What I Learnt from Mokhtar Dahari
Two powerful life lessons I learned under the guidance of ‘Super Mokh’
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved playing football. Everything from the teamwork and competition to the sheer joy of the game. And I am still playing. And yes, I still get excited when I step onto the pitch. Better still, if the team wins (and if I score, it’s a super bonus!)
In my younger years, I had the privilege of being coached by ‘Super Mokh’ – Malaysia’s legendary footballer, Mokhtar Dahari. During the 1970s, Dahari was the Diego Maradona of Southeast Asia. In fact, he once played against the great man during a friendly game between Selangor FA and Argentina’s Boca Juniors.
Dahari’s record was impressive. He scored 175 goals for Selangor, and 20 goals in 13 appearances for Kwong Yik Bank (It was when was with Kwong Yik Bank that he began to coach our school team!). Playing for the Malaysian national team, he netted 125 goals in 167 appearances. He truly was ‘Super Mokh’ to everyone who looked up to him.
Photo from sports247.my
One of the most memorable games was when Malaysia drew 1-1 with England, then coached by Bobby Robson, and Super Mokh scored after dribbling past numerous English players and then unleashing an amazing shot.
Despite that, the thing that made a lasting impression on me was the ordinariness of Mokhtar Dahari. I don’t say that to be disrespectful – it’s quite the opposite. He would often push me the hardest during training, and I’d get so frustrated. Why did I have to do more push-ups and drills, and run more laps than the others? I was talented! But back then, I hadn’t learned the crucial lesson mastered by legends such as Dahari.
When I asked him why he made me work so hard in training, he would ask me, “Do you think I’m the best footballer in Malaysia?” I said, “Of course! You’re Mokhtar Dahari! A living legend of the game!” I wasn’t at all prepared to hear what came out of his mouth next.
“I’m not the best footballer in Malaysia,” he replied. “I’m not so naturally gifted; there are players more talented than I am. So, I have to work harder, I have to push myself; I strive to be much better than I am because I see the need to improve. Success is never given to you – you have to work for it. When people are working for the same thing you are, you should ask yourself:
Am I working harder than them? Do I want to succeed more than they do?
The interaction has always stuck with me. Dahari could’ve said, “If you want to be the best, you have to push yourself to be the best,” but he was a great leader as well as a footballer. He knew I was stubborn and that I’d forget such simple advice. Instead, he brought me down to earth with a powerful lesson. A man who I, and millions of fellow Malaysians, saw as a legend was telling me that he was no different to anyone else, that he too was nothing special at the start.
Whatever he had, he worked tirelessly to achieve.
And worked tirelessly he did. I remember also being coached by Zainal Abidin Hassan and Dollah Salleh a year later. They were good coaches but Super Mokh was different. Every training session, he would also run with us. He would be part of our training and when he pushed us, he was involved. It wasn’t instructions from the side as with other coaches I had after that.
The power behind Super Mokh’s lesson was that it removed any lingering sense of limitation from my mind. When we see someone we admire, we set them squarely on a pedestal and say:
That person is special – one of a kind. There’s no way I can be as good as them.
And there he was, the greatest footballer Malaysia has ever known, telling a young player, “Who says?”
Reflecting over the years on my time with Mokhtar Dahari, I realised that, in his mind, everything boiled down to mindset. He embodied the lesson that you don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start if you want to be great. And while he respected Diego Maradona – arguably the world’s greatest-ever footballer – Dahari never saw himself as being beneath anyone. As far as he was concerned, every footballer on the pitch was simply a player doing his job.
This perspective gave him an incredible edge. On the one hand, it meant that he never feared anyone, nor did he allow any occasion to overwhelm him. On the other, he gave great respect to everyone he met. When he was on the pitch, we all saw him as Super Mokh – the greatest footballer to grace Malaysia. But to Mokhtar Dahari, he was just one of 22 players enjoying the game they loved and trying their best for the team.
Although his life was brief, Dahari’s example remains an inspiration to this day and my time with him motivates me in everything I do, to always give my best and to inspire others to do the same. Thinking about what I learned from Malaysia’s greatest footballer, there are two life lessons that stand out as I recall the life and times of one of my heroes:
1. Look up to others – but never place them beyond yourself
We need role models to look up to and emulate, but when you keep people on a pedestal, you diminish your light and define your limitations. Mokhtar Dahari taught me to respect and learn from everyone I meet – but he also taught me to respect myself, and to recognise that I have – and we all have – enormous potential.
Those who become successful are never defined by limitations – they break through them. From Leonardo da Vinci to Einstein to Cristiano Ronaldo, none of them were born successful. What made them great was their curiosity, passion and determination to be the best they could be, no matter what anyone told them or who stood in their way.
2.Work the hardest and stay humble
It’s understandable to look for the quickest path or the ‘easiest way’, but the reality is that those who truly make something of themselves give everything they’ve got to whatever they pursue. As Lionel Messi puts it:
I start early and I stay late, day after day, year after year. It took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success.
We look at these great achievers and see them as special, one-of-a-kind talents. But when we pay closer attention, the majority of them have remained dedicated and put in the most work to get to where they wanted to be.
Like Super Mokh, the people who stay in our hearts and minds are the ones who keep themselves grounded. They are constantly learning, knowing they don’t know everything; they keep pushing themselves to maintain and improve their standard; they appreciate that they’re no better than anyone else; they respect others and always give back whenever they can.
The training that Mokhtar Dahari put me through pushed me to my limits (or so I thought at that time!). When I’d be out of breath and feeling like I’d done more than enough, he’d say, “You’re still standing, aren’t you?” and then send me on for more laps. Even when I was sure I was done, I wasn’t – the limits existed only in my mind.
At the time, I was less-than-thankful for the physical tests I had to endure, but I am forever grateful to Super Mokh for teaching me that I’m able to push through and overcome any obstacle with the right mindset.
I hope that everyone can share in the inspiration that I was blessed in receiving. Your potential is limitless. You have as much right to succeed as anyone else: fix your mind on what you want to achieve and go for it. It’s difficult to fail when you don’t give up. So keep your chin up and keep pressing on! (and yes, one more lap please!)