“Coaching is humbling”: S’pore’s head swim coach, Gary Tan, on servant leadership
by Gracia Lee // October 21, 2022, 6:03 pm
“Coaching is like teaching. You don’t call it just a career. It’s a vocation that’s more than just churning out numbers. It’s a place where you journey with others, where you influence people, change mindsets, shape careers,” said Gary Tan, head coach of Singapore Swimming Association (SSA). All photos courtesy of Gary Tan.
For a former Olympic swimmer who beat out close to 30 international applicants, including coaches of well-decorated Olympians, to become Singapore’s top swimming coach last December, Gary Tan is strikingly unassuming.
“I’m still a work in progress.”
With tousled hair and clad in a simple set of home clothes, the 40-year-old warmly invited me onto his porch one Thursday morning, confessing right off the bat that he was initially hesitant to be interviewed for fear of being held up as a “perfect example”.
“I’m still a work in progress,” explained the head coach of Singapore Swimming Association (SSA), the national governing body for competitive swimming, diving, synchronised swimming, water polo and open water swimming.
“I can be very aggressive at times. I can be very straight-talking without taking people’s emotions into account,” he admitted.
But it is through these rough edges that Gary – or Coach G as he is known by athletes under him – has seen God’s hand and guidance in his life.
“Because of Christ in my life, I am able to reflect and think about whether I’m doing something right or whether I am treating the person right,” he said.
And this was why he eventually agreed to be interviewed – not because of anything he can brag about, but to share through his flaws the work of God.
Big on second chances
This awareness of his own weaknesses and fallibility has in many ways shaped the way he relates with the athletes under his care.
Having spent almost two decades as a competitive swimmer, during which he carried Singapore’s flag at two Olympic Games, set four national records and clinched multiple gold medals at the Southeast Asian Games, Gary understands firsthand the pressures many high-performing athletes face.
“Mistakes will always be made, but I will guide you through it, the same way that God has done for me through my life.”
“Competitive swimmers in general are in a very solitary space. A lot of people don’t understand the pressures that they face day-to-day and the kind of mounting expectations that people may have of them to perform,” he said.
“Sometimes they may not even get to their end goal even though they may train really hard. It’s very tough mentally and physically for them.”
Many of these athletes are young people who also have to juggle their academics and their personal lives, and the accumulation of these stressors may at times lead these athletes to make poor decisions in “a moment of weakness”, he added.
While he acknowledges that this is no excuse for bad behaviour, he hopes to show those who have tripped up the same unconditional love that he has received in his own life.
Drawing inspiration from the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Gary is big on second chances.
He said: “We take a very firm stance on things. But for me, I also try to be a bit more uplifting.
“Mistakes will always be made, but I’m always here for you. I will care for you and be there for you when you need to speak to somebody, and I will guide you through it, the same way that God has done for me through my life.”
Discovering the Father’s love
After all, coaching was not a career that Gary would have chosen for himself if not for God, who met him when his life hit rock bottom.
He got off to a rough start as a result of a naïve mistake. With the added stress of personal problems, he spiralled into alcoholism.
After racing for the country for most of his adolescent years, Gary retired from the sport at 24 and decided that he wanted a change in environment.
He set his mind on the corporate finance sector, but after some three years found himself being nudged back to the sport to which he had dedicated his youth.
In 2009 he ditched his corporate dreams to coach high performance swimmers, including siblings Quah Zheng Wen and Quah Jing Wen, whom he trained and worked with during their early teenage years.
However, early on in his career switch, he got off to a rough start as a result of a naïve mistake. With the added stress of personal problems, he spiralled into alcoholism.
“I drank heavily. I would drink in the afternoon, lunch, dinner, everything. It felt as if everything was very superficial, very material,” he recalled.
“It’s like a mother’s love. You can do 10 million bad things. But her love for you is there.”
This desperation drove him into a random Catholic church in Novena one day to call out to the God he had learnt about, but never really took seriously, during his schooling years at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent).
Even though he wondered why God was punishing him with this setback, he cried out to Him all the same: “If you are real, can you pick me up from this? Can you help me?”
That was when things started to change.
He was introduced to a Christian friend named Stephanie, who would later become his wife.
She explained to him that bad circumstances in life may not be a result of God’s punishment. Rather, it could be a loving way to draw a person closer to Him.
As he contemplated Stephanie’s words and began attending church with her on Sundays, he gradually came to understand what she meant and was struck by the Father’s unconditional love.
“It’s like a mother’s love. You can do 10 million bad things. You can scold her, you can argue with her, but her love for you is there,” said Gary, who now attends Faith Methodist Church with his family.
As time went on, Gary began to see coaching opportunities come up in ways that they might not have if not for his initial struggles.
He remembered his prayer of desperation and knew that this upward trajectory was not of his own doing but of God’s.
He recognised various instances when God had shielded him from more trouble in his career.
Even as his coaching career picked up and results began to show, he remembered his prayer of desperation and knew that this upward trajectory was not of his own doing but of God’s.
And this is what God constantly reminds him of whenever success threatens to go to his head.
“In coaching, there are certain things that we cannot control. You can plan what seems like the best way and the results come out crappy. And then the times you think you’ve prepared the worst, the results are successful,” he said.
“It humbles me. I think God was teaching me that it’s not just about me being in control but really allowing Him to have that control over me … He wants me to know that this is not my own doing, but it is Him coming in to have a hand in moulding my swimmers as well.”
While he was not yet a believer at the time of his career switch, he now looks back and acknowledges that it was God who had been leading him to this role, one that he regards as a unique calling.
“Coaching is like teaching. You don’t call it just a career. It’s a vocation that’s more than just churning out numbers. It’s a place where you journey with others, where you influence people, change mindsets, shape careers,” said the father of three young daughters.
It is a job not to be taken lightly, and Gary looks to what Jesus said in Matthew 20:25-28 about servant leadership.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
“You would think that as leaders we can exert authority. But actually in order to lead, we must be able to serve,” said Gary, pointing to Jesus as the ultimate example of a servant leader.
“I was a nobody, a young coach, but he mentored me, he gave to me. There was nothing in it for him.”
This is one of the reasons he has a big heart for mentoring others.
Salt&Light spoke to two young men that Gary mentored, and both described him as someone who is genuinely invested in their growth and well-being.
Malcolm Chua, a 23-year-old assistant coach at Aquatech Swimming, said: “A lot of times people are very secretive about how they do things and the contacts that they have. But he was very transparent and that has helped me a lot.”
Nathanael Wee, co-founder and chief executive officer of swim school Red Dot Penguins, added: “He is one who would take the time to talk to you.
“He would take the time to find out what’s going on in your life. He would take the time to encourage you. He would also take the time to tell you when you are not doing something right, not in a way that is forceful but in a way that empowers you to make a decision.”
“The best part of my job is to see people change in their lives.”
Nathanael, 35, shared that his swim school, a social enterprise that equips the less fortunate with coaching skills for free without any bond, was inspired by his personal experience with Gary, who took him under his wing when the latter was just a junior coach.
A Christian, Nathanael remembers how Gary would share with him his personal devotions from time and time, and even blessed him financially when he was first starting out in his career.
“The reason we are so committed to giving back to society without any strings attached is because of what G did for me.
“I was a nobody, a young coach, but he mentored me, he gave to me. There was nothing in it for him. He just gave without any strings attached, without any obvious benefit to him,” said Nathanael.
Though Gary admitted that mentoring takes up quite some time and energy, he added that it has been the most fulfilling part of his career thus far.
“The best part of my job is to see people change in their lives.”
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