Yip Pui Yin — Hong Kong National Team Badminton player, 3x Olympic participant — sharing about her badminton career
Yip Pui Yin has represented Hong Kong in badminton at the 2008 Beijing, 2012 London and 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics. As a young child, she played as many sports as available to her, such as football, basketball and even rugby. She could never sit still; she simply wanted to be out and about running around with her friends. Because she was always outdoors playing sports and on the playground, she was quite tanned so people would call her “黑妹” (“Tanned Girl”) and that nickname has stuck ever since.
Though she loved all sports, it was badminton that she was most passionate about, having started playing at the age of 6 at the community centre that she frequently visited when her family were working. She made the Hong Kong Junior Team in Form 1, and left school after Form 4 to pursue her professional sporting career. Since then, she’s competed in many major tournaments around the world. At one point she was ranked 8th globally on the women’s singles circuit.
How did you get into badminton, what do you love about it and what about it keeps you motivated to keep playing, even after some of setbacks, and after such a long professional career that has spanned over 15 years?
I’ve been playing since I was six years old. At the time, my family were not wealthy; in fact you could consider us poor, so my family members were always out working whenever they could. This meant I would spend time at the nearby community centre, and after we finished homework, we were allowed to play. There was a badminton court there so my first memories of badminton were from the community centre. It left a deep impression on me and I found a sense of familiarity and belonging on the badminton court. Over the years, I’ve grown up with the sport.
I like the individuality of badminton. Even if there are doubles in badminton, I prefer playing singles. My personality is suited to play singles because I like the feeling of self-reliance: being on the court, whatever happens, it’s all on me. Even though I have a coach, once I’m playing I can’t always rely on my coach. It’s my own effort, I have to control my emotions, I have to read each point as they are played, and when I encounter problems, I have to deal with it.
I also like the challenge of badminton as it requires technical skills, speed, agility, footwork and endurance (physical and mental). To me it’s a challenge and to this day, I can still improve and learn so much more.
You decided to leave school after Form 4 to pursue your professional sporting career. What led to that choice, and how did your family react?
I’ve played sports my whole life; I couldn’t sit still so I was more suited to being active. My parents did encourage me to learn piano, but they gave up soon after, as I would get out of the chair within the first minute of sitting down. I wanted to outside playing football or basketball or badminton instead.
When it came to school and academic studies, I wasn’t naturally a studious type. Education was important to my parents; they, like many parents, thought that having good grades would be necessary to secure a good education and good job, but studying simply wasn’t for me. Of course I tried, but my grades weren’t that good. I knew I was never going to be ranked #1 or #2 in class, so I didn’t see academic studies as my path.
At one point when my grades weren’t good, my parents didn’t allow me to play badminton. But it was no use. Badminton is my passion. After a while, they let me go back to badminton. I have the desire to improve myself constantly in this sport, it motivates me, it gives me fire, and it gives me mental strength. As a child I had big dreams and ambitions to become a professional player. When the opportunity arrived that I could become an elite athlete, I took the opportunity.
I’m glad I made this decision because sport and badminton have given me so much. In this day and age, good grades alone aren’t enough to secure a good job anyway. I know many people who aren’t happy in their jobs; I don’t want to be that person. Life is long, I prefer to pursue what I love and be happy chasing my dreams.
In competition, you win some and you lose some. You’ve had many wins and losses in your career. How do you deal with the highs and lows that come with winning and losing?
I think athletes are better equipped to deal with highs and lows and the stresses of life. Playing sports is similar to daily life: there is no smooth sailing and we constantly deal with highs and lows. Athletes have been trained to have the perseverance and mental strength to keep going despite setbacks. In order to become an elite athlete, we have to be able to deal with physical and emotional pain. To this day, I still deal with the emotional pain of some of my losses from the Olympics, but I take them in stride and I learn from them. What is important is learning to deal with setbacks when faced with them, and not let them fester.
Speaking of the Olympics, you had considered retiring after the 2016 Rio Olympics, but now you plan to make a run for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. What changed?
If I make it on the team for Tokyo, I’ll be 33 years old, and the oldest by far. In fact now, at age 30, I’m already the oldest women’s singles badminton player still in the circuit. During the previous Olympics I hadn’t performed as well as I had aimed, so I’m unhappy about that. At the same time, it also motivates me to keep trying and challenging myself to do better than before.
At my age, many people would have retired from badminton. It’s such a physical sport. I know I could retire too, but I still feel able to play physically. I don’t want to give up. I’m not ready to retire. My heart is in badminton; I still have that fire in me. I have an opportunity, so why not go for it? I want to prove to myself that I can do it. Maybe I won’t make it on the team, but who knows if I don’t try? And even if I don’t make the team, I can still live with this decision that I tried and I gave it my best.
I thought about what else I would want to do now, but I can’t think of anything else than to seek improvement in my game. Age isn’t the boundary. With age comes experience, and mental fortitude as well. Badminton isn’t just a physical game: it’s an emotional game, and also a game of strategy and smarts. Experience counts a lot.
What has been the biggest impact of sport and badminton on you?
Aside from the fact that they have given me so much joy, I think they have taught me how to be a better person. As I mentioned earlier, my family was not wealthy growing up and my parents were not always around. My head badminton coach was almost like a father to me. He told me that no matter how good I am at sports, what is more important is how to be a person. Through him and badminton I have learned many life skills that make me who I am today.
Not only that, playing badminton has given me the opportunity to travel around the world. I’ve met so many different people and been to so many countries. I’ve had such wonderful experiences. I’ve been traveling on my own for competition since I was in my teens. Through that I’ve learned independence and how to take care of myself. I really value that.
What advice do you have for someone who might consider leaving school early to pursue a professional sporting career?
You really need to know if you have the heart and passion for it. And that must come from the self, and not external pressures such as family. Nor is it about talent. Of course talent helps, but many skills can be learned and acquired. What are more important are the mindset, dedication, effort and practice. Take me as an example, when I was younger my coach told me that talent-wise I wasn’t as good as some of my peers. I loved the sport so much that I kept pushing myself to get better. Plus I’m competitive and I don’t like to lose. Over time, I got better and better at badminton.
You can tell if someone is truly passionate about a sport if all they want to do is spend time thinking about it and playing that sport. Passion also comes through when someone is constantly seeking to get better at it.
What’s next for you?
I’m preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics so right now that is my priority. But I’m also involved in doing some coaching for youth at the moment, which is something more recent for me. I find that coaching supplements my badminton acumen as it has improved my ability to analyze, and improved my judgment on the court. As a player I was weaker in these aspects, but now coaching has enhanced my badminton all-roundedness. When I do officially retire, I plan on being more involved in coaching.