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Fizah, a mother figure on and off the pitch

This Mother’s Day, Nurhafizah Abu Sujad, Head Physiotherapist of the Singapore National Teams, offered us a glimpse into a regular day in her life. Not only did we get to meet her family and catch her in action at work, but we also got to hear from the players who have been treated by Kak Fizah, as she is more affectionately known, and learn how she has been “a motherly figure” for them.

Even with more than two decades in the field, what’s more impressive than Fizah’s skills as a physiotherapist is her uncanny ability to nurture genuine relationships and build trust with the people around her. 

Meeting Fizah for the first time, one is instantly drawn to her soft kind eyes and steady gait. Speaking in a cool, measured tone, every word carries weight. She lights up when the subject turns to her work. Even as a child, Fizah has always felt a desire to help others. The question was: How?

A stalwart on the local football scene, Singapore National Teams’ Head Physiotherapist Nurhafizah Abu Sujad started out treating athletes competing in the SEA Games, Asian Games and Olympics, before her career in football kicked off in 2011 with the U-23 Young Lions.

When this former national youth netballer assumed her current role as Head Physiotherapist for the Men’s National Team, she dove into it with passion and grit. “It is extremely rewarding to see a player return to train and play,” said Fizah. “That’s one of the reasons why I love my job. Helping them do something they love, something that’s their bread and butter.” 

A sense of intuition like no other

On top of her role as their physiotherapist, Fizah is a reassuring presence in the players’ times of need. “She truly understands what each player needs,” shared Ikhsan Fandi, who plays for the Singapore Men's National Team and Thai League club BG Pathum United. Calling Fizah “a motherly figure for us (the) players”, Ikhsan also described her as “a true friend, and someone who will always have your back”.

There were several occasions on which she had to trust her instincts. Like that time she insisted that former national striker Fazrul Nawaz, who was kicked in the forehead while playing in the 2013 Malaysia Cup for LionsXII, seek a second doctor’s opinion. “I felt like something wasn’t right. The doctor had cleared him, but he wasn’t looking very well,” Fizah recollected.

At this painful moment, Fazrul had requested for her presence during the stitching process off the pitch. For him, having her there “emphasised the trust and assurance I (he) had in her care”. 

“Fizah’s compassionate approach fosters a sense of trust and well-being among players, providing not only assistance in medical emergencies and physical rehabilitation, but also emotional support.” 

The second consultation revealed fractures that would have led to even more serious consequences had they not been discovered in time.

Incorporating sport science into her recovery programmes, Fizah specialises in injury management and prevention, especially catering to national team players with long-term injuries. She is a key component in the team’s preparation during FIFA international windows, with the Men’s National Team as a priority this year due to the World Cup qualifiers.

When she talks about the players she has treated, Fizah brims over with maternal warmth and enthusiasm. It is no wonder then that she is regarded as indispensable by local footballers both on and off the pitch. A comforting and ever-present figure for them, those who know her fondly address her as Kak Fizah, Malay for big sister.

Kak was there for me through every single milestone during my recovery from an ACL injury,” recounted midfielder Dorcas Chu of the Singapore Women’s National Team. “On days when I’m not ok and feel discouraged, Kak will always notice and check in on me. She takes the time to listen.” 

Expressing her love for Fizah, Chu credited her full recovery to the meticulous care of her favourite physiotherapist. She said: “I wasn’t even a part of the team that she was taking care of then. She took me in and sacrificed her free time for me!”

“The process of recovery can be a very isolating experience,” Fizah explained. “Players spend all their time training together. When you’re injured, suddenly you’re on your own.” To motivate injured players, Fizah collaborates with other professionals, like the sport scientists, the strength conditioning coaches and the fitness instructors, to implement personalised programmes that include celebrating small victories. “We integrate sport science into the rehabilitation plan, working towards big and small wins every day of each week.” 

Hougang United’s Women’s Team captain Rochelle Chan, who sustained an ACL injury last season, undergoes post-surgery rehabilitation with Fizah at the gym in Jalan Besar Sports and Recreation Centre, where Fizah’s office is based.

When Jacob Mahler of the Singapore Men's National Team and Liga 1 club Madura United tore his ACL, it was Fizah who helped him through “an 8-month rehabilitation programme and was there with me (him) every single step of my (his) journey back on the pitch”. He recalled: “I’m very fortunate to have her taking care of me through one of the lowest points in my career and I owe her a lot (for that).”

Rochelle Chan, captain of the Hougang United Women’s Team, who is currently undergoing post-surgery physiotherapy with Fizah, shared: “She doesn’t just treat you like a patient. She treats us like her kids. (Fizah is) very motherly. When she’s tough on you, you know it’s just tough love.”

Balancing family and work

As a beloved force of nature for the National Teams, Fizah is level-headed, dependable and full of empathy. But her caregiving work doesn’t end at the pitch. Back home, she is also a parent to three children, Ryan, 17, Ayra, 15, and Sura, 8, who are extremely proud of the work that she’s doing. 

Ayra said: “She works really hard and we can see how she’s persevering and being very professional.”

“I think it’s really cool to have a mum who’s part of the National Teams. She’s always interacting with my idols,” Ryan, who plays in the Under-17 National Team, shared. 

When asked to describe their mother, 8-year-old Sura paused to think before blurting out: “Strict and loving.”

“When you see her interact with the boys (on the field), she’s always smiling. But when she’s home, she can get quite strict,” laughed Ryan. “It’s inspiring how much she is contributing to society. Because of her, I really want to contribute to society and help others too.”

Fizah’s three children, the oldest, Ryan (middle), Ayra (right), and the youngest, Sura (left), having a kickabout on the stadium pitch. Influenced by their mother’s love for football and desire to help others, the family attends local matches together to show their support.

For Fizah, juggling both her career and motherhood hasn’t always been easy. With erratic hours and travelling requirements, her job has occasionally led to her missing some of her children’s special moments. “I have a very supportive husband, as well as my mother. When I’m away, they are there to take care of the kids. I remember running around on the pitch when I didn’t know I was pregnant with Sura!” 

Meal times are important for the family, as well as the cosy Netflix movie sessions over supper whenever Fizah returns home late from work. To spend uninterrupted quality time together, the family also tries to take a vacation every year.

Fizah’s dedication to her work means that it is inevitable her work will sometimes spill over into her personal life. Thankfully, her children are not only supportive, but also positively influenced by her work. “On the occasional day off, she still heads to the gym for rehab sessions with her patients. Sometimes, she also invites them over to continue their treatment. That’s very inspiring,” said Ayra. “She influences me to be a physiotherapist like her, so I can also contribute (to society).” 

Her greatest inspirations

Like the way she is an inspiration to her kids, Fizah’s foray into sports physiotherapy was also influenced by important figures in her life. Her initiation into sports physiotherapy could be attributed to her mentor Karen Koh, now the Senior Principal Physiotherapist at Changi General Hospital. “Karen was always very encouraging,” said Fizah. “From her, I learnt a lot about sports physio, and she’s also the first person to open up opportunities for me in this field.”

She also cited her late father Abu Sujad as a pivotal influence in her life, portraying the man as someone who lived and breathed football. “He was always either coaching someone, refereeing, or painting the lines (on the field). I always wondered why he would “waste” so much time (on football). Now that I’m in the same line of work, I finally understand,” Fizah reflected. “I have followed him on trips overseas and seen him in action as a coach. Even then, I’ve always appreciated the long hours and hard work he put in. He taught me about perseverance and sacrifice.”

Moreover, the physiotherapist is no stranger to football. Her father was a former Lion, elder brother Nadzi an ex-player for Balestier Khalsa, younger brother Hafiz an ex-Singapore international player, and local legend Fandi Ahmad their cousin. With much of the family in football, it seems almost like a rite of passage for her to join the scene. 

Future of football 

“We try to stay positive, each and every one of us. At the end of the day, the goal is to produce players who are stronger and fitter, and who know how to take care of themselves,” said Fizah.

An advocate for increased safety in sports, she hopes that more physiotherapists will come on board. “It’s very rewarding to be able to help your country, so I really encourage more junior officers to join us in building an environment that puts its players first. And that Singapore will find its glory days again!”

A message from her kids

Mother’s Day feels incomplete without hearing from the little ones. On whether there are any words of encouragement for their mother, Fizah’s kids replied without hesitation. 

A rare glimpse of Fizah goofing around with her family, including her husband, who she credits for supporting her and accommodating her schedule to raise a beautiful family together.

Ryan said: I love her, and how she makes all these sacrifices for us.

“Thank you for working hard to provide us with more than we need,” Ayra chimed in. 

“I love her,” Sura answered. When asked if Mummy is her best friend, she nodded shyly.

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