by Rahul Jayaprabha (15S07C), Marcus Tan Yong En (15A01A), Wahid Al Mamun (15A01A), Christine Saw Hui Ying (15A01A), Chong Ee Hsiun (15A01A)
Being an athlete is by no means an easy feat. Already, school athletes have to find a way to manage their school work and social life on top of their long training schedules. One can only marvel at the athletes amongst us who take on both the responsibility of representing Singapore on the global stage and the heavy commitment of academic studies.
We caught up with a few of these wunderkinds—triathlete Denise Chia (15S03H), judoka Tania Forichon (15S06C), sailor Yukie Yokoyama (15S03A), softballers Hugo Tay (15A01A) and Andrew Tan (15S07B), and hockey star Phoebe Neo (15S06A), who share with us their experience of representing Singapore as well as the insights they have gained from their involvement with their respective sports.
Kicking Things Off!
National Triathlete Denise Chia entered the sport at the tender age of 7 when her parents signed her up for a youth triathlon. She immediately became mesmerised by the sport and has never looked back since. On the other hand, some athletes initially became involved in their sport almost by accident. Tania Forichon recalls that she first started learning judo when she was 8 because ‘some of my primary school classmates were doing it and it was convenient.’
For others, their love for the sport was inspired by family members or close friends. National sailor Yukie Yokoyama, winner of the 2012 Overall Best School Girl Award and gold medallist at the 2011 SEA Games, says that she was inspired to take up sailing by her older sister. ‘I enjoyed running along the beach to watch her sail. It seemed so fun, so I decided to try it out,’ recounts Yukie. ‘I have been hooked ever since.’
Consequently, these athletes began to be involved in their respective national teams or combined schools teams at a very early age as well—most of them had already gotten the big call up by the time they were 11, some even tracing back to the mere age of 7. Others like Hugo Tay, who has been playing softball since Secondary 1, are relatively new players, and learnt to improve by observing their peers and coaches or by watching videos online.
As we watch these athletes execute their near-perfect routines and confidently excel in their sport, it may be tempting to believe that it comes naturally to them. Those grade-A mid-air flips and flawless, nimble manoeuvres simply speak of their indomitable strength and spirit. However, beneath the glamour of it all, athletes, too, have their fair share of insecurity and doubt over their abilities.
Tania feels that ‘the higher the level [she is] competing at, the more [she doubts her] ability as the stakes are much higher’. Echoing the same sentiment, Yukie shared, ‘Of course there were many occasions when things didn’t go as planned, and that’s when I start to ask myself why I put myself in such painful and difficult situ- ations, and if I should just stop sailing. Every time I have a bad day I tell my teammates, ‘That’s it, I’m going to join ballet!’ In particular, softball player Andrew Tan shares with us a prominent experience in Year 4 where he struggled to get his performance up to standard before the Asian Youth championship in Thailand, only managing to regain his form just before the tournament.
Every athlete has his or her own method of getting back up after a fall. In retrospect, Andrew believes that ‘it is hard to predict when you will be able to recover from a drop in form’ and ‘not being fazed by your performance and consistently working hard would help you to get back to your previous form.’ Yukie also asserts that taking a break to ‘rethink and reflect’ on her performance is key. She enjoys athlete autobiographies and inspiring documentaries as it is ‘comforting to know that they have been through similar experiences and to discover how they bounced back to convert those negative events into positive energy.’ Tania also shares that the only way to overcome her doubts is to train continuously as ‘the more you fight and practice your skills, the more confident you get; you regain your morale and are able to overcome it.’
Yet, dealing with insecurities while preparing for competi- tions is hardly the only obstacle faced by these individuals; they also face a myriad of other challenges such as the sporting culture in Singapore, balancing commitments, and most crucially, academics. Sacrifices have to be made to represent Singapore—Tania explains how she has to juggle numerous commitments as a result of her national team involvements. Every Friday, her grandmother would host a family gathering; yet most Fridays, she would be unable to make it because of training. ‘I do my best to rush back straight after training to spend some time with my relatives’, she says.
Similarly, Yukie has had to stay alone in Singapore while her family went on tours overseas during her training periods, and some like Andrew admit to suffering from general lethargy during lessons due to late night trainings the day before. Academics are a major concern for athletes, especially when international competitions come around, as athletes will have to miss school to compete. On top of that, personal enjoyment and time spent with friends have to be compromised too. ‘I do not really have much time to do anything apart from work and recovering from training.’ Tania explains.
Yukie also points out the numerous school events which national athletes have to miss while competing, having missed OBS and class outings as a result of her training. As for Denise, she says that ‘the biggest sacrifice is giving socialising a miss due to training, although (she) would love to spend time with friends’.
It is of course inevitable that sacrifices have to be made in the face of their heavy commitment to the sports, and Hugo acknowledges this reality with a strong belief that ‘knowing your priorities is very important’ and one should ‘only spend time on the things that are truly important to you.’ Indeed, those like Andrew find that ‘some time spent socialising and going out with friends would have to be sacrificed’. On the other hand, when asked about the sacrifices he has had to make, Hugo quips, ‘One of them is practising math. But I guess that doesn’t count because that doesn’t qualify as a ‘sacrifice’.’
Our athletes seem to share a common formula for success—good time management, and an incredibly supportive group of friends and family. Phoebe Neo says that ‘[she] has to manage [her] time very well’ in order to catch up with the school work she neglects while training. Yukie does the same, ex- plaining how having so many commitments helps her to focus better. ‘Sailing is a good break from studying and (sometimes) studying is a good break from sailing,’ she explains. This way, these athletes continue to thrive in both academics and their respective sports. Hugo developed good discipline, explaining that since his training sometimes ends quite late at night, he learnt to get work done during his breaks in school.
Yukie credits her friends for helping her to collect notes and for teaching her topics she does not understand. Tania similarly mentions that her friends sometimes ‘[bend] over backwards’ to assist her. Family support is especially important to these athletes. Whether it be by supporting their child at games and tournaments like Phoebe’s parents, or by helping to finance international trips to external competitions like Tania’s, these gestures go a long way in shaping their children’s lives.
Flying the Flag for Singapore
For many of these athletes, representing Singapore is an honour which brings them great pride. Yukie states how ‘it feels great to wear the Team Singapore attire’ and ‘sing Majulah Singapura on the highest podium even if I am still the shortest’. This honour of representing our homeland in the international arena is a massive one; Andrew feels that ‘it gives one a huge sense of pride… in the sense that you are entrusted with the responsibility that only the best in the country are given.’ In fact, the opportunity to represent Singapore has provided our athletes with a few personal insights into national pride and their individual values. Andrew is one example of an athlete who developed a stronger sense of national pride after joining the national team. He believes that ‘sometimes we don’t realise how important Singapore is to us and how it gives us a sense of belonging. When you are on the international stage playing for your country, you suddenly realise that the reason behind that determination you’ve never felt before is because you want to make a name for your country.’
According to Andrew, athletes from different schools are ‘massive rivals when playing against each other in national tournaments, to the extent that we are discouraged from national training in order to ‘hide’ our team from other players from different schools. However, you realise that no matter what school you play for, when you come together as a national team, there is only one objective and that is to do your country proud.’
Insights gained from participating in these national teams can even translate in their everyday lives. Hugo explains that one of his key takeaways includes the Iceberg profile, which shows that top athletes tend to have low rates of depression, tension, fatigue, confusion and anger. He believes these traits (acquired or not) are very important in dealing with frustration and difficulty. Another insight he has learned is ‘high task orientation,’ which means excelling because of an internal need to see how well one can do, rather than a desire to compare oneself with others. ‘This is a useful for me, especially since I am surrounded by so many talented players and athletes,’ he says. Indeed, representing Singapore brings with it an incredible amount of pressure. ‘I feel nervous before every game because after all, I’m wearing the flag on my chest’, says Phoebe, when quizzed on her experiences with the national hockey team. Tania agrees, explaining how ‘it is very stressful and pressurising at times as you want to do well and make your nation proud’. Even Denise, who has been in the sport for more than half her entire life feels the crunch, but she takes it in her stride (quite literally). She feels like she has been ‘given a tremendous honour and opportunity to make her nation proud.’ That is why she knows how essential it is to stay focused and push her limits without caving in to pressure.
However, a common thread amongst the athletes’ res- ponses was the perception that more can be done to help the local sporting scene flourish. Tania feels that ‘there is not enough support for judo in Singapore’ while Yukie needs to find ‘a very big partner if [she] were to try for the Olympics’.
Interestingly enough, as a result of the limitations of the Singaporean sports scene, Andrew has experienced first-hand how ‘our standard in the world is not really up to par (and) sometimes the desire is just not enough to get the win… It is very difficult when you want to win so badly, yet you are just not good enough.’
On a lighter note, our interviewees shared some of the joys of their sporting careers. Phoebe and Denise found the opportunity to meet with athletes from different countries very ‘fun and interesting’, a sentiment echoed by Tania, who found her competition experience in Mongolia to be ‘a real eye-opener’ as she saw ‘how good all these athletes were’. Yukie found meaning in her ability to brighten the lives of others when she brought children with special needs out sailing in Marina Bay. These are just some of the experiences that will stay with athletes for a lifetime.
A Split Decision
The decision to scale down one’s commitment to competition at the highest echelons of an activity is a difficult one. Some feel the weight of the expectation and the energies put in by friends, family, coaches, supporters, school and even the nation. Others ask themselves whether choosing to quit can justify the massive amounts of blood, sweat and tears that have already been invested in training for this endeavour.
The first thing that jumps out from their accounts is the influence of academics in their decision-making calculus. Phoebe states that ‘when it comes to academics and sports, [her] academics will definitely come first’. Tania responded that going professional will entail ‘a lot of sacrifices in terms of her education that [she is] not ready to make’. When Denise was quizzed on the possibility of pursuing the sport of Triathlon as a career option, she revealed that she would not want to ‘kill her passion for the sport by turning it into a job!’. Furthermore, she understands that her academics will always be crucial for her and if need be, she would have to place studies above sports.
While this publication wholeheartedly supports the personal aspirations and choices of athletes, we could not help but wonder: is the choice to prioritise academics truly one made free of external pressure? Does the Singaporean education paradigm, in placing a high premium on academic achievement, create subterranean pressures on athletes to prioritise their academic performance? While ample recognition and reward is given to distinguished sportsmen and the Ministry of Education has markedly attempted to de-prioritise academic achievement, the character of our society is not as easily changed.
Today’s teenagers have grown up in a society where academics are still ranked above everything else. However, there are some, like Yukie, who are optimistic that a balance can be struck between sports and academics. Notably, she feels that this balance is beneficial as it ‘keeps [her] busy’. By finding unique, personalised means through which one can find time, energy and attention for studying, one may be able to balance academics and competition.
Even with the multitude of commitments sometimes trans- lating to a disinclination to continue sports at a competitive level, most athletes expressed a desire to continue with sports at the very least for the sake of leisure. This is ultimately favourable, as it not only allows one to keep fit, but also to stay in touch with one’s passions. Who knows, maybe one day, they may take up the sport competitively once more. Regardless of the choices of Rafflesian athletes, this publication wishes them all the best in their future endeavours!