Behind the success of Team Singapore at the Olympics and Paralympics, hidden from view of those watching in the arenas or on television, is a team of specialist staff dealing with logistics, diet, medical help and, often forgotten, the psychological needs of the athletes.
Eesha Shah (pictured above) is part of the sports psychology team at the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) and was present at both major Games this summer and gave some insight into the work she and her team do:
In a nutshell, what does a sports psychologist do?
As a team psychologist you basically support the entire team, including the officials. It is a long stay in a foreign land and a huge number of things can be obstacles - we support everybody. We are a team of five at SSI, we support the sports that we are allocated too - at the Olympic Games, I was with shooting and at the Paralympic Games, I was with the Boccia team. The rest of the team worked remotely. If an emergency comes up though, I am the one on-site.
I would imagine athletes’ nerves as a big part of what you have to deal with?
That is usually the starting point. People get to the competition and they realise, oh no, it’s big, it’s scary but really at that point it is too late. Usually the work starts two to three years ahead of time. What we aim to do, is that by the time our athletes get to major games, be it the Southeast Asian Games, Asian Games, Olympics or Paralympics, they are fully prepared for the suite of things they will experience.
Nerves are fine, it is just how you cope with them. That is what we are interested in, building coping strategies. Having them acknowledge that yes, I am going to be nervous, but I have all the tools and strategies I need and I just have to take them out of my tool-kit and commit to my plans.
So do you have specific techniques or drills that you provide the athletes with?
It is very dependent on the personality of the athlete. We have some athletes who are very cognitive, they like to think very deeply about things. We have some others who prefer not to be so involved in thought before competition.
Depending on the athlete, we develop strategies that are specific to them. For example, if there is an athlete who thinks way too much, kind of gets into themselves and keeps away from others and throughout competition we see that it is not working, I will try to get them to break away from that pattern and get more involved in the team, be more involved in the social dynamics of the team, talk to people, make jokes, be more light-hearted, relaxed and then ease into it. Then maybe five minutes before the competition he gets into his thought time. That is to stop them starting three hours out and building upon worry after worry.
Then there might be an athlete who is extremely hyper, full of energy, jumping all over the place and gets easily distracted. Maybe the sport requires them to be really centered and introspective, so we have to devise ways to keep them occupied, with exercises, reflective questions, puzzles, then the energy is occupied but in a more constructive way right before their event.
But by the time they come to an Olympics or Paralympics they know what they should do, every hour prior to their competition.
What about last minute help, if someone suddenly gets very nervous or agitated before competition?
We do have techniques that we can pass on to the coach or the athlete that they can use during competition. Some athletes in the moment of need, they becoming very committed to their plans and that usually sees them through – they become extremely on-point. Some athletes after a while they kind of slack of, take it easier and choose certain parts of their plan they want to apply and that usually lets them down. It eventually depends on how committed the athlete is.
Some athletes have trained extremely hard and long to get to the Games. But sometimes they forget that the initial dream was to get here and they forget to enjoy the dream or the celebration. Sometimes the best way to perform is to enjoy the moment you are in. Before they can be mentally confident, they have to be physically confident.
How involved do you get in dealing with disappointment, if an athlete hasn’t achieved the result they were hoping for?
If they have events to come, then the work becomes more important, you have to move them away from how they feel to prepare for the next task. If they have no upcoming events, give them some time before we attempt to work through it. Be there to ensure that they know support is there regardless of the result, that the support is not just for when the results are great.
TeamSG officials at the opening Boccia competition at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Photo: Sport Singapore
At the Paralympics you were assigned to the Boccia team. How did you prepare them for the challenge of playing in front of crowds that were much bigger and noisier than they are used to?
We went to Portugal for an international competition in June and got a glimpse of what the Brazilians are like. It was the first time we encountered them as a full-team, we heard lots of cheering, lots of noise, even booing. So I went back and took all those elements and made a clip that had people cheering and booing, chanting ‘Brazil, Brazil’ and also included our athletes names and ‘Come on Singapore’. We played the clip at high-volume in our training centre to accustom them to the noise level so that come Paralympics, the interference would be nothing new to them. I guess the only thing we missed out was the surround sound.
Beyond that, in Boccia you aren’t able to intervene in the heat of it but we do a pre-game brief, we talk about our plans, what we will do in each part of the game as well as our contingency plans. I sometimes warn them about what the other countries are like as well.
There was once some resistance in the world of sport to using psychologists but that attitude seems to have changed over the years. How have the athletes responded to working with a team of sports psychologists?
I think if the coach is on board, we hardly face any resistance from the athlete. So we usually work closely with the coach first to share our philosophies, how we can match up, what our differences are and where we might conflict. Once we have a working collaborative approach with the coach, we can translate that to the athlete.