12 August 2017
The 2015 SEA Games Water Polo team
An apt quote sums up the calibre of human being needed to play water polo: a perfect water polo athlete has the accuracy of a baseball pitcher, the vertical of a volleyball player, the toughness of a rugby player, the endurance of a cross-country skier, and the strategy of a chess player.
For Singapore's water polo players, they have to possess an added feature on top of their multiple talents – the ability to handle a nation's expectations of continuing an unbeaten gold medal record at the SEA Games. And the guy who has to steward the team to that goal this year, while playing the sport, is none other than current captain Loh Zhi Zhi.
Here's a little bit of local water polo history: for every edition of the SEA Games since 1965, our men's water polo team has always come out tops. Being a sport that is steeped in glory for Singapore, it came as no surprise that President Tony Tan, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong were seen supporting our team in the spectator stands during the 2015 SEA Games water polo final match. As you can imagine, the atmosphere then at the OCBC Aquatic Centre was abuzz with expectations of national proportions.
Photo credit: Tim Tan
Zhi Zhi, having two SEA Games golds under his belt, handled the pressure from home ground like a champ.
“Our gold medal match was slated to be the final gold medal event of the SEA Games, so there was added pressure. But for us, we were able to focus on the task at hand at that time,” he says.
“Playing for such a long time, I'm not so worried about the overall results, but really playing your best in that moment. It's about learning how to focus on what you can control in that moment rather than worrying too much.”
And the team sure found their focus early on in the match. As if to remind the Indonesians of what they were up against during the gold medal match, Team Singapore drew first blood by scoring within 30 seconds of the game. This sparked off a nail-biting series of goals where the Indonesians played catch-up with the hosts, keeping spectators at the edge of their seats. Zhi Zhi contributed two out of the total 15 goals, the second of which was an unstoppable long range stunner.
The hosts upped the quality of their finishes and pulled away to a respectable lead. They even managed an impressive last-gasp 15th goal during the dying seconds of the last quarter, much to the delight of the home crowd. At the final whistle with the score at 15-10 to Singapore, the crowd's count down escalated into an all-out thunderous roar, with our players on the bench dunking coach Lee Sai Meng jubilantly into the pool to celebrate.
Singapore's 26th consecutive water polo winning streak was successfully defended on home ground, putting the cherry on the cake on a record-breaking SEA Games medal haul for Singapore.
A natural progression that went swimmingly well
Zhi Zhi earned his stripes as a swimmer early on in his life. Together with his two sisters, he was put into the competitive swimming circuit by his parents in primary school. Wanting to find another challenge, he tried his hand at water polo in secondary school and never looked back ever since.
“It is fun to execute nice plays, score nice goals, defend and play well as a team. All these are fun and always have been,” he says.
The change in co-curricular activity didn't sit well with Zhi Zhi's mother at the beginning. “My mum was quite against it at that time when I came over. She felt that I shouldn't switch over to water polo as I've been swimming for so long already.'” His father, however, was very supportive, and his mother eventually came round to join the family in supporting Zhi Zhi's water polo career. Apart from making sacrifices and joining him overseas to watch his games, the Loh household also makes sure he has a warm meal to come home to, as his training sees him frequently returning home late at night.
The rigours of being a national water polo player, however, meant that the 27-year old skipper would frequently miss out on family commitments, such as celebrations. The consolation is, he's not alone when experiencing this. “All of us see the sacrifices that each of us (in the team) makes. The tougher ones are when you miss occasions with your family. In a team sport (like water polo), we see that a lot.”
One more sacrifice he's made for water polo: forgoing a university offer to Switzerland and an overseas scholarship to Italy. But he has coped with his decision to stay, saying that water polo wasn't the only reason why he chose to remain in Singapore. He consequently pursued a double degree in Business and Economics on home soil.
To the outsider, it might seem like overkill to forego so much in life for a sport. But bearing in mind that water polo is ultimately a full contact game that requires strong swimming skills, treading water in different positions, jumping in water, accurate passing and shooting, and masterful team tactics, it makes sense that excelling in water polo at a high level does necessitate a huge time investment.
According to Zhi Zhi, players have to cover many areas within their training, so sessions are often challenging, high intensity affairs. Things reached a painful stage for Zhi Zhi in 2009. He was working towards making a SEA Games debut in the 2009 training squad, but a partial tear in his shoulder that year cost him a place in the team. Not knowing if he had to go for surgery or continue playing and having to work throughout the healing period made that year one of his toughest points in time.
Looking back, Zhi Zhi sees it as a learning experience to share with his juniors. “There's no rush to try to get back because you can still have a long career ahead of you. Really learning to manage that, the injury, and recover well from it and not let it affect your future, is important.”
Today, Zhi Zhi works as a data analyst at Bloomberg and has nurtured a bright future for himself and his water polo career. Looking back on how far he has come since his days as a young swimmer, his SEA Games result this year will certainly be a culmination of his extensive aquatic experience chalked up over the years. The duty of stewarding our men's water polo team to greater heights couldn't be in more capable hands.
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Teaming up to meet great expectations: Loh Zhi Zhi
“I want to do well, be the best player I can be, and the best leader I can be in getting the team to perform and be together. “
– Loh Zhi Zhi
Players in Team Singapore water polo have great expectations heaped onto them. And they too, have great ambitions to match. Not wanting to rest on the laurels of their regional dominance, their ultimate goal is to finish fourth at next year's Asian Games.
To help them achieve that goal, they have teamed up with a number of talented professionals who are among the best in their fields.
And new head coach Dejan Milakovic is definitely one of them. Taking up his role in February this year, Milakovic's credentials are as astounding as they come. He was formerly the coach of Serbia's national youth and 'B' teams and represented the former Yugoslavia in his younger days. He had also played in the Serbian Water Polo League A, the highest level of men's water polo in his country. Serbia is considered a powerhouse in water polo – their national men's water polo team are at the top of their game, having won an Olympic Gold last year in Rio.
For Zhi Zhi and his team, adjusting to their new coach and his new style of training is still ongoing. Since coach Milakovic's arrival, the team has stepped up their preparations and have added two extra morning sessions to their weekly schedule. Milakovic's professionalism was also very apparent to the team, as he would take the extra step of asking the players if they have any injuries, encouraging injured individuals to attend more therapy sessions at the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) and getting their problems checked up.
The 2017 SEA Games Water Polo Team
The team have also utilised the sports science services offered by SSI to better their performance in the pool. One of these novel approaches conducted by SSI sports scientists were caffeine tests to help analyse the effect of caffeine on the concentration of players during the game. The diet and recovery process of players are also well taken care of by SSI to ensure they have everything they need to excel in a sport that requires a high level of fitness to play.
But the Herculean task of balancing work or school and competing in water polo are unavoidable. The current men's water polo team will see many up-and-coming players making their Games debut this year as their senior counterparts had left after 2015.
Says Zhi Zhi on this, “Many times, players quit the sport not because they're not good anymore, or that they've reached the end of their career, but because they cannot cope with the demands of the sport.”
In more cases than one, once players graduate from university, they find themselves at a fork in the road – having to decide between continuing their sport or focussing their energies on their career. Zhi Zhi hopes by improving player retention, this dilemma can be reduced.
“We have been trying to create a mentoring culture in the team, helping each other with certain skills, and supporting each other out of the pool. This is something that we have been trying to do in the past one to two years to help the younger ones come up. We are doing this not just for the sake of keeping them in the team, but letting them know that we care for each other in all aspects.”
To help him with this task, Zhi Zhi has his team manager and seniors guiding him and the players behind the scenes. “We have become more open with the team manager, and players talk to him directly about the challenges they face outside the pool. I get to discuss some of those things quite often with the team manager as well.”
With all the supporting elements in play, a structured mentor-mentee system in the team was implemented with players grouped into junior-senior pairs, according to the position they play. By getting the pairs to share with each other, reflecting on points that the juniors feel they need improvement on, Zhi Zhi hopes the cordial and open mentoring environment will foster better communication and support within the team.
With such an arrangement, it is clear to see that Zhi Zhi takes his role as captain very seriously. And it is the giving back to the sport that keeps him motivated to do more. “The team is sort of a second family to me. We know each other for so many years, so wanting to see the next generation do as well – these things play a part in keeping me going.”
With coach Milakovic confident that Singapore can succeed in the Asian Games and having a solid support system buoying up player motivation and retention, the stage is set for Singapore water polo to reach for the stars. “Our goal is always to achieve something at the Asia level. We've seen improvement and we definitely want to see water polo come up to the next level,” says the determined skipper.
In a few days, Singapore's new water polo team will be put to the test. Zhi Zhi and the rest will be looking to bring their 'A' game to Kuala Lumpur to demonstrate why they are Southeast-Asia's undefeated water polo powerhouse, as well as rising contenders at the Asian level.
Strengthen the Legacy
Our nation's undisputed kings of water polo want nothing more than to edge out the competition and defend their winning streak for Singapore! Be there to cheer our boys on and experience each exciting pass, throw and goal!
Click to find out two ways you can show your support for Zhi Zhi and team AND stand a chance to witness the sporting action LIVE in the spectator stands!