The Uncertain Life After Sports for Singaporean athletes
By Rishika Ghanamoorthy, NUSPA Social Policy Division
Life after sport is a scary thing for many competitive athletes. Many athletes plan their lives around their training and competitions as every little habit adds up and impacts their performance. When your life revolves around your sport, it becomes one with your identity. Athletes are in committed relationships with their sport day in day out. After the highs and the lows, the adrenaline-filled days and nights, the glamour, and all things sport, there comes a time that every athlete dreads: retirement.
The transition back to regular life is a tough, unavoidable reality. This was how I felt personally as a full-time netball student-athlete when I graduated from the Singapore Sports School as COVID-19 hit. It was one of the lowest of lows I experienced and recovering from this loss is still an ongoing process of adjustment and grief. I am still trying to find my identity outside of netball. Initially, I found it challenging to open up and share about this with others, as I assumed it was a silly concern and that I was just being dramatic. However, when I started opening up to my former teammates and coaches, I started to realise that we were all going through the same experience. With more research, I found out that my feelings were valid and commonplace among many athletes — yet rarely discussed openly in Singapore. Thus, this article is inspired by one of the lowest points in my life and is dedicated to all those who are lost. I hope that by opening up the discussion of retirement in the sporting world, we can work towards building a better environment for our Singaporean athletes.
Beyond the mental impact of retirement, finance and finding a career identity are major issues that retired athletes face. Throughout their sporting careers, Singaporean athletes do not just spend time training for every upcoming competition. Another significant part of their competitive life is studying and working to prepare themselves for their retirement from sports. Most Singaporean athletes do not compete professionally and often have to manage full-time jobs as well. In this vein, they are just like every other Singaporean student and working adult. The cultural expectation of needing to be academically successful above all has left many Singaporean athletes with little choice but to pursue their academics actively while being competitive at the same time.
Being an athlete myself, I can vouch for how every Singaporean athlete is frequently reminded that “you can only play sports to a certain age, you need to study hard to get a good job in the future” or “you cannot earn money through sport alone in Singapore”. Many national athletes are also juggling their careers during the day and rushing off for training at night. There is a general consensus that if our national athletes continue to juggle between both commitments with such a demanding schedule, it is incredibly difficult for Singapore to attain better sporting achievements. How then can Singapore better support our athletes and prepare our athletes for life after sport?
Speaking With a National-Athlete
To find out more about how other athletes felt about the student-athlete culture in Singapore, I recently sat down with national netball player Cheyenne Rae Howard for a candid interview on her own experiences in the industry. She stresses that “as student-athletes, we need to erase the stigma that you have to put one first. With the right support system, you can do well in both.”
Cheyenne is soon headed to Australia to play for netball premier league Origin Premier League for six months after being scouted whilst playing locally at the Netball Super League. Prior to her big move, she was juggling a full-time job together with her national athlete commitments. Making the decision to move to Australia for a while meant that she had to leave her current job.
While the decision was tough, her strong network helped with her decisions. Apart from Netball Singapore providing support to her, Deloittee, a business management consultancy firm, is also donating a large sum of money towards her stint in Sydney. Coupled together with the support of her family, she is thus able to pursue her sporting dreams without sacrificing a huge portion of her career goals. That being said, not all Singaporean athletes would be able to sustain pay cuts and time away from family — especially when their families are dependent on them for caregiving or playing the breadwinner role. Athletes simply do not get paid enough in Singapore, which leads many to give up higher sporting aspirations so that they can provide for their families.
How can we then support our athletes more? What more can be done?
The Importance of The Workplace
Cheyenne had some observations about how local companies interact with working athletes and shared some of her thoughts on what we can adopt here in Singapore that multinational corporations seem to be adopting. Something unbeknownst to me was how athletes representing Singapore during international competitions are not eligible for “competition leave.” Instead, they have to make use of their personal leave when competing internationally. Cheyenne shared that local companies can be “more flexible and accepting of athlete lifestyles” as competing for Singapore should be seen as a source of national pride. My immediate first thought was how this would not be very economically advantageous to local companies, which would make them unfriendly to such policies.
When I asked her how we can then convince local companies of this idea, she brought up the example of Deloitte. For context, Deloitte has become a household name for many Singaporean athletes as it is one of the largest companies actively supporting many national athletes’ careers, while also being one of Netball Singapore’s partners. She attributed Deloitte’s popularity to their efforts in building such a good reputation and being supportive of their employees. Specifically, the reputation of being flexible has allowed them to have a constant flow of athletes looking to join their team.
She went on to talk about Low Kean Yew, Singapore badminton’s pride and joy. When he won the world championships, many Singaporeans came together to raise money and donate to him as a recognition for his hard work. “If companies support him, he would feel supported and more secure. People who want to find out more about how Low Kean Yew reached his level of success would research him and they would find that his company supports him. People would spread the word about his company and this would garner local and overseas exposure. It is almost as if it is free marketing. All companies have to do is be more flexible, trust that athletes will deliver their due diligence, and they can receive such benefits,” Cheyenne shared.
While this still might seem outlandish to local companies, it got me thinking about how hiring athletes might be advantageous to companies due to their work ethic. I was reminded of the statistic that “95% of Fortune 500 CEOs were athletes” who played sports at the college level . Furthermore, 94% of female CEOs either currently play sports or used to be athletes . While we should not confuse correlation with causation, we cannot deny that sports build character in very unique ways that can be very beneficial to companies. Maybe, just maybe, we can help support athletes better by teaching them how to translate the soft skills they have picked up from years of training in their sport to the corporate world. More importantly, I think we can and should educate our athletes on how to sell their skills better. We need to help them see the real value and worth of their skills.
I was inspired to bring this concept to Singaporean athletes when I came across an American podcast. The podcast, “Court to Corporate'', was started by former Harvard basketball player Kirby Porter . She started this podcast to help athletes transition to the corporate world by interviewing other athletes about their stories and how they made it. She shared about their countless years of sacrifice and training, which meant that summertime work opportunities were usually taken away from student-athletes as they had to commit to training full time during the holidays.
This was in stark contrast where many other students obtained headstarts due to their ability to take up internships and even work part-time. Kirby Porter realised that many athletes were unaware of how to transfer the skills they had picked up from their respective sports and to effectively carry it over to the corporate world . This inspired her to start this podcast and to me, it was brilliant. This would be very effective when applied to our Singapore athletes as well. If we push children to do sports because of all its benefits, why don’t we empower young adults and youths to recognise and acknowledge that the skills from sport can actually be very beneficial in the working world?
How Our Education Policies Come Into Play
Similar to what Deloitte is doing for our athletes, our Singapore government has also taken commendable strides towards supporting our athletes such as through the introduction of the spexScholarship. This scholarship is awarded to Singapore’s top athletes who are in contention for podium finishes at top-level competitions such as the Olympic Games or World Championships. This scholarship has supported athletes like fencer Amita Berthier, hurdler Dipna Lim Prasad, and shooter Martina Lindsay P Veloso. The money from spexScholarship could not only be used for the athlete’s sporting needs, but also their education and career. Outside of financial aid, programmatic support is also given to the athletes so that they can excel at Major Games. This is one example of recent initiatives aimed at brewing a better support system for our athletes, as it really does take a village to raise a champion.
There are also small-scale structural changes that are being made. For instance, the incorporation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program at the Singapore Sports School has given the option for athletes to pursue an unconventional path in an arguably rigid education system in Singapore. High performing Year 5 and 6 IB student-athletes can apply to extend their two-year diploma program to a 3 or 4-year program. While they may graduate later, this allows them to spread out the intensity of their diploma program so that they have more time to focus on their sports and prepare for major competitions. This has helped several of my own classmates who are now national athletes such as squash player Au Yeong Wai Yhann, triathlete Nicholas Rachmadi, shooter Adele Tan, shuttler Crystal Wong, and many more.
However, similar options could likewise be given to more athletes and such support systems could be more accessible. Other athletes, such as world-class fencer Amita Berthier and squash player Au Yeong Wai Yhann, have chosen to even take gap years and delay their education altogether, which have aided them in their sporting performance. Whilst this pathway of education has proven to be helpful to athletes, it is still not widely accepted in Singapore to delay education for sporting aspirations. For such frameworks to be effective, there needs to be a mindset shift from both the Ministry of Education and Singaporeans themselves to understand that it can be fruitful to delay education for sporting goals. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that it does come from a place of privilege to be able to delay one’s education because not every family can financially support their children during these gap years.
Thoughts From A Retired Sportsman
Closer to home, I also decided to interview a retired track and field athlete. Similar to my sporting journey, I wanted to get the perspective of someone who decided to stop their sport to focus on their education, career, and other aspects of their life such as finding their identity outside of their sport. I sat down with the former track-and-field captain of Hwa Chong Institution, Hong Wen Kai.
When asked about his view of the student-athlete lifestyle in Singapore, he agreed that in order to achieve success in one aspect of life, sacrifices must be made. He shared that “the best way to be a student-athlete is to know when to give up the other” and that there are times when sports will have to take precedence over studies and vice versa. Wen Kai talked about his personal experience of having to recognise timeframes when one needs to do so. He elaborated that Singapore is “no place to be an athlete if you plan to get rich.” If you do want to achieve high sporting achievements, he went on to share his own observation of having to “be poor” first before embarking on your career journey. After all, not many can afford to delay their education or career aspirations to achieve their sporting dreams.
From his experience in the sports scene, he shared possible changes that can be implemented such as paying national coaches and coaches in general more. This is definitely a long-overdue change that is needed. Many local coaches have to juggle between multiple coaching jobs or other jobs which do reduce the quality and focus on every athlete.
He also mentioned that this translated to the need to provide all national athletes with allowance at the very least to cover transport funds for instance. National athletes often have to travel from their workplace or schools to get to their training venues and then back home at very late timings. Sometimes, they do not get to eat till after training due to the late timings. All this impacts the quality of the training itself and the benefits from training are reduced if our athletes are not even getting proper nutrition or recovery time.
Finally, he mentions a very important change that should be made - that qualifications to use sporting facilities should be eased. Outside of Covid-19 concerns, where possible, more athletes who are not currently in the national team but are training as often in hopes to train themselves up to make the national team, should be allowed to use the high-quality sporting facilities available around Singapore. By relaxing these rules, we can get more athletes training to increase the level of competition, which would translate to better sporting achievements for Singapore.
Ultimately, Despite gradual steps taken to support our local athletes, Singapore nonetheless still has a long way to go when it comes to supporting our athletes. We are a far cry from having athletes from various sports turn professional. However, what we can do for now, I believe, is that we can empower our athletes to see and recognise their worth, support them by building communities that are flexible such as Deloitte’s culture, and most importantly, find pride in our sporting achievements. Without national pride, convincing our nation of how sports are important would prove to be an impossible task.
Rishika Ghanamoorthy is a Year 2 Political Science undergraduate. As a student-athlete, much of her time is spent at the track. She also works as a part-time netball coach hoping to inspire young women and empower them through the sport of netball as she wants to give back to the sport that has done much for her. Outside of sports, Rishika likes to read and takes keen interest in topics like mindfulness meditation and philosophy.