How they enhance athletes' performance

Whenever Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Royston Wee tells people he is going to see his sports psychologist, their initial reactions range from utter confusion to genuine concern.

"Why, what's wrong with you?" is a question that usually follows.

But Wee, 27, isn't ashamed to admit he has regular sessions with his sports psychologist, Mr Edgar Tham, 48.

He even credits Mr Tham with helping him become the first Singaporean to win in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in January this year.

Sports psychology has been in the limelight after countries were reported to have hired them for the World Cup, albeit with contrasting results. (See other report.)

Mr Tham is Singapore's pioneer sports psychologist and has been in the field for over 20 years.

He has worked with local athletes like sports shooter Lee Wung Yew and silat fighter Sheik Alauddin, as well as national teams like Singapore's national football team in the 90s.

Mr Tham believes it was the "quick fix" nature of Brazil's hiring of a sports psychologist that contributed to the team's emotional collapse.

Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had implored a sports psychologist to help his players cope with the emotional strain after the penalty shoot-out with Chile.


Mr Tham said developing a long-term working relationship with clients is important for the job.

"The longest time I've worked with a client, who also happens to be a world junior champion bowler, was 10 years," he remarked.

Having more time helps him understand the emotional or environmental factors that was preventing his clients from performing well, identify patterns in their behaviour and suggest strategies to help them cope with stress and improve their performance.

However, it is ultimately quality over quantity that determine how effective sessions are, as factors such as one's openness to guidance come into play.

He recalled one client whose spouse was unhappy that he was spending more time training than with her.

"This greatly distracted my client, so I decided to speak with both of them to help him better manage his time and to find a better work-life balance," he recalled.

He explained that many other factors, such as fear, anxiety, stress, family commitments and the expectations placed on the athletes by themselves and others can cause distractions which prevent them from performing well.

"Ultimately," said Mr Tham, "It is best that the athletes are able to be self-sufficient and accountable for their own actions and not be overly dependent on their sports psychologists. Athletes psyche themselves up in their own ways."

He added that he mainly provided strategies to help them focus their emotions and energy.

For instance, he wasn't at the ringside during Wee's UFC match, refusing to be his "crutch".

But Wee was well-prepared, listening to rapper Eminem's hit Lose Yourself for motivation, then focusing his attention on his opponent and drawing energy from the crowd.

Mr Tham believes sports psychology is a growing industry in Singapore, with more people accepting it as a necessary part of holistic sports training.

A spokesman for Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said its four-year sports science management (SSM) degree programme now has 75 students enrolled this year, compared with just 35 in 2009 when they first started offering the course.

Similar courses are offered in Republic Polytechnic and private institute International Sports Academy Singapore.

Associate Professor Govindasamy Balasekaran, 51, head of physical education and sports science management at NIE-NTU, said the SSM programme covers topics such as team building and cohesion, exercise psychology, the psychology of injury and children in sports.


These topics focus on the role of sports psychology in influencing athletes' cognition, emotion and behaviour in a sports setting, and also teach the motivational perspectives of exercise and sport.

Dr Harry Lim, sports psychologist at the Singapore Sports School, also works with students.

Dr Lim, 30, believes that the biggest challenge student athletes at the school face is juggling school work with almost daily training. He agreed that developing a long-term rapport with his students is a crucial part of his work.

One of the greatest difficulties athletes face is how to handle losses, he added.

"Many students get very demoralised when they fail to win a competition after training very hard for it. But it is my job to assure them not to be ashamed and to remain focused on what is still within their control, such as always trying their best," he explained.

Many students get very demoralised when they fail to win a competition after training very hard for it. But it is my job to assure them not to be ashamed and to remain focused on what is still within their control, such as always trying their best.

Pioneer in local sports scene

l Joined Singapore Sports Council as Singapore's first sports psychologist in 1995

l Team consultant and psychologist to national teams like the national dragon boat team which competed in the 1993 SEA Games, and also individual athletes like swimmer Joscelin Yeo for the 1996 Olympic Games, and many other events like taekwon-do for the 1997 SEA games and shooting for the 1998 Commonwealth Games

l Lecturer for the Singapore Sports Council's National Coaching Accreditation Program in Mental Skills Training

l Authored several books on performance psychology

l Holds black belts in Aikido and Taekwondo

l Team captain of the NTU dragon boat team, which became the 1990 national men's open champion

l Since last November, has been the sports psychologist of Singapore's first Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter, Royston Wee

They help players cope with stress of World Cup

GERMANY In 2004, former Germany manager Jurgen Klinsmann hired sports psychologist Hans-Dieter Hermann (right) to help players cope with stress. Hermann was tasked to prepare the team mentally ahead of the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 European Championships. He has mentored the team since and is hailed for helping the team maintain their mental strength during this year's World Cup, which they won. He worked intensively with players Julian Draxler and Benedikt Hoewedes after their involvement in a car accident at a Mercedes-sponsored event in May, to help them get over their shock. BRAZIL Former coach Luiz Felipe Scolari roped in sports psychologist Regina Brandao (both left) just last month to help the team cope with the stress of the World Cup. After Brazil's tense match against Chile which saw players like Neymar, David Luiz and Julio Cesar in tears, many mental health experts and Brazilian pundits described the meltdown as a sign of fragility and a lack of emotional control in the team. To put the players at ease, Ms Brandao studied the profile of each player and put them through several psychological tests to study their emotional responses to different situations. ENGLAND Team manager Roy Hodgson hired Dr Steve Peters (right) to work with the team before the World Cup. This decision was blasted by Roy Keane, a former Irish international player, who said the role of a sports psychologist should be played by the manager. However, Steven Gerrard, who had worked with Dr Peters while with Liverpool, applauded it. England was knocked out of the tournament in the group stages.

This article was first published on July 16, 2014.
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