SINGAPORE: As the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) embarks on long-term, sweeping youth-centric changes in the S.League next season, there are some who believe that infrastructural investment – specifically in applying the latest knowledge, methodologies and equipment in sports science – can also help local football in the medium-term.
Helping the current pool of professional players prepare and train in the best possible way would make up for the lack of naturally prodigious football talent in Singapore and resources should be allocated.
Such a view is held by Dr Swarup Mukherjee, an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education’s Physical Education and Sports Science programme. Having observed the inner workings of the FAS as its ad-hoc consultant in various capacities over more than a decade, Dr Mukherjee believes a scientific approach is the best way forward in improving the level of elite football in Singapore.
“The challenge is two-fold – to catch-up and to move ahead. In the past, we have seen a number of coaches come and go in Singapore … new plans being launched, programmes being developed, money being pumped into the budget, but none could make an impact on the local footballing standards,” said Dr Mukherjee, whose doctorate dissertation was on football training and performance.
With local football at the lowest that it has ever been, he believes that a turning point can be achieved with the application of scientific methods in player preparation, at the professional and elite levels of local football.
“From FIFA ranking 76 in 1993, we are 172 today. This is a clear indication of the fact that something critical was lacking. I have been an associate with Singapore football for the last 14 years and I strongly believe that the lacking component was the development and incorporation of modern science and technology in the sport,” said Dr Mukherjee.
He added: “If we are to revive football, using modern scientific methods, new evidence and latest technology are absolutely indispensable in the process.
“New programmes, coach development and youth football development are all purposeful. But no vision, policy, strategy or programme in current times can be complete without incorporating science and technology.”
QUANTIFICATION OF DATA
As an academic discipline that studies how the human body responds to physical activity in a cellular and whole body perspective, sports science can now quantify human attributes and athletic performance, according to Dr Mukherjee.
“These include (and are not limited to) diet, hydration, sleep, stress … in addition to strength, speed, endurance, power and neuromuscular functions,” he said. “This means we can better understand a player’s strength and deficits, in order to provide reliable, valid and objective feedback to coaches, strength and conditioning teams … and even to the players.
“Such an approach significantly increases the probability of more focused and evidence-based approach to player training and development to ensure peak performance.”
That way, subjectivity in coaching can be reduced, leading to a better way of preparation of players at a high-level, according to Dr Mukherjee. “Using science and technology removes any bias related to player training and selection. It is what it is. You are certain to get the best,” he said.
“It also empowers the players who are now better aware about themselves and are more likely to take a greater responsibility for their training, diet, hydration, sleep and other performance-related aspects,” added Dr Mukherjee, who believes sports science will lead to a better sense of belonging and professionalism in local football.
THE NEED FOR SPORTS SCIENCE IN FOOTBALL
With other top footballing nations already enhancing their training with the latest knowledge in exercise physiology, biomechanics and nutrition, Dr Mukherjee strongly believes in moving beyond current methods of elite player preparation in Singapore. “We need to acknowledge that the human eye can see only up to a limit, the mind can analyse only up to a limit. Beyond that, you need the help of technology,” he said.
“This provides coaches with a rich and robust body of evidence that can raise the technical and tactical standards of coaching and subsequently the game,” he said. “Measurable parameters using technology can be purposefully used in continuous coach education that will certainly enrich and empower our coaches, build the long-desired bridge between the science and art of football and bring the best out of our footballing talents.”
CHALLENGES IN APPLICATION
Football officials and S.League coaches Channel NewsAsia spoke to, generally agree on the benefits that sports science can bring to local football. All of them, however, agree that it is best applied at club level, where elite players spend most of their time preparing themselves.
At national team level, players are only together for a period of two weeks or a month before embarking on major games. This represents too small a window, given the long-term nature of sports science application, according to FAS deputy president Bernard Tan.
“Certainly, at a national level where we get the players two weeks before a major tournament, a lot of this has got to be down to the players and their clubs,” said Tan. “The FAS cannot make the national players fit, the national players would have to come to national level training already fit. All the national coach can do is to prepare the players for two weeks to get them into shape for his required style of play for that particular game.”
The FAS though, does have a sports science and medicine arm for the national teams. But according to Tan, raising the level of play represents a difficult task in practice. “We do already employ sports science and data collection to track our players’ performance and we should use more of them. But one of the bigger conundrum which we need to solve is how do we get our players’ fitness levels to be that of international levels,” said Tan.
“I’m not saying that they’re not fit, but to reach the level of fitness that the top international level is at, is very difficult. At the top level of the international game, the pace is very fast, the number of passes are very high, the distance covered by players and the number of sprints each player makes is also very high,” he added.
“We have not really solved this conundrum, as I have heard a number of hypothesis of why we’re not there. One of which is that, unless you play in a very high intensity league, then you’ll never be able to play to that level,” explained Tan. “In which case we’d then need to up the tempo of our S.League, in which most of our national players come from."
He added: "Another way would be to have our best national players play in high intensity leagues elsewhere. Some also argue that we should be more targeted in ways in which we do our fitness trainings.”
Another such hypothesis is the man-management skills and charisma of certain coaches. "I think sports science does not play that much of a role, it is more of how the coaches are in terms of being able to verbally motivate players to put in a high level of effort in both training and games," said a senior S.League player who declined to be named.
"Sometimes it's a case of how much a player wants to play for the coach, and fight in the name of the flag on the jersey."
COLLABORATIONS WITH TERTIARY INSTITUTES?
Having been part of the Singapore Sports Institute before his current stint with the FAS, sports science expert Faizul Wahid is the sole data analyst for the football association, tasked with assisting the national coaches in preparing the players for competition.
His job includes the implementation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) based fitness tracking devices, which the national team now uses to track player data during training. He also does in-game data analytics during matches, as well as the post-game preparations of the team.
He believes more investment should be done in ramping up the sports science capabilities of professional football in Singapore. “There has to be investment in this area … but as with any investment, there will be a need to see a Return of Investment (ROI),” acknowledged Faizul.
“With football-specific sports science though, this ROI is definitely not immediate. But once you give it time, you’d definitely see the heights where the sport will go.”
Faizul gave examples where sports science benefitted a sporting ecosystem overseas. “A classic example is Australia, they didn’t do so well in sport in the 80s,” he said.
“But they revamped themselves and set up the Australian Institute of Sport and look at where they are now after 30 years down the road. You cannot expect to do something now, and expect to get in the World Cup in four years,” he added. “It doesn’t work that way.”
For a start, he suggests tapping on more sports science personnel to assist club coaches in the S.League, given the substantial amount of sports science graduates in the country. “I would say, clubs can start small. Get universities to chip in, and get interns in sports science to assist them in setting up a sports science arm. And that is when people like me in the FAS can give appropriate consultations along the way,” said Faizul.
“The lecturers in the polytechnics themselves are also people with a lot of knowledge, and they too can collaborate and assist clubs to help them improve in a scientific manner,” he added. “It’s a matter of using the people that we have around us to assist us.”
The aim of sports science, though, is not to replace the work of coaches. Ultimately, both coaches and sports scientists should work together in the same goal of preparing players to the best of their abilities, according to NIE's Dr Mukherjee, "Singapore may never find footballing geniuses like Maradona or Lionel Messi.
"But if we can help the best players that we have perform close to 100 per cent of their capabilities, then we should allocate resources to help them do so."