Water polo is unlike any other sport. The element of water magnifies both mistakes and any advantages that the player might have – making it a good friend or your worst enemy.

Curious about the nature of the game, SMU Snapshots had a chat with the goalkeeper for the Singapore men’s national water polo team, Lee Kai Yang, who also leads SMU Aquatic Sharks as vice-president. We picked up some tips on defending along the way.

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Lee Kai Yang, Singapore men’s water polo team goalkeeper and SMU Aquatic Sharks vice-president

Becoming a goalkeeper

Kai Yang first discovered water polo when his older brother picked up the sport in secondary school. When Kai Yang enrolled in the same school, his first thought as a competitive younger brother was to join anything but the same CCA – he didn’t want to be seen as a copycat. But as fate would have it, Kai Yang thoroughly enjoyed the water polo selection trials – thanks to his parents convincing him to attend the trials – and was offered a place in the team.

Unlike most professional water polo players, Kai Yang didn’t start out with a strong swimming background. He agrees that there was some struggle keeping up at the beginning, but his coach quickly discovered that treading water came very easily to him, and suggested: “Why don’t you try for goalkeeper, since you’re good at treading water.” That marked the beginning of Kai Yang’s goalkeeping career.

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Kai Yang keeping guard

The more Kai Yang played the sport, the more it became an obsession. “You see yourself improve a bit, and you want to keep going for the next level and the level after,” Kai Yang describes.

Starting out as a goalkeeper turned out to be a great move for Kai Yang. His swimming proficiency did not impede his performance in goalkeeper training, and instead, he quickly became a better swimmer with all the time that he was spending in water.

Moving beyond reaction

At the start of his goalkeeping journey, Kai Yang found goalkeeping to be an oxymoronic role. As the last line of defence, the goalkeeper is reliant on himself to make the save. At the same time, he is also reliant on the team to win the game. At the end of the day, the outcome for the best game that he can play, is a nil-nil draw.

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Kai Yang (picture centre) and team mates in celebration

But as he gained more experience, Kai Yang began to understand the game deeper. He discovered how a good understanding of the game allows one to move beyond reaction and pure defense.

“If you know your teammates and the defense well enough, and if you know how your teammates play, you can move beyond reaction. It is common to assume that goalkeeping is all reaction. But, if you are able to understand your teammates and how the defense plays, then it becomes anticipation. For instance, if I know how my teammate defends, then I would also know that the attacker would be pressured to shoot in a certain way. So, when he shoots, I’m already there to defend the goal.

The ability to anticipate something before it happens, is a strength that is continuously refined through Kai Yang’s goalkeeping practice. He agrees that, outside of water polo, the ability to anticipate, makes life easier and more predictable.

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Bringing home Singapore’s first gold in the 18th ASEAN University Games

Performing under pressure

In water polo, having quick reflexes is vital because it allows you to respond to shots even when you least expect them. This intensity has trained Kai Yang to think on his feet under pressure. The first time that he realised how the ability to react fast has benefited his behaviour outside of water polo, was during the army.

“There’s always a lot of pressure from your commanders, especially when you’re under assessment. They’re shouting at you, screaming at you, telling you what to do. Amidst the chaos, I was able to keep doing my own thing. On the other hand, some of my section mates and platoon mates would go into a brain freeze. That was when I realised that my ability to react quickly might have been sharpened from the situations that I get put into during water polo.”

Staying focused on the goal

If there is one single thing that Kai Yang has learnt from goalkeeping, it is to put into practice a favourite line by his coach: “Eyes on the ball.” During a match, a goalkeeper has many things on his mind. But above the peripherals, he must always keep his eyes on the ball, because that is his utmost priority and the only thing that really matters in the entire game.

“Just focus on the ultimate goal. If you can get everything else right, that’s great. But if you can’t, as long as you focus on the goal, ultimately you will still get the job done, and you would still have done a good job.”

He thinks back to how his coach always encourages him to save the ball with one hand, because it allows him to stretch further, thus having a bigger range to defend. Although Kai Yang strives to always perfect his goalkeeping technique, there are times that he falls short. And, when that happens, even though he missed his coach’s mark, he reminds himself to focus on achieving his ultimate goal – to keep his eye on the ball and make the save.

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Making a one-handed save

Putting passion into what you do

Having been with the national water polo training squad since secondary four, the sport and goalkeeping have become embedded in Kai Yang’s life. He trains almost every day of the week, with Sunday as the only rest day.

He shares that while the routine gets tiring sometimes, it ultimately comes down to the one constant that keeps him motivated – passion.

“Many people mistake passion for fun. They equate fun to being passionate. But to me, these are two very different things. The people who are truly passionate are those who are still around when the fun stops; when it momentarily turns to torture, and you still push through. In the end, it’s all about the team and winning. We want to be better, we want to win, and we want to push the standard of Singapore’s water polo higher.”

Kai Yang adds that another motivating factor is his teammates: “As a team, we have gone through so much together, that I know for a fact that my teammates have my back, and I have theirs, no matter what.” Seeing the team work hard and putting in top effort at every training inspires Kai Yang to give his all to the sport and his team.

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Smiles all around as the team poses for the supporters

When we asked if he sees himself playing competitively for a long time, Kai Yang answers: “If anyone beats me to the spot [on the team], then I will be more than glad to hang up my trunks. To me, that is the best way for me to leave – I’m definitely not going to let the spot [on the team] go easily, but if someone is tenacious enough to train hard and take my place, then I am happy to retire.”