We can all agree that the number one sport every Malaysian has played at least once in our lives is badminton. It is the national sport of Malaysia after all.
Whether it is playing with your family while casually using your gate at home as the 'net' in between or playing in school as an extra-curricular activity, we’ve all tried our hands at copying the moves of Dato’ Lee Chong Wei.
But if you think it is easy to become a professional badminton player just because it is a game we are so familiar with, think again.
As one of the top countries in the world for this sport, getting into the national badminton team is no walk in the park (or court).
Getting into the national badminton team
Many national players start playing the sport at a very young age, some of them even begin intensive training at 12 years old.
The Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) takes the selection process very seriously so one needs to be more than just ‘good at badminton’ to join the national team.
The association expects the aspiring player to already be an advanced player before joining them. That means they should start by winning smaller tournaments within their districts to earn brownie points.
The next step is to watch out for the national tryouts because one can’t just be sitting at home and waiting for the official scouts or coaches to come to them.
And one must be as young as possible to even stand a chance to try out for the national team, preferably latest by the age of 20. So if you are serious about developing a career in badminton, don’t wait until you’re done with college or university before you make a decision!
At the try outs, it is crucial for one to be very fit. You must have good stamina and be able to move relatively faster on court than regular recreational players to set you apart from the rest.
When one successfully gets absorbed into the national team, this is when the real work begins. However, don’t even think that it is the place for you to learn your badminton skills all over again.
According to Master Badminton
, the players are expected to already possess the basic skills because the national team’s daily training would be to improve their fitness, accuracy and tactics.
So, looking at the whole process involved just to get into the national badminton team in Malaysia, it is extremely tough and competitive. Due to this, it becomes even more difficult for potential talents living in smaller districts to get noticed.
Beginning of a new sporting era
Five years ago, Astro through its corporate responsibility arm, Astro Kasih decided to make a commitment to unearth and train young badminton talents under the Astro Kem Badminton (AKB) programme.
The programme has touched the lives of more than 11,500 junior shuttlers between ages 10 to12 since its inception in 2012, holding selection camps nationwide, organising national tournaments and more excitingly, partnering with international badminton associations for the young participants to train overseas in the Overseas Intensive Training programme.
Over the years, AKB has travelled to Japan to expose the young shuttlers to an international training environment with hopes to develop future badminton champions.
These up-and-coming young badminton players got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hone their skills and pick up new ones under a team of national coaches from Japan.
The strategic partnership between AKB and Japan’s Nippon Badminton Association (NBA) which began in 2014 has produced tremendous results.
A total of 71 per cent out of the total allocation for badminton students at the Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS) were participants from AKB, while 83 per cent out of the total allocation for Malaysian badminton students at the Singapore National Sports School were participants from this programme as well.
Due to this success, Astro has decided to extend the partnership with NBA (not the basketball association) by another three years, which is the perfect timeline for sports development leading up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Road to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
“We fundamentally believe that sport is a critical part of any kid’s development because it teaches them discipline as an individual,” Group Chief Executive Officer of Astro Dato’ Rohana Rozhan said.
“It is that personal development, striving for a competitive spirit and in addition to that, it also teaches them teamwork.”
Rohana also pointed out that it is important to catch a child before they turn 14 because that is a pivotal age for them. That’s why AKB decided to focus on children aged between 10 and 12.
Earlier this month, the team brought 27 participants from Malaysia and two from Indonesia to Japan for a two-week Overseas Intensive Training programme at the National Training Centre of Japan.
This was a great eye-opener for many of them who rarely had to the chance to meet international players and coaches, let alone travel to another country.
“Children need to be exposed from a very young age so that they don’t see differences in their competition but they actually start seeing similarities instead,” Rohana added.
“They’ll meet kids in Japan, China or Indonesia and find that they’re all similar – they all have the same aspirations and weaknesses that they can work together and address.”
The junior shuttlers were also joined by AKB head coaches Lee Wan Wah and Chan Chong Ming, as well as two AKB alumni, Jacky Kok and Myisha Khairul who were there as mentors.
Fifteen-year-old Jacky and Myisha were both selected for the Young Leadership programme to experience the responsibility of coaches by leading a team of young participants.
Training with the Japanese spirit
The difference about training in Japan is that the players where focus not only on skills but also physical fitness, sportsmanship, discipline and nutrition to enhance each player’s performance.
These elements are some of the things that AKB hopes to implement during the selection camps and training programmes in Malaysia as well.
“We don’t have time to implement the same training. But we have started to implement this during the second year, focusing more on physical fitness during the six-day intensive camp before coming to Japan,” Coach Lee Wan Wah shared.
“I always give this advice during the selection camps, we tell them to be ready for their physical fitness because the physical training here is very tough.”
How tough is it exactly? Since the sport is highly dependent on the player’s footwork on court, a good badminton player has to be quick on their feet.
In Japan, the junior players had to train by running 30 rounds for a total distance of 12km and seven reps of a 192-step staircase climb. And they do this every single day for the entire two weeks!
Future national shuttlers
Needless to say, our young Malaysian participants were in a little bit of a culture shock at the beginning. But they were able to complete the full training successfully.
“Being chosen to train in Japan by its national coaches is a dream come true. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has been very humbling for me and I aim to train harder to be recognised as a world-class shuttler,” 12-year-old Muhammad Nurhakim Sangidon from Johor shared.
Dania Sofea Binti Zaidi, 10-year-old participant from Johor said that she was quite nervous going out of the country alone without her family members by her side, but she doesn’t mind coming back for a longer training session in the future.
“The physical training and footwork here are very tough. But I hope we will be better back home,” she said.
It was also 11-year-old Muhammad Arif Jun Ket’s first time overseas, an experience that was larger than life for him.
“I’m very excited because you don’t get opportunities like this a lot, especially coming to this Olympic training location,” said the young lad from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Continue to develop badminton from grassroot level
Moving forward, AKB is not going to be just a one-off event because the programme aspires to be building blocks to establish a solid talent pipeline and future shuttlers for Malaysia.
“The whole idea is it will evolve over time but it is also important that we have an ambition to put through a long term, sustainable ecosystem and pipeline for future talent in sports, and to inculcate the sporting spirit among the youth,” Rohana said.
Although it would be ideal to build the next badminton champions for the region, AKB was not designed for this single purpose alone.
“We are particularly proud of the kids because we find that when they go out and see other cultures, they become extremely confident and vocal, they start coming out of their shells. That is the most heartwarming part,” she added.
AKB is a collaboration among Astro Kasih, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Youth & Sports, Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM), Nippon Badminton Association (NBA) and Persatuan Bulutangkis Seluruh Indonesia.
Next year, AKB will be organising a national and regional tournament, of which the Astro Badminton Junior League will be open to Malaysian clubs.
From this tournament, the champion and first runner-up will qualify for the Astro Badminton ASEAN Junior League. This league will then see 12 under-15 teams from the region competing in the round robin league.
It's time to bring back the glory days of Malaysian sports. Let's make this our 2020 vision and mision!