New FAS fitness coach: Lions' scores 'poorest' I had seen
However, fitness supremo Berckmans says players are steadily improving
Balder Berckmans has worked with English giants Manchester City and Cologne of Germany.
The Belgian also had stints in Russia (Krylia Sovetov), Belgium (KV Mechelen) and Saudi Arabia (Al Ahli).
Hired by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) in February, the fitness supremo put the national players through a VO2 max test - it measures aerobic endurance - in July, and found the scores to be the "poorest" he had ever seen.
After a closer look at the findings, Berckmans, FAS' fitness conditioning coach and instructor discovered that it was not the case of the Lions being unfit, but the fact that they simply did not push themselves.
Speaking to The New Paper last Wednesday, he said: "When I looked at the heart-rate monitor after those tests in July, it was low.
"So those test values were not really representative of what our players can achieve, because they didn't go to their maximum."
Berckmans was speaking on the sidelines of a Lions' training session ahead of last Friday's Causeway Challenge against Malaysia at the National Stadium, which ended 0-0. The team have flown to Hong Kong for a friendly with the hosts tomorrow.
Fitness has been a perennial issue for footballers here.
Drawn in a tough group for next month's AFF Suzuki Cup, where the Lions will play South-east Asia's No. 1 team in co-hosts Philippines, defending champions Thailand and darkhorses Indonesia, fitness will be crucial if the Lions are to finish in the top two and advance to the semi-finals.
NOT ENOUGH GAMES
Berckmans believes the poor results from the VO2 test can be partly put down to the fact there are only 24 matches in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season - 20 of V Sundramoorthy's 25-man squad play in the local competition.
Berckmans, however, has seen an improvement in the effort put in over the last three months, as the national players get to grips with his style of fitness conditioning.
"If I look at this last week, then I really like (the response from) a lot of boys, if I compare them with the first camp or first months," said Berckmans.
"Now, some players are really pushing more, even though it was a bit higher intensity and a bit higher conditioning-wise than before."
He also believes the players have improved because they have been talking to the players about pushing themselves mentally, even if it was through a small fitness drill.
Explained the 29-year-old: "If we talk about mentality, it starts with running.
"When you say 'touch the line' and change direction, how many players will actually touch the line?
"From there, you can see which players are working for themselves and which are pulling their handles back."
Singapore midfield ace Hariss Harun - whom Berckmans points out as one of only a handful of players who clocked good scores in the VO2 max test - felt a shift in mentality has to come from the player, first.
"It's about how motivated you are," said the Johor Darul Ta'zim star.
"In my opinion, that half a metre, whether you touch the line or not, will make a difference in games.
"I believe here in the national team, my teammates and I give our best in every training session.
"In the end, it boils down to the individual and how much you push, because only he knows how his body really feels."
Hariss claimed playing for Malaysia's best-run club has helped him develop as a professional footballer.
"Coming from a club that has everything, you can just focus on your football," said the 25-year-old.
"It helps when you come to training, the coaches have a programme for you to follow, and you have the gym right there, the recovery pool right there, the jacuzzi...
"Everything is available, you don't have to make a booking or anything.
"You can come to training an hour earlier or stay an hour after to use the facilities.
"In Singapore, if all our players have this at their disposal every day, it will definitely help in one way or another to improve local football."
Aside from his work with the national players, Berckmans has also been tasked to formulate a fitness strategy as part of FAS technical director Michel Sablon's blueprint for the development of Singapore football.
He is hopeful that the plan can lift overall fitness levels and boost the senior national team in five to 10 years' time.
Said Berckmans: "The basics of our plan is to start from the young boys, in the Junior Centres of Excellence (Under-12 JCOE) teams.
"The fitness programme is not really significant still because at that age, they just need to play, run and work in small areas.
"At that age, they increase their physical fitness abilities significantly simply by playing more football.
"When I look at our current National Football Academy boys (players from 13 to 18), I find there is a lack of physical coordination - hand-eye, feet, running technique, speed drills - so it's something we work on a lot in the JCOEs.
"Another part of the plan is collaboration with coach education, reaching JCOE and COE coaching staff.
"We've spent lots of days on the pitch and in the classroom to share how coaches can get the biggest benefit and increase their players' fitness levels."
Lions ace Hariss up for commando training
Before the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the England squad spent three days abseiling down cliff faces, changing wheels on army trucks and crawling through muddy terrain.
Eight years later, Australia and France went through a similar rigorous process, preparing for the 2007 tournament by spending a week with their countries' respective Commando units.
As Singapore's footballers gear up for the AFF Suzuki Cup next month, Lions ace Hariss Harun would be up for a similar experience.
Said the 25-year-old midfield star: "For team bonding, it can definitely be beneficial.
"Something out of the box like this, for a short stint, would be good.
"It also helps keep the mind flowing, doing something new, away from football... I guess it's something like cross-training.
"Having said that, football is a very skill-specific sport and there's a lot of tactical elements you need to work on ahead of a big tournament like the Suzuki Cup... But I think it can be useful."
Fitness coach Balder Berckmans also said he was open to the idea, if Singapore coach V Sundramoorthy was on board.
"You always have to be open to different ideas and sometimes you get really interesting things out of other sports," said the Belgian.
"The main thing to consider if we implement this is, are our boys ready to cope?
"If we do something, it must be to make our boys better or improve their technical or tactical level.
"Since I've come in (in February) with fitness exercises that are more football-specific, it is already something for them to try adapt... Some boys, they like it, some boys, they struggle a bit with it.
"If the time is right to implement new things, we might try it.
"But it's always a communication between me and Sundram first, to see what we implement."
For team bonding, it can definitely be beneficial. Something out of the box like this, for a short stint, would be good.
— Hariss Harun (above, in red), on a stint with the Commandos, just like the England and Australia rugby squads had undergone