SEA Games 2023: Singapore athletes hone their mental strength for extra edge

Mental strategies also help these elite sportspeople manage stress and general well-being amid high-stakes competitions

PHOTO: Getty Images
PHOTO: Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Whether it is to find a valuable edge in elite competitions, or it is to manage stress in high-stakes events, Singapore athletes are learning to hone their mental focus in order to compete better.

With major events such as the SEA Games and the Asian Games coming up this year, it is no wonder that the top athletes in the city-state are doing everything they can to maintain their high levels throughout. And mental strength is something they have learnt not to ignore as they seek to land the coveted medals.

Mental aptitude is no longer just being able to "try my very best" or "take one match/race/swim at a time", as often spewed by athletes of past generations. More than that, it is about focusing on the exact requirements to execute the ideal routines, and keeping oneself free from external distractions.

As swimmer Teong Tzen Wei, who excels in the exacting and furious 20-second bursts of the 50m events, told Yahoo Southeast Asia last month, "Besides getting faster, you also have to learn how to battle your own inner demons, and deal with potential failures and setbacks.

"By learning how to mentally prepare myself for races, I actually feel like I've gained 20 years of knowledge of dealing with my own self, and that perhaps is the most important thing I've learnt in my journey as a swimmer."

Dealing with psychological challenges

There are many psychological challenges that athletes may encounter during key competitions. Some of them include: low self-confidence, fear of failure, anxiety, fear of re-injury and having high expectations.

Stevenson Lai, team lead and senior sport psychologist at the Singapore Sport Institute (SSI), said that his sport psychology team helps athletes build their ability to employ a range of psychological strategies to thrive under pressure.

"Some of these mental skills that athletes are taught include positive self-talk, positive affirmation, and imagery training in their daily training environments," he told Yahoo Southeast Asia in an email interview.

"Very importantly, we would work closely with the athletes to get them to focus on things that are within their control - such as processes during competition - as opposed to things that are outside of their control, such as winning and losing.

"We always emphasise to our athletes that, as an athlete, you do not focus on winning, but what you have to do in order to win. This is not only applicable to the athletes’ sporting career, but their life endeavours too."

Singapore swimmer Teong Tzen Wei during the men's 50m butterfly final at the Hanoi SEA Games. (PHOTO: Sport Singapore/ Andy Chua)
Singapore swimmer Teong Tzen Wei en route to winning the men's 50m butterfly gold at the 2022 SEA Games. (FILE PHOTO: Sport Singapore/ Andy Chua)

Different methods to deal with mental challenges

While sports psychologists sometimes travel with the elite athletes for their competitions, their focus is on equipping the sportsmen with the mental skills and resilience, so that they can deal with the demands which they face during training and competition strategies even without the presence of psychologists.

Different athletes have different preferences on how to mentally deal with tough times in their sporting lives. For Teong - who won two individual golds in last year's Hanoi SEA Games and set the Asian men's 50m fly short-course record in December - he deals with the ups and downs of training and competition by putting himself in the eyes of a dispassionate third person.

"When you're going through the hardest times, you sometimes cannot see the bigger picture, especially if you internalise your problems," the 25-year-old explained.

"What I do is to take myself out mentally to become another person looking at my actions, see how I deal with difficulties from another point of view, and then critiquing my actions from a third person point of view.

"In this way, I can understand better how I reacted during training and competitions. I'm also very receptive to my coaches' and teammates' advice. Some athletes tend to discredit others' opinions, I don't think that's right. By looking at myself from others' points of view, I feel I can become a far better athlete and person."

Fellow national swimmer Quah Jing Wen, on the other hand, prefers to turn inward to analyse her actions and emotions.

The 22-year-old has already won 15 SEA Games gold medals since 2017, and usually has a cheerful grin whenever she is on the top podium. Still, she is searching for ways to improve her races - and also to deal with the occasions when she does not win the gold.

"I've been trying to finish my races stronger, instead of feeling like I'm dying to reach the end and on the verge of giving up. So having mental preparations definitely helps in that," she said.

"More importantly, I've been trying to continue to find the fun in competitive swimming. As my teammates will tell you, I'm very intense and impatient even during training sessions, and at high-level meets, I sometimes have trouble relaxing and enjoying the occasion.

"What I do is to tell myself why I still love swimming, why I still competing against others. It's an important meet, but it's just another race, and I'm in the sport because I enjoy it. I tend to do my best when I'm happy, and so preparing myself mentally definitely helps a lot."

Singapore swimmer Quah Jing Wen celebrates winning the women's 200m individual medley gold at the Hanoi SEA Games. (PHOTO: Sport Singapore/ Andy Chua)
Singapore swimmer Quah Jing Wen celebrates winning the women's 200m individual medley gold at the 2022 SEA Games. (FILE PHOTO: Sport Singapore/ Andy Chua)

More attention to mental well-being of athletes

The fact that Teong and Quah are able to confidently relate their mental processes shows how much work they have put into getting themselves into tip-top mental conditions ahead of their high-level competitions.

But the mental well-being of an elite athlete also needs to be managed off-competition. Lai says that SSI provides "psycho-education" for the athletes, with one-on-one consults and imparting skills and knowledge to cope with mental and emotional issues.

"Since 2022, we introduced a 'fitness and freshness survey' before every major Games to measure the athlete’s fitness and freshness - including injury, physiological and psychological monitoring - for follow ups where appropriate," he said.

"Beyond competitions, SSI also proactively monitors our athletes’ mental health. A well-being survey was added to its Sport Excellence programme’s regular medical check-up in 2020 to screen for possible psychological and mental distress, including eating and sleeping disorders."

Such attention to athletes' mental health has helped Singapore athletes cope better with public expectations and their own high aspirations in recent years. Where in the past they would shy away from setting medal targets, nowadays top athletes like sprinter Shanti Pereira are more confident in dealing with the expectation of winning.

The 26-year-old is in the form of her life after breaking both the national women's 100m and 200m records last month, and when asked if she is feeling the pressures of aiming for a double-gold outing at the SEA Games, she shrugged and said, "Yeah that's definitely one of my goals of this year, it would mean the world to me if I succeed.

"I've grown and learnt that success comes with extra attention, and with or without such expectations, I still have to show up on the track and deliver. That's what I'm aiming to do."

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