In the 2001 Hong Kong comedy flick Shaolin Soccer, an amateur football team rises through the ranks thanks to the power of teamwork and a whole lot of kung fu. The primary opponents for Stephen Chow and his ragtag group of martial-art misfits? A team of superhuman soccer players enhanced by science — and drugs.
Nothing illegal or unsavoury is taking place within the Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) football team though. Instead, the inspired commitment to maths, science and data has proven to be an assured method for scoring trophies. It certainly was a winning formula for the team who emerged as champions in the U10 Boys Cup Finals of the Singapore Pools-FAS Inter-School Futsal Challenge back in August.
The architect behind the achievement, however, does not resemble a stereotypical man of science. Good-humoured, easygoing and tremendously modest, teacher and football coach Shahul Hamid has been responsible for blurring the lines between jocks and geeks at the school, translating academic matters in class onto the football field.
It was more than a decade ago that the 38-year-old graduated from the National Institute of Education with a degree to teach maths and science, raring to dive deep into his passion for imparting knowledge to students.
“Ever since I was young, I’ve always loved the sense of accomplishment from teaching kids in tuition classes, especially when they get to grasp certain concepts,” he recalled.
“Through my personal experience, I truly believe that education is the key to changing lives,” Shahul added.
He clinched a job at TKPS in 2009, where he stayed for four years before shifting to Riverside Primary School. In 2015, an earthquake struck in Sabah, triggering a deadly landslide at Mount Kinabalu — which tragically involved seven pupils and two teachers from Shahul’s former workplace. The group had been part of an overseas expedition for a leadership programme.
“We lost a couple of our colleagues,” he spoke solemnly of the two teachers who lost their lives. “One of them was a dear friend of mine, and both of them were teachers in charge of the football programme.”
As someone who had experience in doing the same during his tenure there, Shahul was approached by TKPS to go back and support them in their time of need. The school needed someone already familiar with the institution’s environment and culture, and Shahul was in a position to contribute immediately.
“That was something I couldn’t say no to,” he said. The man promptly returned to TKPS in 2016 to handle both tasks on the teaching front and the football front.
The football geek
Football coaching wasn’t just a side gig at school for Shahul — it was a full-fledged passion. Even before embarking on his teaching career through NIE, the man dabbled in the art of mentoring young players at the grassroots level. That, plus a life-long enthusiasm in playing football himself.
It was after joining TKPS as a teacher that Shahul and some of his Victoria School alumni colleagues got together intending to replicate the same Victoria School spirit of working hard and playing hard in the realm of education and sports.
Shahul had an inkling that academics and sports didn’t have to be separate departments.
“I’m in a special position where I see myself as a teacher in and outside the classroom. Sure, maths and science are both subjects that I teach in class, but there’s no reason why I can’t bring in some of these concepts when I’m coaching my football squad.”
One of his processes involves scouting the football field of upcoming matches, where his students would measure its exact dimensions. The data would determine the deployment of specific strategies. What style of attack should they pursue? Would they need to keep the ball to the wings? Would the team need to stick closer when playing?
Models would also be drawn up when it came to conditioning training. Using fitness data, Shahul would come up with optimal methods to raise the level of athleticism of his players at a faster, more effective rate.
But cardio isn’t enough to win. Elaborate, sophisticated tactics need to be taught — which might be hard concepts to explain to primary school kids.
“Kids these days, they really want to know the reasons behind what they’re doing. I try to explain to them to see if it makes sense,” Shahul said.
If verbal instructions aren’t working, that’s where technology comes in. Drones would be flown above the football field to map out key moments, offering visuals of player positioning.
A recent addition to his tech-driven coaching repertoire is the usage of Micro Bits — tiny card-sized computer processors that primary school students are already using to learn coding. It was in 2017 that the Singapore government introduced them in schools to foster creative problem-solving skills via coding.
“The students can use the block-based coding program to make a step-tracker that can be used during conditioning workouts to capture their data. We’re trying to break down the walls between what they’re doing in the classroom and outside the classroom, so not only will they find football enjoyable, but they’ll find class enjoyable as well.”
It's something that the parents of the young footballers appreciate as well.
“I’m very grateful that they are training with Mr Shahul because he is a very dedicated teacher in the first place,” remarked Irfan Ismail, a father of two students who played under the teacher-coach.
"He has the kids’ interest at heart.”
Cracking the code
Perhaps there is an exact science to ensuring success in school sports. Last year, the TKPS football squad entered the inter-school futsal tournament and ended up fourth in the competition for the under-10 team. This year, they emerged as top dogs.
It’s a sure sign that Shahul has been moving in the right direction.
“Training under Mr Shahul is good because he really pushes us to our limits and really works on our fitness,” offered Raoul Hadid, the young captain of the TKPS football team.
But Shahul isn’t done yet with his ambitions for the TKPS team — he knows that greater things can be achieved in the future. And not just in football.
“I’m thankful and happy that FAS as well as other bodies have come in and helped nurture sports talents in the young," he mentioned, adding his gratitude for the strong support from private and government entities such as Singapore Pools and the Ministry of Education.
"This will, in turn, inspire and motivate them to be future athletes who can represent the nation.”