What Makes A Champion?


Joseph Isaac Schooling, 21, has just won Singapore’s first Olympic Gold. Not only did he win an Olympic gold medal, he made an Olympic Record for the 100m Men’s Butterfly.

How did Joseph achieve this feat? What inspired him? What made him tick?

As a parent, I wanted to know what kind of support his parents gave him. I also wanted to know the “ingredients” needed to raise a champion.

I was curious and this was what I found.

1) Have Strong Parental Support

Whenever I see successful youths, I know they have a strong support system behind them. Typically, that support comes from their parent(s). Parental support comes in various ways. In Joseph’s case, I see 3 kinds of support.

a) Encouraging His Passion
May Schooling, Joseph’s mom, has said that the passion for swimming comes from Joseph. Neither she nor Colin, Joseph’s dad, forced it on him. Instead of suppressing his love for swimming so he could spend more time studying and taking the traditional path to success, they did everything in their power to ensure he can pursue his passion, including sending him to the US when he was 14 so he could receive the best training.

[Edit (12 Aug) After I published this post, I read an interview given by Colin in Today. In that interview, Colin mentioned that he and his wife had collected an extensive swim library comprising of handwritten notes of Joseph’s swims, including details like split times and cadence. They also learned as much as they could about competitive swimming through attending technical courses and swim clinics. Although swimming was Joseph’s passion, his parents did all they could to learn about it so they could provide more indepth motivation and advice to him. It is easy to see then how much support his parents have given him to pursue his passion and how they have helped motivate him for success.]

b) Helping Him Clear Obstacles
When Joseph was 15, May sought and received deferment from National Service (NS) so that he could spend his time training for his competitions. Yet, Joseph’s parents have no intention of letting him skip his obligations to his country. They still expect him to return to fulfill his NS duties. Even as they support his passion, they are mindful to instill in him the value of loyalty towards his country.

c) Unshakeable Faith In Him
Not only did Joseph’s parents provide support and help him clear obstacles, they had an unshakeable belief in his ability. In a 2013 interview, May confidently said that Joseph will be a finalist in 2016.  That faith, I believe, would have boosted Joseph’s confidence, leading to his can-do attitude.

[Edit (12 Aug) In the same  interview mentioned in my edit above, Colin Schooling hit the nail on the head.

“For parents, whatever your children do, just have confidence in them, and just love them.” – Colin Schooling]

Lesson for me:
Respect and honour my children’s passions. Do everything in my power to help them fan and develop those passions. Even if it is the path less trodden, have faith that my children will achieve success because it is self-driven. And especially if it is the less trodden path, my children will need even more support and encouragement from my husband and me. Move mountains for them if necessary, but keep them grounded. And more importantly, have faith in them and let them know and feel it too.

2) Find A Role Model

When Joseph was 6, he learned that his granduncle Lloyd Valberg was Singapore’s first-ever Olympian at the 1948 Olympics. From that point on, Joseph aspired to not only be an Olympian, but to also win an Olympic medal.

When he was 13 years old, he took a photo of himself with Michael Phleps, his idol. 8 years later, he competed against his idol and won.

Lesson for me:
Everyone needs a role model to look up to and aspire towards. Likewise, my children need role models in what they do. Their role models will inspire them in ways I cannot. Yet, at the same time, my husband and I are their role models in the values and mindsets we want them to have. Hence, we need to be mindful of what we say and do.

3) Bounce Back From Failures

While attempting to qualify for 200m Butterfly for Olympics 2012, Joseph had to scramble minutes before his heats to find a replacement swim cap and goggles. That distraction caused him to register a poor swim and he did not qualify for the finals at the Olympics. While understandably disappointed, Joseph had said it was a learning experience.  He took heart that he was still very young and had a long way to go.  In 2016, he came back fighting harder, ending with a gold medal in Rio.

Joseph has exhibited the mindset of a champion. He looks at things positively. He is engaged in the positive thinking cycle.

Lesson for me:
Failures do not define us.  Instead we can choose to learn from them (again that is engaging in the positive thinking cycle).  In helping my children overcome their perceived “failures”, I will be mindful not to harp on what they have done wrong previously but will consciously remind them what they can do right.

4) Create a Goal

During an interview with Straits Times in Aug 2015, Joseph had said that his strategy for Olympics 2016 was to focus on 100m Butterfly and 200m Butterfly because he sees himself as a world-class swimmer trying to win. He was intent on winning the 100m Butterfly.

Joseph had a very clear goal. He was going to compete in Rio 2016 and that he was going to win a medal. In fact, while in Rio, he withdrew from the 200m Butterfly and missed out on the 100m Freestyle.  I presume he did so to conserve all his energy for the 100m Butterfly.

Lesson for me:
Goals tell us where to go and what to focus on.  If we do not know where we want to go, our chances of getting there is very low. Hence, I need to help my children create their OWN goals, goals that they feel passionate about, goals that will inspire them.

5) Persevere

Joseph had said that swimming was all about the little things. To achieve his ultimate goal of winning an Olympic medal, he would have to take all those little steps. Even if the trainings were painful, he had to persevere.

He took those little steps towards his goal. And he reached his goal today.

Lesson for me:
No action is too small as long as it propels us towards our goal. Taking a tiny little step forward is better than not taking any at all. That is something I have always believed in and it is reassuring to know Joseph subscribes to that as well. I will continue to remind my children of the tiny steps they can take each day towards their success.

6) Visualise Success

When interviewed by Channel News Asia right after winning his Gold medal, Joseph had said he did not know what to believe, whether he actually did it, or if he was still preparing his race.

That goes to show that like all successful people, Joseph engages in visualisation. He had most likely visualised himself winning the race many times prior to the event. His visualisations were so clear and real that even after the race, he could not tell the difference between his visualisations and reality.

Lesson for me:
Visualisations work. The clearer and more real we can visualise our successes, the easier it will be for us to achieve them. This is a tool I will be using to help my children visualise their success.

7) Being Humble

Why are all of us going wild about Joseph Schooling? For me, it is not just because he has won our first Olympic Gold. Neither is it because he has made an Olympic Record. Instead, it is because I am thoroughly impressed by his humility. And it is the humility in this champion that has made me his fan.

Despite winning against giants like Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh, he did not brag. Instead he had said he was “honoured and privileged” to be able to race in an Olympic final alongside great names like Michael, Chad and Laszlo. Wow!

Lesson for me:
While success can be a magnet for fans, humility in the face of success is even more magnetic. That is something I will need to bear in mind as I guide my children to pursue their own success.


Joseph Schooling has been an inspiration not only to athletes in Singapore but to me as well. He is now my role model on how I would like my children to behave in pursuit of their dreams, and more importantly, how I would like them to behave when they have achieved success.

Congratulations, Joseph. I look forward to seeing more of you in the future. Thank you for being such an inspiration for the budding athletes in Singapore. And thank you, for being an inspiration for this mom here. I wish you every success and may you continue to inspire all of us.

– Vivian Kwek-



5 Strategies To Be Positive


Has your child ever expressed negative attitudes when doing something? How do you help him or her change that attitude and become more positive?

My husband and I brought the family to Bukit Timah Hill on National Day. At only 164 metres high, it is not a high hill to “conquer” but the climb is steep at certain stretches. 10 minutes into the hike, we met with the first steep ascent. C, my soon-to-be 12-year-old, started dragging her feet up the steep slope. She had a litany of complaints.

“It’s too hard.”

“I’m too hot.”

“My legs are tired.”

“I’m sweating like crazy.”

“Can I stop now?”

“I don’t want to do this any more.”

It went on till we reached a rest point. She was almost in tears and we were not even a quarter of the way through our hike yet.

Turning Point

I stopped at the rest point with C while her brother and her daddy, who was carrying her 3.5year old sister, checked out a split in the road. While they were away, I had a talk with C.

The boys came back 15 minutes later and we carried on to the summit, taking a long detour to explore a new trail. The rest of the hike took us almost 2 hours.

Instead of sulking her way for the rest of the 2 hours, C bounced off with energy and enthusiasm. No longer dragging her feet, she raced up the hill with her brother and waited for us at the next rest point.

“What took you so long?” she grinned.

I praised C for her positive energy and told her I really liked the change in her attitude. I asked her how she felt.

“I feel great,” she replied happily. “This is fun!”

And she maintained that enthusiasm all the way, leapfrogging ahead to the next rest stop and waiting for us to catch up. As we were heading back towards the car, she said to me, “Mom, I really enjoyed myself.”

How did my girl switch from being teary-eyed at the beginning of the hike to being all smiles at the end of it?

How did “I don’t want to do this anymore” become “I really enjoyed myself”?

What had inspired her change in attitude?

We Choose How We Want To Feel

“It’s all in our heads. We choose how we want to feel.”

That was the gist of what I had told her in the 15 minutes the boys were away.

We could choose to focus on all the negative things about the hike, like the heat, the fatigue and the mosquitoes. We would then justifiably feel absolutely miserable.

Or we could choose to focus on the positive things about the hike, like us spending time as a family getting some exercise. And we would feel happy as a result.

It all boiled down to our choices we made in our heads.

I acknowledged it was easier said than done. But I gave her a few strategies to do the switch.

Strategy 1: Find A Role Model

All of us were on the hike together. All of us were going up the same hill in the same weather. Her daddy was carrying her little sister on his back. Obviously he was feeling warmer than the rest of us. Obviously he was exerting more energy and most likely feeling more tired than the rest of us. Yet he remained upbeat and positive. Why? What could daddy be thinking of to keep himself upbeat?

Could daddy be her role model on staying positive?

Strategy 2: Find A Motivation

We would be heading for lunch after the hike. What could she look forward to? A sumptuous lunch? A nice cold dessert?

Was there something that could motivate her to push on?

Strategy 3: Make It Less Painful

She did not have to enjoy the “ordeal”. But she could make it less painful by focusing on the good things, no matter how little that might be.

If the prisoners of war in Auschwitz could find something positive to stay alive for, there was nothing stopping us from looking at the bright side of things during this hike.

What could she do or think of to make the hike less painful for herself?

Strategy 4: Focus On The Gains

Everything worth doing required some level of effort. But if we focused on the gain, we would see that the effort was worthwhile.

In this instance, the perspiration that was soaking our clothes served to cool us down. The ache in our muscles was a result of our muscles growing and strengthening. It was also helping us strengthen our bones. The breathlessness and strain in climbing made our hearts stronger so our circulatory system would be more efficient.

What gains would she like to focus on to help her continue with the hike?

Strategy 5: Determine The Memories We Want To Create

In everything that we do, we are the ones who decide what kind of memories we want to create. If we decide we want happy memories, we will do all we can to make the memories happy. We can do likewise if we want to create unhappy memories.

What kind of memory would she like to create for this hike?

The Cycle of Positive Thinking

Many people are not aware that they have a choice to decide what kind of memories they want to form. Those who are aware tend to choose to create happy memories. They will embark on anything they do with that attitude and mindset.

Both positive and negative aspects are present in every situation that we find ourselves in but we get to choose what we want to focus on which in turn determines how we feel.

Attitude Focus Feeling Cycle


The attitude we have going into any activity determines what we will focus on. What we focus on will create the feelings that we have. That in turn reinforces the attitude that we have.

So very simply, if we are positive, we focus on positive things which creates positive feelings and that reinforces our positive attitudes which help us continue focusing on positive things.

That is the cycle of positive thinking and that is the cycle that positive thinkers get themselves into.

Make A Choice

“All of us have a choice of how we want to feel, and you do too,” I had said to her.  “You decide.”

1) Find A Role Model:
Could daddy be her role model on staying positive?

2) Find A Motivation:
Was there something that could motivate her to push on?

3) Make It Less Painful:
What could she do or think of to make the hike less painful for herself?

4) Focus On The Gains
What gains would she like to focus on to help her continue with the hike?

5) Determine The Memories We Want To Create
What kind of memory would she like to create for this hike?

By the end of the 15 minutes, C made her decision. She chose to adopt a positive attitude. The rest of the hike was an enjoyable experience for her.

The best thing was because she decided to be positive about the hike, it helped the rest of us maintain our positivity as well. As a result, ALL of us had fond memories of that hike.


We are all capable of making the switch. As long as we are conscious of the decisions that we make, of how our attitudes affect what we focus on and how we feel, it becomes easier for us to engage in positive thinking.

If C could do it, so too can the rest of us.

Which of the 5 strategies would appeal to you and your child?

– Vivian Kwek –









How To Bring Up Self-Motivated Learners

As parents and educators, we are always looking for ways to help our children be self-motivated learners.  What if I told you it is actually not difficult to achieve that?

Self-Motivation At Work

The last activity my 3.5-year-old asked to do last night before bed was to have a piece of paper and pencil to write her name. She wrote it several times, including the names of the rest of the family, before declaring she was ready to sleep.

This morning, she woke up and asked to play the alphabet game. So we brought out her kit and she happily settled down to trace the alphabets and match the uppercase letters with the lowercase letters.


Prior to her interest in the alphabets, she was obsessed with colours and would ask to make different colours. That was when she would bring out her paint set or even our food colouring set to mix different colours together.

She did these activities on her own accord. Not once did I suggest or entice her to do any of them.

Children Are Programmed to Learn

The fascinating thing is all our children are programmed to learn. When they are ready, they will pick up what they want to learn really fast.  All we need to do is to watch for openings like that and offer them what they need.

Introduce Concepts And Let Curiosity Take Over

Why did my preschooler ask to write? How did she know about the alphabet game? Why would she want to mix colours?

My role in her education is to expose her to different concepts and different games. Occasionally I would bring out different games/toys and let her mess around with it.

For example, when she was painting, I took the opportunity to show her how mixing different colours would give us a new colour. And that was all I did. I did not insist that she had to do likewise. I just planted a seed of colour mixing in her mind. A few days later, she tested out mixing different colours on her own when she was painting.

The beauty was she kept repeating the activity over several weeks until she remembered what colours to mix to get whatever colour she wanted. She learned how to mix more colours on her own than what I had shown her. And she learned that all by herself.

Likewise for writing and alphabet recognition. I showed her how her name looked like on paper and she was intrigued. But I did not ask her to write. Some time later she asked me to teach her how to write her name. After some practice, she learned how to do it herself. That subsequently extended to writing the names of the rest of the family. And because she was interested in alphabets, I introduced her the alphabet game matching uppercase and lowercase letters.  Then when she felt like it, she asked to play the game.

We did the same with time. We have a book on time which she enjoys. One day, I showed her a toy clock that she could play with. A few days later, she brought the clock out so she could show the time on the clock as we read the book together at bedtime.

Subsequently she extended that to showing time on the clock that went beyond what was covered in the book.

A lot of the learning that happened resulted from me introducing a concept/toy/game to her once or twice without asking her to do anything. If she wanted to try it out, great. If she was not interested, that was fine too. Invariably, she would pick up the learning on her own. And she almost always learned more than what I had shown her during my introduction of those concepts.

How different would it have been had I structured her play and insisted now was time to mix colours, or now was time to trace letters? Would I have to cajole her? Would I have met with resistance? Would she have willingly spent so much time doing those activities and learning? Would she have extended her learning to find out more than what I had shown her?

The Danger of Over-Structuring

Why is important for us to pick up the cues of our children instead of structuring their play?

The reason is simple. It is because we want our children to be self-driven and self-motivated.

When we constantly tell our children what we want them to do, or entice them to do what we want them to do, we deprive them of the ability to listen to their needs. We deprive them of the time to think about what they want to do. We deprive them of the freedom to pursue their own interests. We deprive them of the opportunity to learn what they want.

How Self Motivation Is Lost

By definition, self-motivation  means doing something because you want to.

Like I mentioned earlier, our children are programmed to learn. But they lose their self-motivation when we over-structure their learning.  Why?

That is because they then see learning as something external to them. They begin to associate learning as something that someone wants them to do, not something they want to do. To them, learning is something their teachers or their parents or their school or the exams want them to know. It is not because THEY want to know.

By and by, our children forget how to be self-driven. They rely on us or someone else to tell them what to do. They lose their initiative. They become disinterested. They lose their self motivation.  They become unmotivated.

What Should We Do?

Our role is to introduce an idea or a concept that triggers curiosity. And that needs to be followed by a keen observation of when that seed of curiosity has taken root so that we can provide the resources when our children are ready to learn.

Math can be learned through games.  History can be learned through play and dramatisation.  Science facts, geography etc, can be learned through songs.  We are so blessed to be living in this day and age where the internet makes such resources readily available to us.

Let Them Play

Playing is what children do best. And playing is how children learn best. When they play, especially play that is self-directed, they do it because they want to. And because they want to, they absorb the lessons from the play effortlessly.

It is extremely important that from young, we give our children time and space to play.

Playing is doing and learning with self motivation.

Playing is NOT a waste of time.

Playing is how children develop curiosity.

Playing is how our children satisfy their curiosity.

Playing is how our children continuously desire to learn and find out more.


The more our children play, the more questions they have, the more they want to find out the answers and the more they are motivated to learn more on their own.  It really is as simple as that.

If you want your children to be self-motivated learners, I strongly encourage you to set aside time for your children to play.