Swimming is such a big part of Leonard Tan’s life. The former national team captain started swimming at the age of eight and represented Singapore and SMU till his early twenties. Since graduating in 2012, he has been coaching young swimmers at one of Singapore’s top swimming clubs. Today, as the head coach of the National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI), he plays a major role in moulding the future of Singapore’s swimming scene.

Interestingly, Leonard is one of only a handful of national coaches who were former national swimmers. We chat more with Leonard to find out more about what it’s like living his passion full-time and training young, aspiring swimmers.

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Leonard leading a training session at the Aquatic Centre.

Like many others, I started swimming at a young age because of asthma and for health reasons. My dad signed my brother and I up for swimming classes, and we went from there. It’s been quite a journey since my earliest days as a swimmer.

One of the most satisfying moments was when I qualified for the Asian Games in 2006. The night before the qualifying race, I had a mild asthma attack and was admitted into the hospital. Even though I didn’t get much sleep, I still got a pretty good time in the heats. I had put together a strong season of training, so I was confident going into the finals.

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Left: At the FINA World Cup. Right: Swimming at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.

To me, coaching is more challenging than swimming. As a swimmer, I’m in control of my own performance. I only have to achieve the goals that I had set for myself. As a coach, I have to deal with more than just one, but a whole squad of swimmers. A whole lot of factors come into play.

I deal with humans everyday, day in, day out. You have to know your swimmers well, so that you can personalise an individual training programme for each of them. You have to be nimble and know how to change and adapt along the way. It’s more emotionally draining but still very fulfilling.

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As a coach, I advocate being athlete-centric. What I do or plan must be in the best interest for the swimmer. We’re striving to reshape the landscape of Singapore swimming, to focus on a balanced and holistic approach to athletic development for our swimmers. Rather than peaking in their early teens, we want to have a bigger pool of potential national swimmers, who will swim their fastest when they’re older.

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Left: Leonard and his fellow coaches at the 2015 FINA World Junior Swimming Championships, in Singapore.  Right: The swimmers from Swimfast Aquatic Club, where Leonard coached before joining NYSI.

Resilience — that’s what has helped me the most as a swimmer and a coach.

You have to learn to take setbacks and challenges with a pinch of salt. If you’re feeling upset, shrug it off. Think about the positive aspects of the sport you enjoy. Remind yourself that this is why you’re doing what you’re doing.

I’m hardest on myself— I’ve always hated to lose. This still drives me today, as a coach. If the performances aren’t up to what I expect, I’ll kick myself in the butt and think: How do I get things moving in a better way?

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Dream big. Dream much bigger.

That would be the advice I’d give my fourteen-year-old. Looking back in hindsight, everything you look back at is much clearer. I would set more ambitious goals, to help me further my swimming career. Ultimately, your coach can only push you so far. You control what you want to achieve.

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Competition and team photos courtesy of Leonard, photographed by various photographers over the years.

Keep up-to-date with Team Singapore to find out more about our swimmers and athletes. Leonard Tan’s the head coach at the National Youth Sports Institute, which focuses on developing and grooming our young athletes.



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