of a Legendary Athletics Coach and a Formidable Disciplinarian
This is a compilation of five article submissions on Denis Armstrong. It was initially published as a book earlier this year and is now captured here in two posts.
This is the first post which comprises:-
- my Introduction;
- a contribution from Rev. Fr. Patrick Boudville; and
- a contribution from Vinay Chandran.
The following post will comprise the remaining contributions from :
- Paul Selvadurai;
- Peter Sinniah;
- Dr Michael Tay Choon Hock.
A good coach can change a game,
a great coach can change a life.
– John Wooden
Denis Armstrong was one of the nine pioneer teachers of La Salle Brickfields when the school was established in 1954. While teaching at the school, he underwent concurrently a three-year teacher training programme known as Normal Class.
In its early beginnings, it was called Normal School. It was, in reality, a teacher training approach. Normal Class training was used because there were not enough colleges to train the number of teachers needed for the many schools in the colonial era Malaya. For the record, Malaya only gained its independence on 31st August 1957.
This particular sort of teacher training practice was first established in Paris, France in 1794. It was pioneered by St. John Baptist De La Salle and was intended to serve as a model for teacher training colleges.
After teaching and holding other senior administrative as well as extra-curricular posts in La Salle Brickfields for twenty years, Denis Armstrong resigned his position to take up an offer in the corporate world in 1974.
Denis Armstrong remained with the Ericsson Group of Companies till his retirement. From 1994 to 1998 Denis served as the Company Quality Manager for the Ericsson group of companies. The Quality Division that he headed was responsible for providing services for all three companies in the group.
Denis Armstrong is best known and fondly remembered among many former students as a legendary athletics coach and as a formidable disciplinarian. After a span of about fifty years, here are first hand vivid and interesting accounts captured for posterity. These are from a few former schoolboy athletes as well as a few former students of their recollections and impressions of this remarkable individual and the huge impact he had on them.
There is no way that this can be a complete picture of the man and who he really is because Denis Armstrong is by nature a private person. He has his circle of friends and associates and he does meet with them on a regular basis. In addition, he spends time on his few hobbies. Denis Armstrong also readily accepts invitations to meet up with old boys from the different graduating years of La Salle Brickfields on a fairly regular basis. To many old boys, he has that special aura and therefore still remains to this day, an enigma.
Teacher, La Salle Brickfields Secondary School,
Kuala Lumpur – 1966 to 1980.
From A Distance … Master Denis, the Discipline Teacher
It was during my Standard 5 days at La Salle Brickfields 1 that I remember noticing this tall, slim, stylish light blue jeans wearing and good-looking gentleman who I eventually came to know as Master Denis.
He was certainly a strict teacher. I have heard him loudly scolding those who needed to be disciplined and then hearing the all too familiar swish of the cane as it struck the behind of the boys.
Master Denis, the taekwondo sifu and discipline teacher was feared by many students from the primary as well as the secondary schools.
Within Distance … Master Denis, the Science Teacher
Horror of horrors! We guys at Standard 6 Red in 1973 had to face the reality that Master Denis would be teaching us science. Our worries and fears were confirmed when our exercise books would come flying to the back of the class when we made careless mistakes. And you could be sure that all of us did our homework faithfully thereafter.
The best lesson that Master Denis taught us as a science teacher, at least for me, was the experience of what electric current feels like! One day, we guys were truly puzzled to see him carrying into class what looked like a desk mounted pencil sharpener. It turned out to be a manually operated generator. After some explanation, Master Denis got us lined up one by one to hold the two wires. The reactions of the first few guys to the mild shock turned our worries into real fears.
During my LSB school days, I was once able to even escape the school organised and much feared TB inoculation programme but unfortunately there no escape from this electrifying lesson from Master Denis.
Short Distance Runner … Master Denis, the Athletics Coach
Out of the blues, I won the LSB Class A ( Under 12 ) athletics individual events in the 100 metres and 200 metres sprints during our 1973 Athletics Meet during Sports Day. Suddenly, it was discovered that I could actually sprint faster than those known sprinters in my category.
This surprising discovery also meant that it was too late to register me to represent LSB in these sprint events in the popular Inter La Salle Schools Sports Meet for schools in the Klang Valley. However, I was duly registered for the 4 X 100 metres team event as the 2nd runner. This was when I came closer into the circle of Master Denis…….the great athletics coach of LSB. His skills and approach in training athletes were definitely awesome.
Imagine sprinting 40 metres 10 times continuously……..the slow walk back to the starting line after every stopwatch timed sprint was our brief breather. The classic skill of baton changing that he taught us in training made sure that we won the 4 X 100 metres team event. That was Master Denis to us school athletes……..he was a champion maker albeit with a strong demand always for attention, focus and discipline.
One evening I was excused from the day’s strenuous training because I was unwell.
Yet, I joined some guys to play sepak takraw while waiting for the school bus. And there stood Master Denis pointing at me and signalling me to approach him. When I reached him, I did not dare look at his face as I knew I had disappointed and angered him. He sternly questioned me: ‘ You are supposed to take a rest, aren’t you? I expected a slap as I apologised. ‘ I am sorry, Sir ‘ I mumbled feebly. But the slap did not come. Instead, I felt regret in my heart. A slap would have settled the whole issue of disobedience followed by punishment but this was the gentle side of Master Denis that I encountered. And I somehow knew from that moment on that I should not push my luck too far when it came to Master Denis!
Record Short Distance Run … Master Denis, the Champion Maker
I did the 100-metre dash during our 1974 LSB School Sports Day confident of winning the race. Being confident of winning the race is one thing but sprinting the 100 metres with a 12.7-second timing for a Class 3 ( Under 13 ) was another matter altogether.
I was at that time coached by Master Denis for nearly a year. He was very happy and exclaimed: You smashed the record Boudville. You have smashed the record. It was a proud moment for me as the usual timing for this event has never been below 13 seconds. My smashing the record has much to do with the training I received under Master Denis.
Feeling Distant … Master Denis Leaves LSB
After Master Denis left LSB to join the Swedish MNC Ericsson Group of Companies in 1974, we did not have the Inter La Salle Sports Meet for two years. When it was revived in 1976 it was so nice to see Master Denis at Merdeka Stadium, this time around as a guest official
Master Denis walked beside me after the Under 15 category 100-metre run in which I only managed to gain a 2nd place although the winner and I clocked the same timing.
‘ It is your stamina Boudville. You need to build up your stamina’ he advised consolingly. That was when I had wanted to tell him that I really missed the days of him being in LSB with us. Yet, life must go on and we need to keep focused in life too … with Master Denis as the role model.
Within Distance Again – Keeping in Touch with Master Denis
I am so glad to know that Mr Denis Armstrong is in touch with former students and athletes once again. You will always be Master Denis to me, Sir.
Rev. Fr. Patrick Boudville
Catholic Parish Priest
Teachers play such an enormous role in forming, not just teaching them, but forming character in our kids. We really have to thank them for
what they do. They are really the core that
makes our society work.
– Jeanine Pirro
From Grass to Bitumen
From Weakness to Strength; From Nothing to Something.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to find the right words to say about someone who means so much to you and sometimes, you need only a few words to express how grateful you are for everything.
Master Denis Armstrong, you are everything one could look for in a good mentor. You groomed us to be sound professionals and made training under you a rewarding and memorable experience. I will always be grateful to you for your support and kindness.
Uncanny Ability to Recognise Potential
It would be impossible to count all the ways that you’ve helped me in my life. You had the uncanny ability to recognise the potential one has. And then, you would dedicate all your efforts to bring out this ability and thereafter stretch the limits for us to become something.
I can never forget the days you used to call me out even during class breaks and make me do 20 push-ups at a time. I was just an ordinary athlete but the training techniques you used not only brought out the best in me but kept me injury free. You planned meticulously and made me peak at the right season. Representing Selangor in the Malaysian School Sports Council activities was indeed one of the early highlights of my life.
Some Matters I Never Understood Then
- Making me practise the 100m sprint but always at a distance of 110m. I was always stronger at the tape for a 100m sprint from the rest. (Confidence & Endurance)
- Concentrating more on my upper limbs. I always wondered why swinging my arms faster was more important than pounding my feet. (Determination, Coordination & Power).
- Developing every muscle, even my eye muscles had to be conditioned. Still have no clue about this but I am sure it would have contributed in some way. (Leaving no loose ends).
- Innumerable repetitions. The more practice, the better. (Practice makes perfect).
There are many more examples.
Kind & Caring Disciplinarian
In the late 60’s the bitumen tracks were quite new for school level athletes. We used to sprint on grass tracks. The spikes (running shoes) we used were those with irremovable long nails. For the bitumen track, shorter nails were required and the nails were of different sizes for different purposes. My parents were more enthusiastic that I spend my time on studies rather than sports and refused to buy me the appropriate gear. Master Denis took the trouble to arrange a used pair of Adidas spikes for my coaching camp and the National Schools Meet in Penang. That is something that I can never forget.
Weeks before I was off for the Nationals, Master Denis would visit me at home on his scooter and then would spend at least half an hour preparing me mentally for the sprint. His talks were like he was running the race in my body. He would rehearse almost every five meters from the starting blocks to the end of the tape. He would tell me when my leg muscles feel weak, to shift my concentration to my arms and swing them faster and that that would carry my feet faster. His dedication and determination made it so important that even on his weekends he would make it a point to keep these home visits and mental coaching. I learnt that before any event in life, regular and repetitive mental rehearsal journeys are of utmost importance!
During the State Schools Coaching Camp, Master Denis would always be like a Phantom sitting in the gallery watching the full routine. The next day he would call me out in school and tell me ways to improve. He was so proud of his student’s success.
There’s one particularly funny episode that I remember well. I had fractured my arm once and had a cast on my forearm. During one of our P.E. classes, it was raining heavily and the class was scrapped. But a few of us decided to play rugby in the pouring rain. I just pulled a stocking over my white cast and was happily enjoying rugby with my fractured arm.
A Lion with a Lamb’s Heart
Suddenly, we heard a loud clap from the corridor and there was Master Denis calling me. When I approached him, he asked me to remove my spectacles. Before my spectacles were at my chin level, I was slapped like an automatic pistol. Too fast to count how many slaps. He questioned me, “Your athletic meet is soon approaching – do you want to get hurt again?”
That was his sincerity and love: a lion with a lamb’s heart.
Over these past 50 years, there were numerous occasions when I would recollect my days with Master Denis. I would never hesitate to tell my friends, colleagues and associates that I had a Master Denis in school. I would always quote Tottenham Hotspur’s, Bill Nicholson’s famous lines: ‘It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.’
His coaching has helped me to achieve high levels in sports and disciplined me in my profession. It is a privilege to wish him well and to mention that his efforts did bear fruit by bringing great credit to our school. I consider our school fortunate to have found such a distinguished and dedicated teacher. I wish him all the success, fulfilment and happiness in the coming years.
( but prefers to be called a Farmer )
Muscat, Sultanate of Oman