How This Singaporean Athlete is Trying to Change the Way We Think of Sports
His start-up Morph Performance helps people understand their bodies in order to train more efficiently
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Company
As a six-year-old boy, Jonathan Fong suffered from asthma. Twice he came close to dying. His parents asked around and were advised swimming might help ease his condition.
That decision turned out to do more good than expected. Fong’s lungs improved, his asthma went away, and he became an elite swimmer representing Singapore in international competitions. He specialized in long-distance (1,500 meters) freestyle, getting up at 4 in the morning, seven days a week, to train, before he attended school. By evening, he was back in the pool again.
It was a rigorous routine for a boy. “I wanted to hang out with my friends and play,” Fong says, looking back on his too-structured days. “I only got to play a little when I was at school.”
Fong learned “sacrifice” perhaps even before he could define it.
And then, when he was 15, he joined his father in a triathlon. He did so well in the running event. His dad said: “Now let’s get you on the bike.”
For the next ten years, Fong was an elite triathlete, breaking records and training with the best in the world. It was also during these interactions with other countries that he became exposed to different methods of sports training and improvement. He started thinking about how technology can be used to help athletes get better in their game.
After a two-year break to serve as an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces and a brief stint as an accounting student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, it became clear to Fong what he wanted to focus on for the rest of his life: Sports science. At that time, not a lot of people knew exactly what it was, much less what it could do.
“It was the path less travelled, but I knew I wanted to specialize [in it],” he says.
From elite athletes to everyday people
Upon his return to Singapore, Fong found himself swamped with inquiries from athletes, yes, but also from ordinary people—students, office workers—who tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle amid their other preoccupations. This was nine years ago, a time when endurance sports was beginning to be more popular. “People were juggling so many challenges—their families, their jobs, their training. I was analyzing their data, advising them, and seeing their transformation. I helped them see that it’s not how fast you go per se, but how you can sustain that speed with less effort.”
Two years ago, the Sydney Academy of Sport through his previous company got in touch with Fong. They were interested in developing the commercial arm of their sports science department, which would help them reach out to “everyday people.”
It was also the perfect opportunity for Fong to make another change in his life. “It was a good time to go to Australia—I needed to grow and challenge myself. The opportunity to collaborate with and learn from other skilled sports science practitioners was just too big to pass up.”
And so it was during his stay in Sydney that he firmed up his decision to establish a company that helps people transform the way they think of training. “I was running on the beach one day when the name dawned on me: Morph.”
Fong says there are two sides to his company, Morph Performance (www.morphperformance.com). Under sports science, people come into the lab and get themselves measured. For example, they are taught how developing an efficient lactate clearing system, improves their sports performance. By learning to tap into their fat stores, they get leaner, have better energy levels and reduce the risk of developing lifestyle diseases. All this is done by following their specific heart rate zones during exercise.
“Once we know the numbers, we can train intelligently. No room for guesswork,” he says. They are also developing a mobile app for both iOS and Android so everyday people can access, through their devices, the best tools to improve.
The second aspect of Morph is the training design. “I used to spend long hours in front of my computer building training plans for individual athletes and as the numbers grew, I had less time to support them. I felt stuck,” Fong says.
“I wanted to create a system that could think like me–not replace me but assist me–so that I don’t spend all my time building plans.”
He has been working on this program for five years and now feels confident that the technology will allow him to meet the needs of as many people as possible.
Straight from the coach
Fong shares several lessons he has picked up so far from his own journey. While they are insights from his experiences in being an athlete and coach, they might as well apply to him as an entrepreneur.
1. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Different people respond and adapt differently,” he says, “It’s about finding what works best for the individual.”
2. Expose yourself to new things.
It was only when he trained with athletes from other countries that Fong realized there were different methods used to succeed. Similarly, he got to know the available technology so he could combine it with his personal touch as a coach.
3. Make changes every now and then.
“When I headed to Australia, I felt it was the perfect time to do so,” Fong says. “If I did not challenge myself, I would be stuck in the same spot and I would not have been able to do more for my athletes.”
4. When at a crossroads, go with your gut.
“Be careful in making decisions. In the most important things, your gut will guide you.” Fong says he has made some bold moves and taken some chances, which turned out to be the right call.
5. Be steadfast.
Sometimes, even after you have identified what you really want, things still go wrong. In the life of an entrepreneur, this is all too common. You may fail a few times before you succeed. You may find yourself always fighting fires and dealing with countless problems.
Fong’s advice: “Hang in there. Work through it.”
6. Community is important.
Connecting like-minded individuals who believe in a common cause is so powerful. Besides working with athletes, Fong also works with coaches, scientists, and experts in the sports industry. “They are all handpicked. We share the same vision. We have a systematic, structured approach backed by science. Creating an ecosystem works.”
7. Finally, life is good. Make time for other things besides sports.
“People are busy. I want to have time for other things. I want others to have time for other things, like family and other interests. This is why we are trying to hack training,” Fong says. “We want to increase their effectiveness. Perform better on less training time.”