How former national swimmer Joscelin Yeo defines success out of the championship lanes for her children and what makes the great outdoors the perfect classroom.
Growing up, former Olympic swimmer Joscelin Yeo spent her childhood doing laps in the pool. She was also running freely in fields, playing basketball, and climbing trees hunting saga seeds with her brothers during the weekends.
Ms Yeo later taught herself the guitar, and even played bass in a band. Eventually, she had to choose between music and swimming – we know how that went.
At Into the Wild, Ms Yeo’s business partner Zhang and their child participants making a playground out of banyan tree roots.
The highly decorated national swimmer, who won 40 gold medals at the SEA Games and represented Singapore four times at the Olympics in the 1990s and 2000s, has retired from competitive swimming. Her attention these days is turned to her four children and a business she started with friend Zhang Tingjun, who was a national netballer.
Into The Wild runs wilderness camps in the Bukit Timah area for kids aged four to 12, and was inspired by the women’s love for the outdoors.
With both sporting certificates in wilderness first aid, and Ms Zhang having since become a professional snake handler, their specialty is in teaching first aid and survival skills.
They think of the outdoors as the perfect classroom.
“With outdoor play, children are practising their coordination, balance, decision-making and navigational skills all at once,” Ms Yeo explains. “Pushing their boundaries in a physical way helps them to push their minds to think outside the box and to be creative…plus sunshine and fresh air are great, even rain!”
Ms Yeo showing her camp participants how muddy puddles can be safe and even intriguing.
Her three sons and a daughter, who range in age from six to 12 years, are naturally athletic. The boys play soccer, basketball and rugby, while the girl enjoys gymnastics but also art, singing and dancing.
She doesn’t push them to be competitive, preferring to expose them to as many sports and physical challenges as possible.
When she signed her kids up for mountain biking lessons, for example, they found the sport “new, fun but scary” – which is the response she was gunning for. She then scaffolded their learning by breaking the process down, step by step, to make the end-result appear more achievable.
How was this done? First, the children learned techniques. Then they applied what they learned on a trail. When they showed they could manage, she moved them on to bumpy, rocky and more unforgiving terrain.
“They’ve fallen many times, and sometimes they get tired when climbing uphill,” she says. “But I’m there encouraging them and pushing them. When they get out of it, they’re looking back and thinking, ‘I didn’t think I would be able to do that!’ There’s a sense of achievement for them. They feel more confident, stronger, like they’re ready for the next challenge.”
Physical challenges that grow character in her children
All this coaching and moral support is reminiscent of her gruelling days of training in the water. “I’m a big believer in working through the learning process and knowing what you want out of it. It’s the process that teaches us so much and helps us to grow,” she says, adding, “results are not everything.”
“As an athlete, there’s a certain level of resilience that I have because of the failing and standing up again that I had to do many times,” says Ms Yeo, who had to contend with coming home empty-handed from the Olympics. “I’d put so much time and effort into my training, only to lose races by one tenth of a second.”
“This whole process as a national athlete has helped me in my parenting, in terms of nurturing the kind of kids that I want. I believe that resilience is something we have to work into them.”
Sean, her eldest son, has picked up skills for life and character lessons from spending time in nature, says his mum.
One way their resilience has shone through is when they are faced with stress and disappointment, such as from their assessments and appraisals. Ms Yeo has been heartened by what she has seen in her 12-year-old son Sean, for example.
He is weak at his mother tongue language, but doesn’t sulk for it. His teachers share how they are constantly surprised at his positive attitude towards learning and revising the language, reflecting aloud on his mistakes, and putting in the hours to prepare better for the next Chinese test.
‘If they know how to fall, they’ll dare to climb higher’
One of the biggest setbacks that Ms Yeo experienced during her career was during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Barely a day or two before a major race, her younger brother suffered fractures in a serious road accident and went into a coma; his taxi driver died on the spot.
“That was really hard for me, to know that my brother was in a coma. I didn’t know if he was going to wake up, and then I still had to get up to race. For me, that was really, really hard,” she reveals thoughtfully.
Just months before, Ms Yeo and her relay team had broken the world record at another meet. She had expected them to make the finals that Olympics but they failed to. That was hard on her too, because trying again at the next Games meant another four years of intense training almost every single day.
“It was hard for me to get back into swimming again. But with every setback, I took the time to reevaluate what I want to do, what I can control and what I can’t control, and figure a way past it,” she recounts. “Life is not always great – sometimes terrible things happen. Eventually, with more clarity that I did want to continue swimming, I ended up having some of my fastest swims after that.”
These stories of overcoming are what Ms Yeo likes to share with her children.
“Kids need to know that things won’t always pan out the way they want them to; being physically agile and confident will mentally help them to be prepared for anything in life,” she says.
“If they know what to do should they fall, they’ll dare to climb higher, dive deeper, go farther… they know they can handle whatever comes.”
How would she feel if any of her children decide to turn professional in a sport? She will keep an open mind on how far they want to go.
“They have to want to do it for themselves. Part of a parent’s job is to push our kids out of the comfort zone a little bit, but at the national team level, it requires a lot of dedication and commitment,” she says. “Whatever it might be, I will 100% support their dreams and aspirations.”
“Pushing their boundaries in a physical way helps them to push their minds to think outside the box and to be creative…plus sunshine and fresh air are great, even rain!” - Ms Yeo (with her Into The Wild participants)
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