Singapore’s Yeo Jia Min, 17, is focused on making it to the top in the badminton world. (PHOTO: Trung Ho).
Singaporean badminton player Yeo Jia Min is 17 and soft-spoken, but she is dead serious about her craft.
Serious enough to put her studies on hold at the start of this year and train full-time, with an eye to pursuing the sport professionally.
After graduating from the Singapore Sports School, Yeo found that there were no schooling options where she could continue training twice a day, rest adequately and compete without academic disruption. With her parents’ backing, she chose to take the year off and sit for her O Levels privately in May.
“Basically, (what is now) on my mind will be just badminton,” Yeo told Yahoo Singapore in an interview after one of her training sessions.
Her mother, Judy Wong, added: “To her, her priority is badminton and as parents, we just support her. We were told (this is not typical of Singaporean parents) but not everyone has this gift, this opportunity. You can always come back and study next time.”
That single-mindedness has borne fruit for Yeo, who was crowned Asian Under-15 and Under-17 girls’ champion in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
In Vietnam this July, the unseeded Yeo scalped three top-100 players en route to claiming her first professional title at the Yonex Sunrise Vietnam Grand Prix. The Grand Prix events are categorised fourth out of seven tournaments sanctioned by the Badminton World Federation. It was only Yeo’s fourth senior tournament of the year, having participated mostly in junior ones before 2016.
“How I won was because I was very focused for every match and I wasn’t affected by anything,” she recalled. “That’s how I hope I can continue to be like… to learn to be in the ‘zone’, to be focused and not get affected.”
Yeo Jia Min beat Ayumi Mine, ranked 56th in the world, to win her first professional badminton title in Vietnam this July.
Aim for world junior title
The rising shuttler’s progress this year comes on the back of two major blows in 2015. A knee injury put paid to a SEA Games debut, before a severe bout of gastric flu ruled her out of the world junior championships.
“It was very frustrating and I don’t want to think about it,” she said. “I only focused on what I had to improve… ‘next competition, next target’, that kind of mindset.”
Wong added: “The positive thing that came out of that, to me as a Christian, was it strengthened her. I looked at her and was amazed at how she could cope, because I was finding it tough as a parent.”
That was the only edition of the world junior championships Yeo has missed since turning 13 and she will return to Bilbao, Spain, to take another crack at it in November. Currently sixth in the world junior rankings, she declared her intention to become the first Singaporean winner.
“I will say I'm confident… if my mental strength is strong and doesn’t fail me,” she said. “It will be very fast-paced so you always need to be focused; if I play to my standards, I believe I can win.”
Yeo acknowledged her lack of mental strength on several occassions, but her potential is undeniable. She took her second title of the year at the U19 Jaya Raya Yonex Sunrise Junior Grand Prix last month, before making the world’s top 100 for the first time earlier this week. Ranked 1,080th in January last year, she is now 94th - the second-highest ranked local female player behind 34th-ranked Liang Xiaoyu.
Yeo Jia Min with her coach after winning a tournament in Indonesia earlier this year. (PHOTO: Yeo Jia Min/Facebook)
It was potential first spotted at the age of seven, and honed with fervent focus and desire since. Yeo started training under former national player Tan Eng Han at Assumption English School’s Vincent Hall, a stone’s throw away from her residence.
At 12, she was the youngest player selected to the national intermediate squad; at 15, she was promoted to the senior team. She chose Nanyang Girls High over a full scholarship offer from the Sports School for secondary school, only to reverse the decision six months in.
“Our thinking was for her to have some kind of normalcy, have non-sports friends,” Wong explained. “But it was very challenging – even before school ends, she has to be excused every day, then I have to rush her off for training.”
Winning the national U19 championships at 13 gave Yeo the confidence to really push on, as she started to compete at regional tournaments and slowly improved. Her participation at overseas competitions has greatly increased this year due to her full-time schedule, with her Sports Excellence Scholarship (spexScholarship) helping to defray expenses.
“Prior to that, I didn’t exactly know where I stood in the adults’ competition,” Yeo explained. “I now know how much more - and where there can be - improvements and work from there.
“I (also) have to learn over time how to maintain (peak condition) when I'm overseas, because that will be how it’s like next time (as a professional).”
She relishes the adrenaline of competition and is driven by the “never-ending” challenge to improve her skills. “You always want to better yourself as a player and once you achieve something you want to achieve more,” she said.
Going for the kill: Yeo Jia Min is aiming to win the World Junior Championships this year. (PHOTO: Trung Ho)
Wong says that sort of character and attitude from her daughter is innate and that as long as she can match her talent with belief, the sky is the limit.
“We know that if she plays her ‘A’ game, she can take on anyone, even at her age,” she asserted. “We just want her to continue to have that belief when she stands on court, more than anything else.”
Yeo, whose personal motto is "don’t let yourself be your own enemy", is learning to sustain that self-belief when things don’t go her way as she strives to make more breakthroughs.
“There are times at crucial points where I succumb to things I feel, then I feel very disappointed,” she explained. “I want to achieve more and I feel I can, but sometimes when I don’t perform, I guess the confidence and mental strength (is affected)… I deal with that by training harder – that’s the only way I can improve.”