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Photo credit: GAVIN LEE

The ‘old man’ in university who became the youngest head coach in Singapore football

Gavin Lee, who coaches the Tampines Rovers, started coaching football when he was just 17.

Nigel Chin
Nigel Chin

Started writing for the passion. Now writing because it’s the only thing I can do.


Published: 5 March 2021, 11:16 AM

When Gavin Lee was in university, he was often labelled as an “old man”. 

That was because instead of heading to suppers and parties with his peers, Gavin regularly turned down invitations because he needed to rest and wake up early for work the following day. He was working as a coach at private football academy JSSL then. 

Ironically, the now 31-year-old Tampines Rovers head coach is the youngest among his peers. 

In fact, Gavin is also the youngest ever head coach in the history of the Singapore Premier League. Typically, football coaches in Singapore usually embark on their coaching career only in their late thirties, after ending their playing careers. 

As a young football coach, Gavin admitted that a consequence of his daily routines is that he “does not have as many friends as others”. 

Since he was 17, Gavin has been a football coach. He worked his way up from the grassroots, coaching children as young as five at JSSL. 

As a teenager, he was skillful enough as a footballer to make it into the now-defunct National Football Academy. But after seeing the talent of his batch mates, such as Gabriel Quak, Hariss Harun and Izwan Mahbud, Gavin knew he would not be able to keep up. 

“It was also at that point that I realised I couldn’t cope academically, so I decided to choose a different path,” Gavin shared. 

 

Gavin (in yellow) started his coaching career by taking charge of kids in the JSSL football academy. PHOTO CREDIT: GAVIN LEE

 

He turned to coaching because his father had been a coach since he was young. 

“When I started coaching, I really enjoyed it and one thing led to the other. I just kept pursuing what I loved and here I am,” said Gavin. 

Becoming a coach, however, wasn’t as straightforward as it seems. Apart from doing his coaching badges – from the basic grassroots courses to the introductory courses and the more elite AFC (Asian Football Confederation) ‘A’ diploma licence – Gavin also had to get his degree. 

“Coming from quite a traditional family, I had to get my degree. I knew I always wanted to be a coach, so the question at the point was what degree would help me with my coaching career,” said Gavin, who chose to study sports science at Nanyang Technological University. 

Gavin continued, “My parents were always very supportive of my career choice, as long as I got my degree. Like typical parents, they wanted me to get a degree because if something did not work out, they felt at least I would have something to fall back on.

“For me, it was the case of trying to kill two birds with one stone. To check the boxes of expectations from the family, but at the same time do something that’s purposeful for my passion, which is football coaching.” 

As Tampines’ head coach, Gavin earns a mid-four-figure sum every month. He admitted that it’s not the easiest way to earn money, but as he hates the experience of having to drag himself to work, doing something he loves every day suits him. 

Still, he points out that there are a lot of misconceptions that people have about his job. For starters, it’s not just a two-hour job where he just has to turn up in the evening to train the players and head home after. 

“Their assumption is that coaches are like players, where you just turn up for the training and that’s it. Everyone in football knows that the football coach spends more time in the office than being on the football pitch, planning, preparing, dealing with issues,” Gavin said. 

A typical day for Gavin starts around 7.30am when he gets into the office. He’ll start planning for the day, preparing and working on training plans and team tactics, as well as analyse the previous day’s work. 

It’s also at the office where Gavin “studies”. He shared that the only way to improve as a football coach is to gain more knowledge, either through practice or reading – which explains the various books on football lying on his desk. 

 

Gavin reads up on football regularly as it helps him to expand his knowledge of the game. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA

 

About two to three hours before the start of the team’s training session in the evening, Gavin will head out with his assistants to set up. This includes laying out cones on the football field, setting up the camera to film the entire training session, as well as speaking to players on any issues they may be facing. 

Gavin said, “I have to get it across that this is a professional job, just like any other job. You always have to reflect on your own performances and analyse them. It’s really a full-time job.

“There are a lot of different smaller situations that we go through day to day. Helping players out, dealing with their issues or helping to sort something out. Things like this keep you very occupied.” 

Having been in the local professional football scene since 2014, when he first joined Warriors FC as an intern analyst before becoming the assistant coach the following year, Gavin has had plenty of fond memories. 

“The memory I hold closest is my first competitive game as a professional senior coach. It was an AFC Cup game in Yangon, Myanmar (in 2015). That was quite memorable,” Gavin shared. 

There are also disappointing ones, like when Gavin’s team fails to get results on the pitch. When that happens, Gavin said that he’s “one of the worst persons to be around”, although he uses breathing exercises to calm himself down and cope with the pressure when things become stressful.

 

Gavin (in grey) guided Tampines to the Community Shield win in 2020. PHOTO CREDIT: TAMPINES ROVERS

 

Gavin hopes to eventually manage a team at the highest level. He clarified that it does not necessarily mean coaching a team at the top of the football world, but rather, the highest level he can be at, that he’s good enough for. 

He said, “I hate to set a limit to myself, I just want to push as hard, go as far as I can.

“The next immediate target is to try to get the club to the (Asian) Champions League because that’s the highest level of Asian club football and that will be a good platform for me to test myself.” 

Tampines are participating in the Champions League this year and Gavin will certainly have his work cut out for him, considering the quality of the opponents that they will face. However, Gavin is relishing that challenge. 

Gavin said, “I might mention the problems or situations that I face, but it’s all part of the journey. It’s part of the team progressing and learning.

“Nothing can replace those parts of the journey you go through with the team. Because when you come to the end, you will have a lot of good things to reflect on and remember.” 


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