A Winning Mind

Singapore , 22 Sep 2015

A Winning Mind

Ever since Team Singapore rower Saiyidah Aisyah, won Singapore’s first ever individual Gold medal at the 2013 Southeast Asian Games women’s lightweight single sculls 2,000m event she has become the subject of lots of attention. Looking pretty in neon pink and with a silver Olympic rings pendant adorning her tanned neck, she was prepared for a photoshoot after this interview.

Perhaps rowing was a sport or an extra-curricular activity for Aisyah a decade ago. But after winning three bronzes in the 2009 SEA Games, Aisyah realised that she wanted to do more. Setting her sights on a Gold medal in the 2013 SEA Games she made several unprecedented moves - . she took no-pay leave for three months before SEA Games so that she could concentrate full-time on training, booked a ticket to train overseas under Alan Bennett in Australia and more importantly, made a shift in her attitude. 

Her eventual Gold medal win didn’t come as a surprise. “What I felt instead was this huge sense of relief. I’d felt pressure being the only rower representing Singapore, so if I didn’t get it, the gold medal count would have been zero. I’ve been participating in the SEA Games three times and each time we came home with the bronze... I told myself that I didn’t want the bronze again.”

Aisyah decided to change her strategy as she thought of her competitors. They were all professional rowers while she had to divide her time between training and her career as a student development officer in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. “If I continue training the way I had in previous years, I would never match up to them. I needed to do something different to get the results I wanted.” 

Fortunately, Aisyah had a supportive employer who understood the demands of being a professional athlete. Being a sportsman himself. he was aware of the level of commitment needed to be a national athlete and supported Aisyah in her decisions.

Training hasn’t been a piece of cake. Aisyah described it as “perseverance all the way”. “I hated training alone as a single scull rower - going up and down a lane again and again alone; I didn’t like being the centre of the coach’s attention. When the coach’s eyes are constantly on you, he spots all your mistakes. You can’t relax for a single second.”

A Change of Strategy

Perseverance was also very much called for when the coach was being particularly tough on her. She had gone to Australia to seek out Alan Bennett, a veteran coach with a habit of speaking his mind frankly. He knew Aisyah’s gold aspirations and pushed her hard. “I told myself that he wants the best for me. Still, after a difficult training when he has been critical, I had no one to talk to as was away from my family and friends. Even back home, I seldom confide in my family about my rowing woes. I felt so isolated.”

Her perseverance was also tested two months before the Games when her nose was broken in a freak accident involving a surf board. While the injury set back her training, it did not set her determination back.

Perseverance would not end with the SEA Games. “In the months leading up to the Games, I could shut everything out because I knew the Games was coming up. But now that the Games are over, and I am back in Singapore, I had to get back into that mode for the Asian Games. In fact, for the first few months, I yearned to have a partner again so that I could at least have someone to train with. But the reality is I don’t. So I just need to press on, because I am committed to doing well in the Asian Games..”

“Then, there’s the Olympics. That is my ultimate goal. And it’s in 2016! The competition will be harder, which means more training, more focus - all the way up to 2016.”

One value that Aisyah has learnt while training is confidence. Recalling one incident, Aisyah explained, “One Malaysian rower was getting nervous because of the wind that was coming sideways. That’s unfavourable for racing. But I wasn’t worried at all. I didn’t think of the wind, the water or the competitors. I was there to win; I had trained to the best of my ability, so the conditions were not the thing on my mind.”

On Sportsmanship

Another value that Aisyah found herself exercising at the Games was the attitude of respect. “These girls I was competing against were awesome. The Thai rower, Phuttharaksa Neegree, was my idol! She was the one I could never beat. I’ve always looked up to her – for her qualities of determination and generosity; for what she had done for rowing in her country. When I was new to the Games, she gave us generous tips on how to train even though we were her rivals. She is an Olympian but humble - she always remembered to shake our hands after a race.”

“Although I beat her at this year’s Games, I still respect and admire her a lot. I went up to her after the race and shook her hand and said ‘Let’s meet again!’ Whether you win or lose, it’s important to respect your opponents.”

“The rowers are such a small group in the world, and we have a common goal – we want to see our sport grow. I would look out for new rowers at each competition. Sometimes we connect up on Facebook. Even though I know that, one day, these girls will be my competitors, it is nice to see new girls in the sport.”

Game for Life Toolkit

Before she left for her three-month leave, Aisyah was introduced to Sport Singapore’s Game for Life Toolkit as part of Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Student Development Team.

As a Student Development officer, Aisyah oversees sports clubs for soccer, dragon boat and sailing, among others. She does not coach the students per se, but she is in charge of hiring coaches, buying equipment and managing the club finances. She is also required to coach classes in sports like netball. These classes are a compulsory part of the curriculum and Aisyah meets her fair share of reluctant students. During classes, these 17-year-olds ignore her instructions, flout her rules and show disrespectful attitudes. It is tempting for a teacher in such a situation to lose her cool and scold the rude students in front of their peers, but Aisyah restrains herself. Instead, she sits down with the student and talks respectfully to him about the need to show respect to the teacher and to give the sport a chance by keeping an open mind. The latter solution requires more self-control and patience but Aisyah perseveres.

Values Inculcation Through Sport

Aisyah reflected, “Growing up, I’ve never had role models on how to teach values through sports, so it was hard for me. We are so caught up teaching the skills of how to play the sport. Everybody wants to see results – at the end of the academic year, people want to see that the students are playing the sport capably, especially if it is a competitive sport. Nobody checks whether the students have caught any values.”

Teaching values needs more contact time. Teachers need to bond with the students, so it’s not something Aisyah can jump into right from the first lesson. “I bond with my students by having fun with them, and not being too hard on them; and never shame them in front of their peers. Every lesson needs to be planned beforehand, we need to think through the skills and the values we want to impart, and at the same time, make it fun for the students so that they would want to come back again and again.”

Aisyah did not have opportunity to apply what she had learned in the Game for Life Toolkit upon her students, but she was very enthusiastic about it. She remembered how, as a primary school PE teacher, she had to craft each lesson literally from scratch. There was no template, no examples to draw from. So, when she saw that the GFL Toolkit incorporates values from performance values to social values and moral values and how to bring these out through sports, she was impressed.

Moreover, the templates allow teachers to chart teams’ or students’ development throughout the year. “This is important, because it gives us something tangible to sit down with the students at any time, and help them to analyse their development as well as chart the goals they wish to achieve next.”

She would definitely recommend PE teachers and student development officers to use the GFL Toolkit. “Students are so lucky nowadays!” she exclaimed.

To know more about Game For Life initiative, you can come to this page.


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