Writers: Joyce Er (15A01A), Louisa Li (16A13A), Sze Perng (16A13A), Kaiying (16S06E)
In light of the conclusion of the recent SEA games culminating in Singapore’s best showing with a total haul of 259 medals, the local sporting scene has been heated up with discussion of medal hopefuls at next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Inevitably, such discussions veer towards Rio Olympics hopeful, Dr Mok Ying Ren (RI, 2004; RJC, 2006), a Rafflesian and one of the Republic’s top distance runners. Dr Mok won SEA Games gold medals in the men’s triathlon and marathon in 2007 and 2013 respectively and is currently taking one-year no-pay leave to pursue his Olympic dreams. Raffles Press was fortunate to be able to conduct an interview with him to get a better understanding of his journey as a student athlete, eventual transition to pursuing sports professionally, the challenges faced by local athletes contemplating to do so and the avenues through which they can seek support.
Surprisingly, Dr Mok reveals that his first step into sports was not running, but swimming. His parents started him out with weekly survival swimming lessons and he later moved on to competitive swimming in primary school, which he continued in RI. However he found it ‘difficult to muster the enthusiasm to swim up and down the black line day in and day out.’ Seeking a new challenge he ventured into triathlons during his time in Raffles Junior College before deciding to focus on distance running.
Training to be one of the Republic’s best distance runners and pursuing his studies in the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine was no easy feat (he completed his studies in 2012 and is now a resident in orthopaedic surgery at the National University Health System). Dr Mok attributes his accomplishments to the environment and teachers in Raffles Institution which instilled in him the fundamental values of discipline and determination. These were paramount during his formative years in Raffles and contributed towards his future successes. In his own words, Dr Mok states that ‘RI enables students to engage and excel in various pursuits. It was in RI where I was nurtured to be a student-athlete.’
He fondly recalls the guidance of Mr Steven Quek and Mr Tay Meng Kiat, the coach and teacher in charge of the cross country team respectively and the methods in which they enforced strict discipline. For example, they would ask the team to spend the afternoon studying before training so that they could sleep and recover post training without having to worry about studies. Sharing with us a particular incident, Dr Mok reveals that Mr Quek had once scolded him for being too indulgent in his hobbies. In Mr Quek’s words, ‘99% of the school population are not National Champions. If you want to be one, you can’t act like 99% of the students.’ Recalling his advice, Dr Mok directed his attention towards his studies and training.
Upon entering university he realised the pertinence of such advice, having observed that the number of potential distractions increase when one is given more freedom. Dr Mok notes that
Beyond his coaches, Dr Mok credits the strong sports culture in RI for building interest in sports and support for athletes. He recalls how during the National Schools sports season, sports captains would update the school with match results during morning assembly. This provided vital encouragement for the athletes. Training in close proximity with athletes from other sports also created a friendly and cohesive atmosphere.
Furthermore, the extensive and comprehensive support system and help RI teachers rendered towards student athletes contributed greatly towards their studies and their sports performance as well. Dr Mok admits that ‘I am really in awe of the long hours they spend teaching and clarifying concepts to students who have missed classes because of competitions. I wouldn’t have been able to do as well in my studies without the support and encouragement from teachers such as Mrs Jasbir Koh, who conducted makeup classes, and Mr Tay who offered to give extra Mathematics tutorials to teammates who needed them.’
It is against this backdrop that Dr Mok encourages athletes to go through the entire education system before considering training full time, as even ‘full time athletes do not utilise most of the day as one can only train that many hours in one day’. As studying is less physically demanding, it provides a good balance to have ‘mental training’ after a good bout of physical training. As Dr Mok mentions, ‘the challenge of having to juggle both sports and studies also makes you appreciate the time you have when you are training.’ This is why he is pursuing a Masters in Sports Medicine with the University of Queensland via distance learning, even though he is currently training full-time in the US.
However, Dr Mok notes that Singapore still faces many challenges in improving our sports scene. For example, our humid climate is not ideal for endurance sports training such as cycling or distance running, as it ‘impedes the body’s ability to train at a high intensity’. Also, societal norms are likely to inhibit an athlete from pursuing sports professionally, as ‘being an athlete is not respected in Singapore; the perception is that sports do not provide one with long-term career prospects’. It will always be a tough battle, but he hopes that the ‘increased focus on sports recently’ will change perceptions for the better.
Indeed, sports associations and the government have done much to change this issue: mainstream media has been covering the school sports scene more closely, which is a step in the right direction. Dr Mok believes that getting the word out that there are young Singaporeans with the potential to do well, who are training hard will ‘increase public awareness of local athletes and their endeavours’.
However, the popularity of a sport depends on the athletes’ results and the publicity given to the sport, which, as Mr Mok puts it, is much like a ‘chicken and egg’ issue. Competitive swimming, for example, has gained popularity over the years as children are inspired by the accomplishments of older athletes, which are widely publicised by the media. Moreover, parents often introduce their children to sports that Singapore is dominant in, believing that their children will achieve greater success in such sports. Dr Mok also thinks that Youth Development Programmes are key to producing top athletes in Singapore – Sailing and Swimming are vastly different sports in terms of accessibility, but both manage to churn out world champions. The key denominator is a solid youth development programme.
Speaking as an athlete, Dr Mok suggests that sports authorities should ‘create a good training and competition environment to raise the standard of endurance sports in Singapore’ by holding night races, and providing sports science and medical services after office hours and on weekends, as most athletes are either working or studying full time. Though this may be costly and logistically difficult, he feels that it ‘ultimately benefits the athletes’.
Dr Mok feels that successful athletes who have gone through the system themselves know how certain policies can affect athletes, and are in a good position to ‘provide constructive feedback to the authorities’. Just this year, Nominated MP Dr Benedict Tan (a 3 time Sportsman of the year) spoke up for the sports community in Parliament. The government has also recognised that sports is a great way to gel a nation together, and has taken big steps towards making sports accessible to all. Singapore now has politicians who are very much into sports promotion. ‘I have not seen such a high level of support at the ministerial level in sports since I started out in 1998.’ Dr Mok observes. As for himself, though, he has this to say: ‘I heed the advice that Mr Mag used to dish out on the rostrum: “There is a time and place for everything”. At the moment, I am focused on taking my running to the next level, and will return from that to complete my training in Orthopaedic Surgery.’
Inevitably, the path to becoming a professional athlete is one fraught with difficulty, particularly in Singapore where our sporting culture is in its early stages of infancy. Dr Mok concurs that ‘With support from stakeholders such as schools, parents, and national sport associations, young athletes should not feel the pressure to defer their studies in order to cope with sporting demands.’ Indeed, the general consensus has been that more needs to be done to nurture potential home-grown and develop them to their fullest potential. However, student athletes find it a challenge to cope with both sports and studies due to the emphasis placed on one’s academic qualifications in Singapore. Dr Mok believes that ‘one can strike a balance with the right mindset, attitude and support from the school and your family. Schools should be working towards creating the best environment for student athletes to thrive in. Once we are able to produce student athletes who are successful at the SEA or Asian games, it would be much easier for them to garner sponsorships when they consider shifting their training overseas.’
To prospective student athletes who wish to follow in his footsteps and surpass this generation of trailblazers, Dr Mok offers them this piece of advice
The answers are obvious, we just need to do it.’