What do you do when you want to win an Olympic medal? Or in the case of Malaysia’s Cheah Liek Hou, a Paralympic medal. You team up with someone who has achieved that feat as a player and a coach – Rashid Sidek.
No stranger to medals and trophies, Rashid helped Malaysia lift the 1992 Thomas Cup and won the men’s singles bronze at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, subsequently topping the world ranking in 1997.
At the London 2012 Olympics, Rashid sat in the coach’s chair as Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei took on China’s Lin Dan in the final.
Cheah too, is a top ranked player in his category, currently second in Standing Upper (SU5) men’s singles, with 11 singles and doubles world titles to his name.
After getting off to a slightly sluggish start in 2019, and seeing the rise of younger, more agile players such as Indonesia’s Suryo Nugroho and world No.1 Dheva Anrimusthi, the 32-year-old turned to Rashid.
“I needed to change his style to suit a singles game because Cheah was a doubles specialist,” said Rashid.
Within a few months, Cheah’s improved physique and performance were hard to miss. Although he lost to Anrimusthi in the TOTAL BWF Para Badminton World Championships semifinals in August 2019, he went on to win the HULIC Daihatsu Japan Para Badminton International in November by beating Nugroho.
In February 2020, after five losses to Anrimusthi, Cheah defeated the 22-year-old Indonesian at the Brazil Para Badminton International.
Then the world was hit by a global pandemic. Tournaments were cancelled, countries enforced lockdowns and the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed.
When the lockdown was eased in Malaysia, Cheah joined the national shuttlers in training. Throughout June, he will endure six-day weeks comprising more than 20 hours of on-court drills and gym workouts each week but Rashid is confident his charge will take it all in his stride.
“He’s disciplined. Coaching is much easier when the player is aware of his target and goals,” said Rashid, who has no reason to doubt that gold is within Cheah’s reach in Tokyo next year.
The duo on the effects of the lockdown.
Q: What was Cheah’s condition upon returning to training?
Rashid: Different from before but we are slowly working to build up his fitness level and polish his skills. Since there is no news yet of tournaments, I don’t think there is a need to put too much pressure. What’s important is to make sure he is physically fit and free from injury.
Cheah: I lost about 8kg so that’s good. There was some lethargy because my sleeping hours changed but I’m highly motivated to get going. As we don’t have any tournaments, I have time to work on my fitness and avoid injury.
Q: What are some of the positives and negatives of being away from competition?
Rashid: For Cheah, it’s a disadvantage because before the lockdown he was almost at his peak and ready to compete in the 2020 Paralympics. Age is another disadvantage. For players competing back-to-back, the break may have helped them, but too long a rest would also affect their performance and momentum.
Cheah: I prefer to be in competitions as it is the only way I can assess my performance. The one good thing is I got to spend more time with my family.
Q: What was it like training in isolation?
Rashid: It works as long as player and coach have a good understanding and faith in each other. I didn’t see many negatives as things were put on hold, including tournaments. Therefore, there is not much pressure to prepare for competition and he has more time to focus on maintaining strength and fitness off the court.
Cheah: I worried about my condition but mentally, I thought like an athlete and remained positive. I was always in contact with my coach to discuss our next moves.
Q: What do you think will be the long-term impact of the lockdown on badminton?
Rashid: It will affect players’ incomes and their spirit of the game. Tournament environment may also be different as there will now be a need to follow the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standard operating procedures and rules.
Cheah: We will have new rules for tournaments very soon.
Q: How do you think technology will influence the evolution of training methods?
Rashid: For physical training, maybe it can benefit the player but where skills are concerned, we still need to be present and prompt the player to make the right moves.
Cheah: It depends on how disciplined the athlete is in fully committing to it.
Q: How has the postponement of the Paralympics affected you?
Rashid: As a coach it doesn’t affect me much because coaching methods depend on the player’s condition and skills. But for Cheah, he was fully prepared to compete at Tokyo 2020 and it’s demotivating. As athletes, we need to find ways to maintain the momentum for the next tournament and slowly adapt to the new norm.
Cheah: It broke my momentum because my performances improved over the last few months. On the positive side, I now have more time to prepare. However, I will be one year older and don’t know what will happen next year.