Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s newly-crowned Olympic hero, is an inspiration. Here’s what your kids can learn from his journey from pool to podium.

Joseph Schooling will go down in history as the first Singaporean to win a gold medal at the Olympics (and set a new Olympic Record — 50.39 seconds for the 100 m butterfly — in the process). His rise from being a starstruck schoolboy posing with his idol, Michael Phelps, eight years ago to becoming the star who left the most highly decorated Olympian in history trailing in his wake is nothing short of meteoric. We can certainly draw inspiration from his story to teach our children precious lessons on what it takes to achieve success in life.


1. Dare to Dream

phelps schoolingImage: SGAG

Every success story begins with a dream and a goal to achieve. Inspired by his grand-uncle, Lloyd Varberg, who represented Singapore at the 1948 Olympic Games, young Joseph Isaac Schooling “had the dreams and aspirations to be an Olympic champion, to be the best in the world when (he) was 6 or 7.” To achieve this goal, Schooling “trained everyday to try to put (himself) in that position”. The rest is history.

As parents, we can encourage our children to dream and discover areas that they are passionate in. By helping them to set achievable goals for themselves, we can fire up their intrinsic motivation. Far greater than any extrinsic rewards, intrinsic motivation is a powerful force that can drive our children to excel.

2. Hard Work Can Turn Your Dreams into Reality

It is one thing to have lofty ambitions but another to achieve them. In the words of Usain Bolt, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and an 11-time World Champion, “Dreams are free. Goals have a cost. Time, effort, sacrifice, and sweat. How will you pay for your goals?”

Joseph Schooling did so by training “stupid crazy”. He would start the day at 5 am, squeeze in at least five hours of training in between 6.5 hours of formal lessons, do homework at the end of a 12 hour day, and repeat his gruelling routine six days a week.

Meals were reduced to quick bites and leisure time was sacrificed. On most days, Schooling is in bed by 11pm and watching television series such as Game of Thrones are of out of question for him. He explains: “I know it will take hours and weeks, and I don’t have a month to sit down every night to watch it.”

3. Believe in Yourself

Having put in the requisite hard work, the key to performing when it comes to the crunch lies in having self confidence. “When you want to be the best, you’ve got to believe you’re the best,” advises Schooling. At the start of each race, he psyches himself to believe “I can beat everyone” and that “everyone’s got to chase me down, no way you’re going to beat me.”

4. Be Realistic about your Abilities

Given the limited resources that each of us has, we need to prioritise the areas that we want to devote our time and energy to. Help your child to develop an accurate idea of his ability and capacity to ensure that he does not overstretch himself and burn out in the process. This may mean dropping an enrichment class or declining to be in the school team if he is not coping well with his studies.

As it is written in Sun Zi’s Art of War, “He who knows the other side (the enemy) and knows himself will not be defeated in a hundred battles.” Because three of the races that Schooling was supposed to take part in were scheduled on consecutive days, Schooling, in consultation with his coaches, decided to drop the 200-metre butterfly race. Since his performance in this event paled in comparison with his competitors, dropping it was a strategic move to conserve energy for the other two races. It was a move that paid off.

5. Do Not Rest on your Laurels

True to the Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, Schooling is not content to rest despite his Olympic record of 50.39 seconds in the 100-metre butterfly race. He said, “What I realised was that you cannot sell yourself short. It’s great to achieve your goals but you can’t be content with achieving your goal for too long. You’ve got to take that, take the positives and got to move on. You’ve got to shoot for bigger and better things.”

For him, that means breaking Michael Phelps’ 2009 world record of 49.82 seconds, which was set with the help of a performance boosting hydrodynamic superset that is now banned. Indeed, it is only when we continually seek to improve ourselves that we can climb from strength to strength.

6. Deal with Failures

Despite the slew of medals which Schooling had accumulated ever since he started swimming competitively, he admitted that “I fail more than I succeed” and recounted tough training sessions away from the public eye, in which he had “failed miserably”. He faced his biggest set-back when he failed to qualify for the semi-finals during the London 2012 Olympics. He described the days which followed as the “lowest point” of his life, when he nearly gave it all up.

Without making excuses for himself, he followed the encouragement of Michael Phelps to “just keep my head high and keep going on”. With the support of his parents and coach, Schooling did eventually rise to clinch gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Indeed, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” as Confucius said. If we are to taste success, we must learn to take failure in our stride.

7. Persevere, Never Give Up

It’s been a couple years but I think I’ve finally earned that tattoo 😊 📷: @alvinttt1971

A photo posted by Joseph Schooling (@josephschooling) on

Research has shown that grit, not talent, is the key to success. Grit entails having “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”, “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity” and “disappointments”.

In a study of 120 talented individuals (including Olympic swimmers), “only a few were regarded as prodigies”. However, all of them had put in at least a decade of hard work to become the best in their fields. Similarly, it was sheer grit, tenacity and hard work over two thirds of his life that has brought Schooling to where he stands today.

8. Stay Focused on your Goal

Before a race, Schooling plugs in his headphones to block out distracting chatter. During the race, he does not look at other competitors, only straight at the wall, with the aim of getting there first. From the age of six, it has been this intense, single-minded focusedness on reaching the Olympic podium that got him there.

9. Remain Humble

Despite his newly-minted superstar status, Schooling does not display airs of one. Addressing members of the media respectfully, he humbly and graciously pays tribute to his competitors and those who have helped him along this journey, saying, “This moment is not all about me. It’s also about my coaches, my friends, and my family…and all those people who supported me and believed in me.”

Refusing to “consider (himself) special as long as (he’s) still swimming,” Schooling insists “I’m not a superstar. I’m just that kid who beat (Michael) Phelps that one time.” He explains “I want to think I’m a normal kid so I can keep working hard.”

10. Remember that Obstacles can be Overcome

Well… That was nuts! Thank you for all the support and wishes. I’ll seeya later rio 😀🏊🇸🇬 #rio2016🇧🇷

A photo posted by Joseph Schooling (@josephschooling) on

There will always be obstacles along our pathway to success. How we deal with them determines whether we reach our destination. When the Singapore Swimming Association disbanded the Centre of Excellence, Schooling, then only 14, left home for Bolles School in the United States in search of an environment that was more “conducive for high performance”. He stuck with his decision despite having a hard time adjusting to life apart from his parents.

Subsequently, with two years of National Service threatening to derail his preparations for the 2016 Olympics, Schooling’s parents fought hard to get a National Service deferment for him to continue with his training.

Looking back, Schooling reflects that “It’s been a hard road, I’ve done something that no one in our country has done before… But it’s been a tough road, I’m not going to lie, the first guy through the wall is always bloody. I had to take that blow.”

If we are prepared to tackle our obstacles, bloody though the process may be, we will rise above them one day — just as this kid from Singapore has risen to be king of the pool.

Feature image: Instagram @josephschooling

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