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New national women’s water polo coach Yu Lei sees himself as not just a teacher

Water Polo
January 20, 2024

SINGAPORE – A teacher, a friend and an elder are the roles that new national women’s water polo coach Yu Lei is juggling, after taking over the reins from interim coach Lee Sai Meng in November.

By being an elder figure, he hopes to foster a strong family spirit in the team as they aim for a creditable showing at the Feb 2-18 World Aquatics Championships, with the SEA Games gold also in his sights.

Yu, 52, played for China from 1989 to 1999 and moved to Singapore to coach Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) after he retired. He later coached the National University of Singapore and Raffles Institution, and started the Aegir Water Polo Club in 2016.

On his coaching philosophy, he said: “I believe there are three levels of relationships between a coach and his players. During training and competition, we are teacher and disciple; during our in-depth conversation, we are friends; and in our daily lives, we are elder and the next generation.

“As a teacher, I need to lead by example and be committed. As a friend, I need to put myself in their shoes and treat everyone equally. As an elder, I need to care for the young players when they are down.

“I would describe myself as strict and effective as I seek to improve the players’ technical levels and tactical understanding through my training, and bring out their true potential as they fight as a team.”

With him having a young team, it also means “there’s a lot of energy, fighting spirit and room for improvement”.  Yu hopes everyone can put the team first to raise the team’s overall levels, while bringing out the best in individuals.

National water polo technical director Kan Aoyagi said Yu was given a two-year contract on the recommendation of Lee, who returns to his full-time position as a coach developer at the National Youth Sports Institute.

Aoyagi added: “After six months of observing Yu Lei’s passion and results, despite numerous applicants, he remained our top choice and has proven to be the right one.  “The women’s water polo team are still fairly new and we hope that by playing at the world championships, we are able to promote the team and attract more members to join.”

Under Lee and Yu’s guidance, the team showed their potential at the Asian Games in 2023 when they beat SEA Games champions Thailand and Uzbekistan en route to a historic fourth-place finish. This gave Yu the confidence that they can regain the SEA Games gold that Singapore last won in 2011, which was followed by four silvers (2015, 2017, 2019 and 2023).

In November, they learnt of their world championship debut after Japan withdrew, giving them an opportunity to play at the highest level.

A tough assignment awaits as the Republic are in Group C with New Zealand, and former world champions Australia and Hungary.   Yu said the results in Doha, Qatar are not as important as the experience, adding: “We want to give it our all in every match, minimise errors and try to finish as best as we can in the play-offs.”

Captain Abielle Yeo felt that there had been a smooth transition as Yu has been working well with the team since June.  The 25-year-old said: “Coach Yu Lei is very nurturing and gels well with the team. He has a distinct emphasis on the importance of a family team dynamic inside and outside the pool. Whether it’s about looking out for each other, respect between players or discipline at training, these are all important habits that are helpful within gameplay too.

“We have been training very hard together to prepare for the world championships. We are bringing four debutantes (Juni Ong, 24, Gan Hui Min, 26, and 17-year-olds Charlene Tio and Zhu Zhiyun) with us, so everyone is working together to strengthen the chemistry in the game.

“It’s the biggest opportunity that we have been given, so we are determined to play our hearts out.”