at the 2011 SEA Games to just one at the 2013 Games in December, with women’s doubles pair Shinta Mulia Sari and Yao Lei earning a joint-bronze after crashing out in the semi-finals to lower-ranked opposition.
SBA chief Lee, who is also Senior Minister of State in Trade and Industry, pointed out that the latest SEA Games edition had no team events and was thus a “very scaled down version”.
However, earlier in the year, none of 23 Singaporean entries could make it to the quarter-finals of the marquee Singapore Open despite being cheered on by a 30,000-strong home crowd at the Indoor Stadium.
Public outrage over the dismal showing led to SBA assembling a task force in July to undertake a six-month internal review.
Widespread problems were identified, said Lee, in particular a lack of communication and teamwork between players, coaches and management.
The task force’s recommendations, unveiled at the press conference, include a “Distinguished Visitors Programme” to engage world-renowned badminton individuals to critique Singapore’s national setup; a Player’s Individual Training Plan (PITP) to customise training for each shuttler; and most immediately, a new coaching system spearheaded by Liu.
Liu’s appointment was greeted with positivity from some national players, with Yao expressing “confidence” in the former coach in Sichuan’s provincial team.
“I’ve encountered him only once or twice, but he’s very professional,” she said, in Mandarin.
Teen shuttler Yeo Jiamin, 14, shared that over the two years Liu spent in charge of the NIS, he was “meticulous in his methods and constantly sought to improve” the players.
Given his experience with younger talents, Liu, who first arrived in Singapore in 2001 to coach Fu Hua Secondary School, will be expected to blood new players into the senior squad.
Otherwise, the results-oriented trainer has already set targets for the likes of doubles pair Yao and Shinta as well as singles player Gu Juan – it is gold or nothing at the Commonwealth Games in July.
“To aim for the top eight or top four is not enough,” said Liu. “My demand is gold.”
His first litmus test will come as soon as April with the Singapore Open, with more major events such as the Commonwealth Games and September’s Asian Games to follow after.
But Liu’s employers also cautioned that the new arrangement would take time to settle, and Lee declined to set any concrete targets for SBA “too early” on.
The minister, however, offered a personal take on the state of badminton in Singapore.
“In Singapore, more than 150,000 people play badminton, and most are happy to just play and enjoy the game. We want to support that,” said Lee.
“Playing at national level is not the life-long career of many young people (sic), and that itself is a constraint.”
Lee explained that such circumstances result in a “limited pool” of players.
“We very much want to have two to three times the talent depth we have today. If we have another 20 more national players, it will be a lot more competitive and far better,” he said.
“But we accept that as a constraint and we work at making the players the best that they can be. That’s our goal.”