This teenager is breaking records at soccer and training with the boys

“Growing up, I wasn’t the most talented or the fastest. I think I worked very hard, I put my head down and kept working,” said 18-year-old Danelle Tan.

Danielle Tan

Danelle Tan discovered her soccer talent by accident.

At just six years old, she joined a football club in Singapore where her brothers played every Saturday.

“I was feeling a little lonely at home … so I asked my parents if I could join,” Tan said.

She scored 12 goals in her first class – an impressive feat that was only the beginning of her success in the sport.

Last month, the 18-year-old made history as the first Singaporean woman to play in a European league after making her debut for the London Bees.

The young athlete shares her thoughts on success, sacrifice and essential life skills with CNBC Make It.

It took a lot of convincing before Tan was able to step foot on a pitch – due to her mother’s initial reservations about the sport.

“Maybe just the fact that it’s not a very common sport that girls play,” she said.

The perception that football is a “men’s sport” isn’t new, but Tan said she believes that’s changing.

“I think women’s football in general is picking up speed, the three best [attended] Games in Europe are women’s games – it’s going in the right direction and that’s very nice to see.”

Tan has since had her parents’ full support to pursue a professional career in football.

“I knew my development as a player would stagnate in Singapore. If I wanted to achieve my goal of becoming a professional footballer, I would have to go abroad,” she added.

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Danelle Tan (12 in this photo) scored 12 goals in her first class at the age of six – an impressive feat that was just the beginning of her success in the sport.

Danielle Tan

In early 2022, Tan decided to move to London and has since been studying at Mill Hill High School – where she is also the first player on their football team.

“When I started, there wasn’t a girls’ team… The original intention was always to join a boys’ team to make sure I could challenge myself,” Tan said.

That means she has to “work harder” than the rest of her team.

“At the same age they are much more physical and faster, so I have to think faster, I have to move the ball faster to match that physicality,” she added.

Tan never saw that as a disadvantage. Instead, she saw it as a reason to pull herself together.

“I wasn’t the most talented or the fastest growing up. I think I worked very hard, I put my head down and kept working,” Tan said.

“It’s about not settling for less.”

I’m only 18 so I don’t know where life is going to take me. I always see life as a snake and ladder game.

Danielle Tan

“I never really thought about it. I’m only 18 so I don’t know where life is going to take me. I always see life as a game of snakes and ladders,” she said.

“Many of us probably wish for our journeys to be straight forward and for continuous improvement. But it goes up and then down and then maybe a ladder comes straight up and later maybe a snake comes down.”

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One of her toughest experiences was missing out on games for four months after tearing her cruciate ligament.

“The whole rehab process was incredibly long… You didn’t even [set] Foot on the field, you don’t touch a ball,” Tan said.

“I had a really good support system. A lot of my friends have been very supportive, especially my family – it has helped me get back on my feet.”

But one thing is for sure: the last thing Tan wants is to be “stagnant” in her journey as an athlete.

“Can I become Singapore’s all-time [best] Scorer or can I be my club’s top scorer? I just want to keep striving and reaching for more.”

Balancing a sporting career and school is no easy task. A typical day for Tan starts at 8:00 am with classes lasting until 4:30 pm

“Then I usually work about an hour and a half to two hours after school with the strength and conditioning coach,” she said.

After a quick dinner, it’s off to practice with the London Bees.

“I usually get back to my dorm room around 10pm, shower, do my laundry, dry my hair, and then I usually try to get some time to read before bed.”

I don’t think there’s anyone in the whole world that can be motivated every day… It’s discipline. It does it even if you don’t want to.

Danielle Tan

When asked what motivates her to do this day in and day out, Tan said it’s “not motivation” that keeps her going, but “a lot of discipline and sacrifice.”

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“I don’t think there is anyone in the whole world who can be motivated every day. I would love to just lay in bed and watch Netflix. But I don’t have time for that,” she added.

“It’s discipline. It does it even if you don’t want to do it.”

The biggest sacrifice is being 11,000km from my family and friends in Singapore, which Tan says can get “a bit lonely”.

Despite this, she emphasized that discipline and sacrifice for the essentials were “very important skills” that she would need later in life.

“I am very fortunate that sport taught me this at an early age. It’s about focusing on what helps you win in the long run, rather than lose in the short run.”

Tan has his sights set on a bigger stage.

“I would love to sign a professional contract, that’s what I’m working towards and it will be a nice culmination of all my hard work,” she said.

And she’s hungry for more.

“Even if I sign one, I will continue to strive for more. It will just be a nice checkpoint.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented the number of goals Danelle scored for her team.

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