Training to become a professional athlete can be gruelling, but for many youngsters chosen for China’s state-run sports system, selection provides a pathway to a better life. Kim Yao was selected at a young age to represent Jiangsu Province in volleyball and was sent to an elite sports school where she undertook rigorous exercise programs to learn the skills required to become a champion. The structured lifestyle and strict discipline saw her rise to the top and go on to represent her country as a part of the national volleyball team. The experience gave her the sweet taste of triumph, but it also invested her with a love of sport for which she credits her positive attitude. “Before I started playing volleyball, I was pretty reserved. But after I started playing, I noticed that my personality started to slowly change. Playing volleyball really improved my spirit and taught me to never give up”, she says, highlighting the personally transformative nature of the game.
Unfortunately the career span of a pro-athlete is limited and when it came time for Kim to retire in her early 20’s, she was faced with a difficult transition into modern life. “When I was an athlete, my coach helped me do everything. All I had to do was focus on training. So when I initially resumed a normal life, I wasn’t very used to it.”
This is a common experience for ex-athletes in China. So much so that China’s first Winter Olympic gold-medallist, Yang Yang, began the ‘Champions Fund’ to provide opportunities for ex-champions to use their skills and knowledge to benefit the wider community. It was this program that put Kim in touch with the ANZ Junior Tennis Program, run by the non-profit organisation Sport For All.
“Children from working-class families tend to feel a bit inferior, but I teach them to work hard and after they learn a new skill, they feel empowered. Some kids might feel that they don’t really want to play, but I make sure I tell them, ‘No matter what it is, never give up. If you give up, you’ll never know what you can accomplish."
“The ANZ Junior Tennis Program teaches kids technical skills, teamwork, and independence. Playing volleyball was pretty easy for me, but coaching tennis presented a new challenge. Since there is a lot of overlap between sports, some of the positive characteristics I learned playing volleyball can be transferred to tennis. I can inspire each kid to reach his or her potential.” she said.
The program is free for schools to join and many of the students, usually middle schoolers, are from impoverished backgrounds. Often they don’t know anything about sports at all, let alone tennis, and Kim sees it as her role to bring out their hidden potential.
“Being a professional athlete and being a coach are very different experiences. It was so much fun playing volleyball and winning matches. Coaching is also enjoyable, but it’s a different type of joy. It’s really rewarding to be able to teach kids how to do something that they weren’t able to do before. I feel that my coaching has raised their spirits and taught them how to think independently. I also gave them confidence and taught them to believe in themselves.”
It’s not all hard work either. Tall, elegant and softly spoken in social situations, Kim is transformed into a confident and engaging coach on the court. “Kids normally only learn in the classroom, so when they learn to play sports they have a great time. When I see the kids having fun, I like to join in and have fun with them because it makes me feel young again”, she says.
Traditionally China has placed a lot of emphasis on academic success, but more and more there is a focus on the benefits of physical education in building stronger, happier communities.
“Sports can help bring communities together. If you attend a group program, then everybody has to work together and that teaches teamwork. If it’s an individual program, then it teaches people how to be independent.”
Hand-in-hand with this comes a growing interest in tennis, particularly with the recent home-grown success of tennis star Li Na and the Shanghai Rolex Masters tennis tournament. The ANZ Junior Tennis Program takes ANZ’s existing sponsorship of elite tennis events to the community level. Without ANZ support, the program would not exist at all.
Kim sees the knock on effect of the children’s participation on parents and teachers. “We teach the kids to have a good attitude, so that when they go home, they are able to help their parents instead of burdening them. The parents tell me that their kids are more well-behaved than before.”
Despite a rocky transition period, Kim appreciates the positive impact sport has had on her own life and is grateful to be able to pass what she’s learned onto others.
“Children from working-class families tend to feel a bit inferior, but I teach them to work hard and after they learn a new skill, they feel empowered. Some kids might feel that they don’t really want to play, but I make sure I tell them, ‘No matter what it is, never give up. If you give up, you’ll never know what you can accomplish.'”