Interview by Enrico Varella/Leadership Lessons from Triathlons

Singapore Marathon 2008

Singapore’s fastest marathoners at 8.30am on December 7th, 2008 – (from left) Daniel Ling, Rameshon, Ben Tan. (Photo © Les Tan/Red Sports file photo)

I recall that I interviewed Dr. Ben Tan in 1991 for 8 Days magazine. I made a prediction that he would be part of a group of national athletes that would win gold in the SEA Games.

True to his hard work and performance, he delivered the goods. He made a big splash, and continued to leave achievements in his wake.

After he retired from competitive sailing, he left a prominent trail of personal records in the marathon. Who would imagine that he was amphibious in nature!

Dr Ben Tan is a three-time Sportsperson of the Year, and one of Singapore's fastest long-distance runners. He is author of the recently published Run for Your Life! - The Complete Marathon Guide (Marshall Cavendish).

Dr. Tan is currently the Head & Senior Consultant Sports Physician at the Changi Sports Medicine Centre, and the Medical Director of the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre. He is also a published author in peer-reviewed Sports Medicine and Sports Science journals. He also wrote Fight the Fat - What you Must Know and Do to Lose Weight (Times Edition, 2007).

Leadership Lessons from Triathlons (LLFT) interviewed Dr Ben Tan prior to his official book launch, and it was an educational process. He makes it sound simple, and practical.

Enrico: How much do you sail today?
Ben: As the Deputy President of Singapore Sailing and the one responsible for Singapore Sailing’s High Performance Systems, I spend a lot of time with the sailing community – unfortunately, most of that is administrative and strategic work, rather than sailing on the water.

Enrico: Will you be involved in the SYOG?
Ben: I serve on the Board of the SYOG Organizing Committee. I’m also involved with the SYOG as a member of the Singapore Sports Council, member of the Singapore National Olympic Committee, Chairman of the SNOC Athletes’ Commission, Deputy President of Singapore Sailing, and vice-chairman of the Football Association of Singapore Medical Committee.

Enrico: You have established a strong reputation as a sports medicine specialist. Did your sporting background influence you?
Ben: Yes, certainly. Because of my sports background, Sports Medicine is the discipline in Medicine that is closest to my comfort zone. It helps me to better relate to my patients and better manage their problems. To be a Sports Physician, you need to be exposed to various sports, from soccer to skiing.

Enrico: What are some of the roles you assume in your practice/business?
Ben: Head and Senior Consultant Sports Physician, Changi Sports Medicine Centre; and concurrently Medical Director, Singapore Sports Medicine Centre

Enrico: You also have a remarkable reputation as a marathoner. What made you move to long distance running?
Ben: When I retired from competitive (i.e. international-level sailing) sailing after the 1996 Olympics, I wanted to stay fit and disciplined. And to challenge myself, I chose marathon running as it is diametrically opposite to sailing.

While sailing is a very technical and tactical strength sport, marathon running is relatively simple (technically and tactically) but a lot more aerobic.

Apart from my systematic approach to training (or to anything that I do), I did not carry over any advantage when I switched to running.

I practically started from scratch. My physique was not made for running – for example, the ideal weight for Laser sailing is 78-82 kg (I was 78 kg) but that is far too heavy for a marathoner.

I had to ‘morph’ my body from that of a 78 kg strength athlete to a lean 64 kg distance runner. I increased my aerobic capacity from 56 ml/min/kg (ideal for Laser sailors) to 70 ml/min/kg currently.

Enrico: What have been some of your best running achievements? Boston Marathon?
Ben: The memorable marathons that I’ve done are Boston, Ohtawara, Berlin, Prague, and Melbourne – in fact, I’ve never regretted going for any of my previous marathons. Each year, I usually do StanChart Singapore Marathon plus one overseas marathon.

I’ve registered for London Marathon next year, and with that, I would have completed three of the five Marathon Majors (comprising Boston, Berlin, London, New York and Chicago), leaving me with two more to go.

I would also like to try some of the ‘exotic’ marathons like the Outer Mongolia Marathon and Antarctica Marathon later on.

Enrico: Will you consider doing ultra-marathons, or even the Ironman triathlon? If you do, which ones are on your cards?
Ben: Will stick to marathons and a little bit of sailing for now. I also snow-ski (annually), wakeboard, scuba dive, do inline-skating, play tennis, do weight training, etc. So, there is more than enough to do already.

Enrico: How much of endurance sports influences your leadership?
Ben: Sports in general (rather than just endurance sports) influences my leadership. In team sports (e.g. two-man boats), the importance of leadership is obvious. However, many do not realize that in individual sports such as Laser racing (i.e. one-man boat) and running, leadership is critical as well. In individual sports, you do much better when you train as a team.

When I was sailing, I had a strong and large team of sparring partners that propelled me to a higher level – each had their respective forte (e.g. tactics, wind shift-reading, light wind skills, strong wind boat handling, etc.), and collectively, they provided me with the challenge I needed for every aspect of sailing.

In running, Rameshon, Daniel Ling, and I trained together prior to the StanChart Singapore Marathon 2008 – as a result, we finished 1-2-3 in that order. To keep a team working effectively together, there must be leadership.

A good leader also knows how to be a follower, be able to switch roles, and adapt his/her leadership style, depending on what is best for each situation. The leadership skills I picked up from sports are all very portable – I apply them at work too, managing a team with a wide spectrum of professional and cultural backgrounds.

Enrico: Which qualities (including values and beliefs) can you extract from running into your leadership?
Ben: The discipline (leading by example), and managing of team dynamics.

Enrico: Tell us more about your book. What is it about? Who is your publisher?
Ben: “Run for Your Life! – The Complete Marathon Guide”, published by Marshall Cavendish, brings together expertise including Sports Physicians, Exercise Physiologists, Sports Trainers, Sports Dietitians, Sports Podiatrists, Sports Physiotherapists, coaches, and accomplished runners.

The result is a comprehensive training manual that will help you train systematically and effectively, so that you can fast-rack your progress and reach your goals earlier, with fewer or no injuries. The book is well-organized and easy to read, with clear illustrations. There are training and practical tips by the who’s who of Singapore’s running community.

Enrico How did you decide to write this book?
Ben: I realized that we have lots of individual expertise in Singapore, but till now no one has brought them together. We believe that with an effective training plan, you can enhance your performance while avoiding injuries – and this is exactly what my patients and the running community needs.

This is a book by the sports medicine, sports science, coaching, and running community, for the running community.

Enrico: What do you hope to achieve from this book?
Ben: With this book, I would like to see many more Singaporeans achieving their personal goals, more Singaporeans joining the sub-3 hour club, runners having fun during training and competition, and fewer running injuries.

Enrico: What were the challenges you faced, writing this book?
Ben: Run for Your Life! has over 46 contributors from various disciplines. The challenge was in putting all that expertise together in a coherent book that flows smoothly. It was also challenging to explain scientific concepts in layman’s terms, but we achieved that because we were fortunate enough to have Stephanie Pee as our editor and Lock Hong Liang, a passionate runner, as our graphic designer.

Enrico: Thank you, Doctor. You are a splendid runner. I have my work cut out for me to shave my 3:50 PB. I am inspired.
Ben: All the best with your training!

About Dr. Ben Tan

Name: Dr Ben Tan

Age: 41

Marital Status: Married

Profession: Sports Physician

Years as practicing doctor: 18 years

Hobbies: Running, sailing, snow-skiing, scuba diving, wakeboarding, tennis, inline-skating

Greatest sporting achievements: Asian Games Gold (1994, Laser), SEA Games Golds (1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, Laser), 1996 Olympian, 3-time Sportsman of the Year, StanChart Singapore Marathon 3rd (Singapore Men's), Marathon PB 2:56 hours.

Pet Peeves: Waste of time thinking about pet peeves – think positive!

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Ex-national sailor Ben Tan is third-fastest Singapore marathoner after coming in behind Daniel Ling and M. Rameshon