What does it take to build a team? Chances are, teammates are first friends before becoming a team, and these are friendships that outlast any game or competition. Teo Jing-Wen, captain of the women’s water polo team of SMU Aquatic Sharks, shares what she’s learnt along her journey, from competing in individual sports to building a sports team from ground up.

Playing for a team

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Jing-Wen with the ball in a game of water polo

Perfectionism and a competitive streak meant that Jing-Wen was a natural fit for the rigours of swimming, which she had begun competing in since age seven. She fondly recalls what she enjoys about competing in an individual sport, “I like my actions to affect myself and not anyone else. I’m also very hard on myself, so I can’t imagine expecting the same from others.”

Because a certain level of swimming proficiency is needed for water polo, Jing-Wen was an ideal player and was enlisted by her school team once she enrolled in junior college. The transition from an individual to team sport meant that her mentality of “I’m swimming for myself” had to go.

“In water polo, you have to think about how others feel, and about how your actions might affect them. But being part of a team is also fun, because you know that you have people supporting you who will always have your back.”

This was the family culture that Jing-Wen took away from her water polo days in junior college.

Fast forward to university. Jing-Wen was invited to join the women’s water polo team even before she stepped into SMU, and was assigned team captain in her freshman year. At that time, there were no consistent trainings and the team only met four times a year – twice to train, and twice to compete. The team structure was completely different from the family culture that Jing-Wen was accustomed to. There was much to be done.

“What I remember most about my junior college days is actually my water polo team – playing the game and hanging out as friends. I want the same thing for my SMU team too, for them to take away good memories of us being a team.”

Together with Kaiyang, the men’s water polo team captain, and Isaac, president of SMU Aquatic Sharks, Jing-Wen spent days putting their heads together to discuss the change needed in the water polo team culture. She wanted to put in place consistent trainings and for the team to have fun together.

Building the team

The most immediate problem to solve was getting the members to be friends.

“I needed to get the team to really know each other. A big part of why nobody wanted to come for trainings was because they didn’t know anyone. In water polo, you play in a team. When you don’t know anyone, its like playing in a team of strangers. It becomes an individual sport.”

Jing-Wen had to take the first step. She talked to each member to find out what could be done better and organised casual get-togethers that slowly grew over time, as people became more familiar with each other.

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The SMU women’s water polo team getting together outside of trainings

The next issue was finding a place to train and the proper equipment. Jing-Wen proposed having friendly matches with the NUS women’s water polo team. They would have a sparring partner, and the SMU team would have space for practice. The agreement was made and both teams soon became friends.

Shortly after, the SMU team also started training at an affiliate club that Kaiyang had ties with. With this additional resource, and the occasional friendly matches with club members, Jing-Wen started regular school team trainings on Sundays. The numbers were not great at the beginning, but it was a vast improvement from before.

With lots of planning and coordination, the team got into a routine of trainings and friendly matches, and started to have cohesions and meet regularly for team gatherings. The last piece of the puzzle was recruitment.

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The SMU women’s water polo team all geared up

“Because swimming is necessary in water polo, I looked to people I knew who could swim to join the team. When I first joined, we had just enough people for competition, so each member would have to play the full round. It was a struggle.”

From having a bench of zero reserves, Jing-Wen now has a team of ten players. She sighs with relief, “at least now, there is encouragement and there are people to support you if you need help during competition.”

In the Institute-Varsity-Polytechnic (IVP) Games 2016, SMU women’s water polo was placed fourth. At the recent IVP Games 2017, the team came in second, missing championship by a small margin to NUS, who have been the defending champions.

“We were all surprised because we went into the competition with no expectations. All this while, our aim had been to try as best to have consistent trainings.”

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Big smiles all round after a win for SMU women’s water polo

Personal growth and leadership lessons

Jing-Wen had not always been the leader that she is today. Prior to SMU, she had met with a discouraging incident that robbed her of her confidence. When she was assigned to lead the SMU women’s water polo team, she was determined to turn things around.

She joined a 21-day Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) course, and saw how youths who were still in junior college displayed confidence and grace even when they were leading working adults who had many more years of experience. It gave her new perspective in life and made her realise that she had to stop letting her past shape her present.

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Teo Jing-Wen, SMU women’s water polo captain

Coming out from OBS and into leading the team, Jing-Wen had more confidence in talking to her team members and holding briefings. Besides having personal talks with each member, she recognised the importance of bringing the team together to discuss, and was able to facilitate these sharing sessions with ease.

Jing-Wen hopes that the team will grow closer in the years to come, and continue to take small steps of progress every day to keep the love for water polo alive.