Clifford Wong is, in urban dictionary speak, a banana. He is as Asian-looking as they come, but if you close your eyes and listen to him speak, you’d think you were being addressed by a New Zealander. That’s because, though born of parents who originally hailed from Taiwan, he grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, a place he still refers to as his home city.
Another surprising fact is that sports and fitness were not always the industries of choice for him. When Clifford first came to live in Singapore, he pursued a career in law.
It was only a matter of time though, before he made a mid-career switch to leave corporate law for the Singapore Sports Institute, where he worked shoulder to shoulder with Singapore’s elite sporting scientists, nutritionists, bio-mechanists and athlete life experts to help the athletes of Team Singapore.
He now runs PLENA, a wholistic training consultancy that teaches individuals and groups both physical and mental wellness and toughness.
SC: How did you jump from a legal profession to the sports and fitness industry?
CW: In New Zealand, where most people grow up with a rugby ball in their hands and a paddock to play in, I’ve always had an understandable passion for sports. From a player’s perspective, I’ve had the privilege of representing my home city, Wellington, New Zealand, for Basketball, and Singapore for Touch Rugby at World Cup levels. Off the playing field, I’ve also had a parallel track in coaching for the same two sports, and subsequent interest in sporting psychology, and the benefits that the competitive mindset creates. Accordingly, I’ve felt and seen first-hand, the benefits that exercise and sports can do for the individual both physically and mentally.
SC: Why did you choose to enter the sporting arena? Did you have an inspiration/mentor?
CW: My mid-career transition into the high performance environment was partly fueled by the surge of excitement for, at that time, the upcoming 2015 SEA Games, and a desire to fulfil my passion for sports as an occupation, utilise my sporting background and experience in a growth area. Singapore as a young nation is still learning about the power of sports and being a part of the transformative effect of a national sporting spectacle, helping Team Singapore and being involved in a world class sporting apparatus was a no-brainer.
My wife Jacqueline, who is a muay thai fighter, is my inspiration. On a daily basis, she exhibits a variety of values and qualities that I find aspirational – hard work, fearlessness and a never-say-die attitude. Another inspiration of mine is the late Minister Mentor Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Though I am not from Singapore, his speeches from yesteryear are still powerful, relevant and full of vitality.
SC: Tell our readers about PLENA and how they can benefit from it health-, wellness- and fitness-wise.
CW: PLENA started out as a brick and mortar boutique fitness studio. However, after an evolution in personal perspective, and an assessment of the fitness landscape, we’ve transformed to focus on group-specific wellness and offer customized individual training or group workshops, in order to maximize the impact we have on helping our clients achieve their goals.
SC: What do you do at PLENA?
CW: People often separate the topics of physical and mental health, and though health is anchored in the physical nature of the body, the connection between the mind and the body cannot be overlooked. Our mental and emotional states can affect biological changes in our body and vice versa. Taking the time to mentally reset and effectively manage stress is paramount to ensuring the overall well-being of the body.
Accordingly, being ‘optimised’ is a balancing act between health, emotions and one’s mental state of mind. Therefore, though fitness and physical training certifications and experience are part of my qualifications, I utilise my coaching experience and my time with Team Singapore – building culture and mental toughness certifications – to help build resilience and mindfulness for individual clients. The emphasis of PLENA is to work with individuals and groups on holistic wellness and leverage the sporting mindset and its benefits, and to apply it to the corporate context.
SC: You work on projects – tell us more about them; how do they work?
CW: Though personal training – mental toughness or physical exercise – is still an option, projects offer a unique impact. Currently, I provide wellness consultancy to the legal industry through LIFTED, which is the Singapore Academy of Law’s Legal Industry Framework for Training and Education. This allows me to give back to a unique segment of the professional sector. As such, I was privileged enough to conduct a workshop on how legal professionals can extend their career longevity through mindfulness and the pillars of wellness – exercise, nutrition, and recovery, which includes sleep.
In the past I have also conducted specific mental toughness workshops with the Singapore Cerebral Palsy Football team for the 2017 ASEAN Para Games, and I currently work with clients in the MMA industry. We are also investigating the application of mental toughness into more non-traditional competition areas including the technology industry. However, the principles of mental toughness apply to the person on the street, the office worker, a family member, as much as they do fighters and elite athletes.
SC: You’re a touch rugby coach, who trains an all-women’s team – what’s it like and why do you choose to do this?
CW: I immensely enjoy the journey of bringing a team together and creating a culture of learning. One of the toughest things to do is judging what not to say, rather than what could be said amid a cloud of emotion and expectation (for all concerned). I think we can all agree, getting a variety of different personalities on the same page is one of the hardest things to do in life, so even if there is a modicum of success, much can be celebrated. In this regard, even if we don’t win, the creation of a framework of resilience, sets an individual up not just for sports, but for life. This, in my opinion, is the most beneficial outcome.
SC: From a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the shape you’re in?
CW: It’s difficult to rate oneself, and when I work with people, I try to keep away from scales and ratings. It essentially boils down to trying to be healthy in both body (via exercise, nutrition and recovery) and mind (be relatively free from stress and anxiety) and the acknowledgement that this will always fluctuate in life. Trying to look beach body-ready is an unfortunate symptom of some unreasonable expectations in society!
SC: Do you have a special eating plan and what is it like?
CW: No special eating plan – more simple rules of thumb: keep away from unnecessary sugars and everything in moderation. It’s ok to live a little in terms of desserts – otherwise, life can really be grey!
SC: What’s your exercise/training regime like?
CW: I try to hit the gym 2 to 4 times a week with compound body movements, including deadlifts, clean and presses etc. I also love my sports and when the season is on, I play touch rugby, and as I’m developing a real fondness for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I try to roll on the mats at least twice a week. I also try to take the time to cross-train with different fitness formats and make time for restorative movements including gyrokenesis (a method of opening energy pathways, stimulating the nervous system, increasing range of motion and creating functional strength through rhythmic, flowing movements), yoga classes and broad mobility.
SC: What’s your training philosophy for yourself and your clients?
CW: The human body is like a cup. It can only hold a certain amount of stress. Sedentary behavior or lack of exercise causes the body to become rundown and susceptible to things such cold or flu or even more substantive health issues like hypertension or diabetes.
If there is too much stress without enough attention to exercise or nutrition and quality rest and recovery, the cup will overflow. Health and the body is then affected and the capacity to manage the stresses that arise in work and life is reduced or impaired.
For the workplace, this can affect professional performance by impairing the ability to make efficient decisions or even result in sick leave on a short- or medium-term basis, absenteeism or career-changing decisions. Overall, lack of well-being can lead to a decrease in individual, team or firm productivity and can have a potentially negative effect on relationships both personal and professional.
So, apart from the intensity of fitness training, I endeavour to preach mental strength through a toughness framework and also encourage the importance of recovery and listening to one’s body. It’s no longer about pushing one’s limits on a consistent basis; instead, to train hard and rest hard.
SC: What’s the most challenging part about your work?
CW: The most challenging part about my work is helping people understand the intangible benefits of wellness. In many cases, people do not fully appreciate being healthy and fit until they are healthy and fit!
Also, there are so many different schools of thought when it comes to the definitions of health, fitness and wellness, and it can get very confusing as to what is applicable because everyone is different and responds differently. Sifting through what can benefit each individual the most is frequently a shared process, though of course there are some basic and general principles which always apply. Also, society, habit and work behavior create a lot of inertia, so it’s always an uphill battle to create the motivation and discipline needed to keep one well.
SC: What’s the most rewarding?
CW: I think everyone involved in fitness and/or wellness will give the same answer, seeing an improvement in the people they work with. The gratitude and feedback makes a lot of the work worthwhile.
SC: What advice do you have for men who are struggling to keep fit and stay in shape?
CW: People need to learn how to manage their own energy, rather than their own time. Managing time or balancing your work is typically about creating lists and prioritising tasks, phone calls. But managing energy is to know when to pace yourself and when to sprint to hit those milestones through a day. You need to know what drains and sustains you, being aware of what recharges you – it can be sleep, or personal time, or time with family. This is being mindful of how your body is feeling and may very well help you better manage deadlines and juggle commitments to oneself (e.g. hitting the gym and eating right), especially those deadlines which don’t respect a work-life balance.
SC: What is the best thing about being a fitness-preneur?
CW: I’m in a lucky position to be able to pick and choose my projects and Singapore is still nascent in its growth as a fitness/wellness industry. I see many opportunities to make a change, make an impact and most importantly, a difference.
SC: What do you enjoy doing most in your free time?
CW: I try to learn new things and get into an uncomfortable zone because that’s the only time I can grow and adapt. I’m currently involved in learning more about mindfulness and am looking forward to how it juxtaposes with my experience.
SC: When you do indulge, what do you eat, and how do you eat so as not to upset your fitness and health goals?
CW: It’s ok to have a cheat day once in a while and when it’s a special occasion. I would still go easy on the sugary products.