The Penang Sports Council puts sports science to work.
It’s almost 10pm, and Frederick Tan and I are still chatting in his office. Downstairs, the Penang Sports Council’s Chinese New Year celebration is winding down, with guests trickling out as performers continue to play the greatest hits from the 1980s. At one point, a consultant knocks on the door; he has another meeting once our interview is done.
But Tan is no stranger to late nights. Back when he was a sports psychologist for the National Sports Institute, he often stayed after hours to continue working with athletes. Young athletes often knocked on his door in the middle of the night. They’re facing immense pressure. They can’t sleep. Maybe there’s a big competition the next day, and they’re scared. And Tan always opened his door to them to lend an ear.
“I stayed because I wanted to get close to the athletes,” he tells me. “That’s when they could open their hearts to you.” The Future Starts Now The Penang Sports Council puts sports science to work. By Jeffrey Hardy Quah Today, Frederick Tan is no longer officially a sports psychologist, but the director of the Penang Sports Council (MSNPP), which focuses on high performance competitive sports. Appointed in 2011, Tan was tasked with revamping competitive sports in Penang and transforming the state into a sports powerhouse. To Tan, that meant a complete, systemic overhaul of the MSNPP’s culture – not just among its athletes but its officials as well. “We are here to build a generation of good officers and athletes who are confident and daring enough to make innovative changes.”
Setting the Groundwork
Upon graduating in the US, Tan worked as a sports psychologist for various sports in the US’s National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) college sports programme, including volleyball, baseball and basketball. (“Americans are very selfmotivated,” he says. “They’re different from us. They know what they want.”) After a stint in Pontianak, Indonesia, for one year, he returned to Malaysia to work with the State Sports Council, Sarawak. In the late 1990s he helped set up and run the Sarawak Sports Council’s Centre of Excellence, where he developed a yearly training planner for coaches. Later in 2006, he headed the Sarawak Satellite Centre, which was part of the National Sports Institute’s pioneering satellite centre projects.
He came to Penang in 1999 to help with the preparations for the Eighth Sukma Games, where he got a good look at the established culture in the state. He began to plant “seeds” among the coaches and athletes on changes they needed to make. After Sukma 2000, he became a sports psychologist with the National Sports Institute. Tan was called back to take over MSNPP in 2011.
One of the first things he did was commission a study of all sports in Penang, including an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, be they the lack of coaches or infrastructure. From there, the council came up with a masterplan on how they could rectify their weaknesses. “You have to do a lot of courses,” Tan explains. “We run courses for sports administration , and administration courses.If they are weak in coaching, we run a coaching course.” Working with consultants and Penang’s many sports associations, Tan then came up with a blueprint: a five-year roadmap that aims at turning the state into a sports powerhouse by 2020.
Tan had to make sure his officials understand the need for urgency, acknowledging that coaches have been too comfortable in the past. “I can’t afford that. There’s no time to relax. I told my officers, I move very fast and you’ve got to catch up with me. If I were to slow down and wait for them, then we’d be going backwards. We’ve got to move forward now, full speed ahead.” Acknowledging that there are a limited number of qualified officials and coaches in Penang, Tan has organised numerous courses to help develop his staff, including those run by officials from the Olympic Council of Malaysia.
Among the changes Tan has introduced is recognition of the importance of sports science to athletes and coaches. “Sports science provides a platform for both coaches and athletes to train systematically to peak again and again. It also covers a holistic approach to training and recovery, which coaches and athletes tend to neglect!” Tan has made sure coaches attend courses, and brought in consultants to hammer home this concept and help them make the most of sports science, including nutrition, conditioning, exercise physiology, psychology and physiotherapy. “In Penang, we have wellequipped sports-specific gyms that are fully used by our athletes today, experienced physiotherapists helping with rehabilitation and recovery, and supplementation and diet consultation as well.
“We’re working with high performance sports, and we expect our sports development officers (SDOs), administrative staff and full and part-time coaches to understand the importance of sports science.”
The Sports Science Symposium in October last year.
Tan has also made sure that there are regular competitions in the state, among all five Penang districts. “I have officials stationed in these districts to make sure our sports programmes are running. Every month we have inter-district competitions to develop our athletes. It’s working very well today.”
The state still has significant weaknesses, which Tan readily acknowledges. Budget is an obvious one. “Of course, we thank the state government, but we need a bigger budget. We have to keep growing. Staffing is another weakness – Penang needs experienced staff, particularly degree holders in sports science as well as sports management.” Tan believes that by examining its strategic planning, the state government will be convinced to allocate a higher budget.
Another factor holding Penang back is the lack of infrastructure. There are comparatively fewer facilities in Penang compared to, say, Sarawak. Athletes from one district may have to go to a neighbouring district, or even cross over to the mainland or the island, to utilise a running track or swimming pool. “In Sarawak, every district has a running track and swimming pool. That’s how they develop their runners and swimmers.”
Frederick Tan likes to lead by example and get his hands dirty. Even on weekends, he makes random visits to training camps on the island or the mainland and checks on coaches and athletes, “Just to make sure things are in order.”
There are coaches who train athletes to hone their skills or technique, or work on strength and conditioning. One of the gaps the MSNPP has is in mental training: the council is currently assigned only one sports psychologist from the National Sports Institute. One sports psychologist for a whole state is hardly enough, and Tan has found himself pitching in with mental training courses and motivational exercises.
Datuk Lee Chong Wei.
This year’s Sukma Games at Sarawak will be a test of how far Penang has come. Tan is confident Penang will do well at the Games, but stops short of setting expectations, other than to say that they expect to do better than the 24 gold medals they won in Perlis two years ago. “Do I believe in miracles? Yes. This year, we can achieve better results than what we did in Perlis.”
But regardless of the results, Tan will not be satisfied – he wants Penang to set its goals even higher. “At the end of the day, we are able to keep producing athletes. We want them to go into the national and international arena. Penang produced world-class athletes like Lee Chong Wei, Goh Jin Wei, Nicol David, Low Wee Wern, and Chan Lu Yi. We cannot be just sitting here talking about Sukma. We have to think higher than that. We need to raise the bar.”
Tan also wants to broaden the development focus outside of just elite programmes. “It’s not good enough to focus on our elite programmes. We must make sure we have ever ready backup squads. Once the grassroots come up, then there’s development. If you don’t have a good backup squad coming in, then you will have a gap. After Lee, there is a big talent gap. We must make sure we have backup squads ready to knock on the door.”
Again, Tan points out the need for patience.
“We cannot say that we will get results tomorrow. You cannot do that with high performance sports. It will take years.”
2020 is only four years away. Will Tan stay past his self-imposed deadline? “Directors come and go,” he says. “What’s most important is what happens after. We are on the right track. We must follow the masterplan closely, so that the Penang Sports Council can be reborn.”
Jeffrey Hardy Quah is a freelance writer and editor.