Aitken's mission to toughen up netballers
Aitken believes strong opposition at Nations Cup will toughen up netballers for next year's SEA Games
With an relatively inexperienced national team still finding their way in the international arena, Netball Singapore and national coach Ruth Aitken could have taken the easier option at the upcoming Mission Foods Netball Nations Cup.
Teams that are lower-ranked than world No. 17 Singapore could have been invited by the association to let the team gel without facing opponents who are too tough.
But instead, Vanessa Lee and Co. will face Papua New Guinea (15th), Zambia (16th), Canada (18th), Botswana (19th) and Ireland (25th) at the OCBC Arena from Sept 4 to 10.
"I believe that the international environment is hard and that's the way that they have to learn it," New Zealander Aitken told The New Paper earlier this week.
"We chose teams that we feel would test us... it's the learnings that you get about playing on the edge, playing really close international games."
Also on Aitken's mind is the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur in August next year.
Last year, an experienced Singapore team - with the likes of Micky Lin, Premila Hirubalan, and Chen Huifen - beat Malaysia 46-43 in a tense final at the SEA Games on home ground to clinch a historic gold.
The trio have retired from international netball this year, with a new-look team finishing third at the recent Asian Netball Championship in Bangkok, where Malaysia won only their second title, after a 31-year wait.
Aitken said: "We're going to prepare this group for next year when we play at the SEA Games. We know what the environment is going to be like there and how hard it's going to be.
"I don't want to wrap them in cotton wool and let them be fazed by the change (in atmosphere at the Games)."
There is always the risk of Singapore sliding down the world rankings if they don't do well at the Nations Cup, where the matches all carry world-ranking points.
But it is a possibility that the former New Zealand Silver Ferns coach is willing to take, as she hopes that her players will rise to the occasion.
She pointed out that the team at the Asian Championship, who are unchanged for the Nations Cup, were an "even group", with debutantes Josephine Yeo and Zhang Ailin quickly settling into international netball.
Younger players such as Parveen Nair and Aqilah Andin also gained first-hand experience of handling stressful situations on court, as opposed to witnessing them from the bench.
But Aitken conceded that the team still have to work on their consistency.
"They should believe in themselves and each other, that they've actually got talent," Aitken said.
"They lack consistency at the moment, which is about more experience... and I think we need to have much more confidence among our attacking players."
While most of the 12 players in the current team may form the bulk of the group training towards next year's SEA Games, Aitken said there are others waiting in the wings to break into the national team as well.
She said: "There's a lot of work they have to do and there's a lot of competition that they'd be facing from others.
"But it's about giving these 12 chosen ones the best opportunity to show their progress (from the Asian Championship) now.
"There's a lot at stake this year for them, and it is about players being able to deal with it, the stress for that and the potential for failure while still having the courage to push forward.
"That's what we need to see from the players, but we can't do it for them. We have to put them on their toes and they have to take that final step."
Netball Singapore wants Aitken to stay till 2017 SEA Games
Netball Singapore's signing of coach Ruth Aitken at the end of 2014 had been a massive coup for the sport here.
After all, the New Zealander won the Netball World Championship - now known as the World Cup - as a player and guided New Zealand to the world title as a coach in 2003.
After she started work in August 2013, Aitken has led Singapore to an Asian title in 2014 and the SEA Games gold on home ground last year.
The 60-year-old's future, however, is uncertain, after her contract with Netball Singapore ended in June.
She had originally signed a two-year deal in 2013, and had inked a year's extension last year.
Aitken is now on an "open-ended" contract, which allows her to leave after giving one-month's notice.
She said: "After the Nations Cup, I will sit down with my family because that's the big thing for me.
"As you know, I love this team and my desire is for the best to happen for them. And if that can be with me, I would love that."
Top of her concerns is family - the world-class but amiable coach lives in Singapore with her husband, but has family back home in New Zealand that she misses dearly.
Netball Singapore chief executive officer Cyrus Medora hopes that the coach will see the team through to the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur next August, when they are aiming to defend their title.
He said: "We would like her to stay till then, but we are not pushing her because of her family situation - she has ageing parents and two grandchildren.
"We are just taking it month by month and we will support whatever decision she makes in the end."
When asked if she could stay till the KL SEA Games, Aitken said, voice slightly breaking: "Well, yes, that'd be great, but my family (situation) is fluid and, in the end, they need to come first.
"They've been put on the backburner while I've continued to do this and then we'll just have to see.
"I am very appreciative of Cyrus' understanding because it's been three years, which is amazing, it's really great.
"I really do love this place, but it's hard not being with your family. What will be, will be." - LIM SAY HENG