Coach Eng Hian: From Olympic player to Olympic Coach
Indonesia’s coach Eng Hian has had an amazing year. His two women’s doubles players, Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu recently became Olympic gold medalists at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. It was an incredible achievement that made the whole nation proud. Eng Hian himself is familiar with this success as he is also an Olympic medalist, winning bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games with his former men’s doubles partner, Flandy Limpele. Now a coach, he’s used that experience to help train and develop his players.
This week, Badminton Asia had the privilege to interview Eng Hian himself as he shares with us details on coaching journey, his relationship with Greysia and Apriyani, their preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, and his goals and expectations for himself and for the sport.
Below is the edited translated version of the interview:
Before becoming a Coach, you were a badminton player. How was the journey to becoming a coach -- how was the process of transitioning from player to coach?
I was an athlete until 2006. The last achievement I had would be the Athens 2004 Olympic bronze medal for men’s doubles. In 2006, I already started to learn how to coach at PB Djarum badminton club, but I still played as well, just not full-time as an athlete. In 2007, I received an offer to coach the Singapore national team, from 2007 - 2013 for about 6 years. In 2013, I returned and I created my own academy called the Eng Hian Badminton Academy which still operates until now. In 2014, I received an offer to coach the women’s doubles team in the Indonesia national team, until now.
Who have you coached over the years?
In Singapore, I was the head coach for the women’s, men’s, and mixed doubles teams in the Singapore National Team, including the junior team. In 2008, I helped lead the Singaporean women’s doubles junior team to win the World Junior Championships -- which is the first in Singapore’s badminton history. In 2010, I helped lead the women’s doubles team to win a tournament on the Super Series level for the first time. There were other tournaments as well such as the Commonwealth Games, SEA Games, and more BWF tournaments.
From those achievements, in 2014, the Indonesian National Badminton Federation (PBSI) recruited me because they hadn’t won anything in women’s doubles, from juniors to level 500 and above. So in 2014 March, I joined PBSI and then in August the women’s doubles team in Indonesia won at the Asian Games, after more than 30 years or so. This was Greysia Polii and Nitya Maheswari. Since then, they started winning at the 500 level, became finalists in Indonesia Open, and eventually became winners on the World Stage. Unfortunately, in 2017, Nitya got an injury and even after recovery she wasn’t able to return so then we transitioned to Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu. They’ve been together since then until now.
During the transition period, were you involved in selecting who Greysia was going to be partnering with?
Yes, of course. Because in 2014 I was the coach of the women’s doubles team, and I was the one who had to make the decision.
Greysia and Apriyani and the Road to the Olympics
How did you pair Greysia and Apriyani together?
After the 2016 Olympics, Nitya’s condition of her injury worsened, so I had to have more initiative to find a new partner for Greysia, as Nitya went through therapy and surgery. Greysia changed partners 2-3 times before she was with Apriyani in May 2017. I had to look at their individual ability and also each person’s character, which was what made me confident in pairing Greysia and Apriyani together even though there was an age difference between them. I saw that Apriyani is an easy-going person. She doesn’t take things personally. Even if you nag at her, she takes it easy in comparison to other player’s whom I’ve paired Greysia with. Sometimes, they would get stressed and such. Partnering with someone much older isn’t easy and sometimes someone who is your senior tends to be considered as “always right”. Before everything else, Apriyani needed great mental strength to be able to work and communicate with a senior.
What are Greysia and Apriyani’s characters like as players?
Greysia is more senior, in terms of age and experience. Looking back it was only in 2014, when we needed to work a lot to shape her commitment, character, and her discipline. As time progressed, in 2016-2017 everything had been more consistent. Since then, for Greysia, we don’t work too much on the non-technical aspect. Her commitment is solid already.
As for Apriyani, she’s still young. In terms of character and commitment, this is what I have to train. But she’s a person with a strong will and it makes the difference. Firstly, in her day to day character, she never wants to lose. In her everyday training, from the easiest things, like running, she doesn’t want to lose. In 2016 when she joined, I saw that she was never absent and it showed her commitment and willingness. This is a huge reason why her growth is so significant compared to other players. From her consistency in training, you can see how different she is already from the other players. Their characters, in terms of wanting to be winners, are so strong in both of them. So when they were first paired, Greysia was already solid but there was still quite a lot to work on with Apriyani.
It goes back to the fact that these two want to be winners. But something that does become an issue is when athletes reach their high peak, they get carried away. But the case is different with these two who never feel satisfied. They never give up. In the past, especially in 2019 before the Olympics, their performance was low and people gave terrible comments saying things such as there’s no more chance for them -- but for them, it’s a challenge that they always have to be committed to because the Olympics was still the target.
Can you tell us about the training process for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?
For the training process for the Olympics, we often discussed together and shared our experiences, such as my experiences at the Sydney and Athens Olympics, and also Greysia’s experience in the previous 2 Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro. We always shared and listened to each other. In terms of preparation, most of it was non-technical matters for them. About 70% was around how we can prepare them mentally for the Olympics.
In the Olympics, we want to be the best but the hardest thing is to handle our own expectations. If we can’t control it, then we can’t sleep or eat well. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to the technical aspect. It’s my job to help them with their technical and physical aspects. But for non-technical stuff, like mental preparation for the Olympics, for 8 months, we discussed it with a psychologist. We also combined it with nutritionists, sports science and more.
For the psychology sessions, it began with a one-on-one session with Greysia, Apriyani and myself. Firstly, I discussed what kind of preparations I wanted with the psychologist. Then they give me advice and their reports on Greysia and Apriyani every week for me to work on. For Greysia and Apriyani, the psychologist's sessions helped them to individually open up their thoughts and feelings about each other, especially on court communication. Then after 4 months, they had a joint session with the psychologist.
What messages or advice did you give to Greysia and Apriyani before and during the Olympics?
If we’re talking about giving specific advice, we already talked to each other everyday even far before the Olympics. I mentioned how the Olympics is the biggest honor but also making sure that this experience wouldn’t be a burden for them. Because for me and Greysia, we already understand this (from our previous experience). For us, we focus more on enjoying the game. We don’t think about medals or what happens if we win or lose as it’s something we already talk about with the psychologist. We use positive language every day. Too many expectations are already not something positive so now we’re more focused on being relaxed. We also got some help from the junior players. When they train, sometimes the junior players are also there to give them support. This is a program we created so there’s a positive aura that doesn’t become a burden.
Maybe for some people it’s weird, but every morning Greysia and Apriyani look into the mirror and say ‘I can defeat *say whichever player’s name*’, a form of self-affirmation. In the mirror, they have a list of names of their competitors that they look at every day.
During the 8 months of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics preparation, have you ever mentioned the goal of winning gold medals?
No. The thing we mention is how those two can make history as an Indonesian women’s doubles pair, that’s it. We didn’t specifically say which medal ‘color’.
Future Projections and Plans
The Greysia/Apriyani gold medal at this Olympics is the first gold medal in the Indonesian women's doubles event -- according to you, with this victory, what are the future projections for Indonesian women's doubles achievements?
From what I’ve seen, ever since we’ve been back from the Olympics, there's been a different aura with the women’s doubles pairs. Based on what I’ve seen is that they’re more confident, and this doesn’t mean that they’ve become arrogant, no, but more confident in the training programs.
One of the weaknesses of the women’s doubles pairs is that they aren’t sure of what they will achieve in their women’s doubles pairings from their training. And now that they've seen what their seniors had done, they said to themselves ‘Wow, I guess we can do this too, coach’. This is what they had to convince themselves that they could do. And this is shown in their training. For me, I see them every day and I can see how the quality is so different. We hope that with this momentum we can be like Japan, when in 2016 they won the gold medal and their momentum was used by their juniors. They’re more confident and they know their goals and targets and their training.
What are the next plans/targets for you and for the Greysia/Apriyani pair?
Yes, there’s the World Championships in Spain in December. This is still an achievement in which we want to do better than before. All this time we’ve just been semi-finalists, so hopefully this year will be better, that’s our target.
How is your relationship with former partner Flandy Limpele who currently coaches a competitor country?
Our personal relationship has always been good. Even before we were partners we were already close. Since we’d been partners we still talk to each other and have a good relationship. In terms of him being in Malaysia and me in Indonesia, there’s no problem because we work in different sectors; I coach women’s doubles, he coaches men’s doubles. Even if we went up against each other, it wouldn’t be a problem because we are professionals. There are things that happen on the court and then off the court we have coffee with each other!
How do you feel about other Indonesian coaches coaching other countries?
Everyone wants to coach in their own country. However, the number of coaches on the national team is limited. We still need to take care of our own livelihoods, earn money for the family, and more. For me, coaches can work anywhere because again, the opportunity to coach the national team is limited so if we meet on the court and they are coaching a different country, it’s fine because it is our job. We have our needs and our jobs that we need to fulfill within our capacities.
What are your expectations for the Sudirman Cup and Thomas Cup & Uber Cup?
For the Sudirman Cup, we hope that we can win it because looking at the composition of players, there’s hope. For the Thomas Cup, it’s the same. This year we have the best composition of players. In the doubles section, there’s one or two where there’s a huge chance that we can get 2 points, and we just have to try to get the 1 point. And in the singles, we are also strong. I feel like the opportunity is big in the Thomas Cup. For the Uber cup, we still need to continue to work hard because only Greysia and Apriyani have been stable while the rest are younger players. So to win we have to work hard to win the Uber Cup.