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Higher education as an athlete

12 January 2015

Should an elite cyclist or triathlete go to university after their A-Levels? How should they choose a university, and choose the right course? Higher education for students who are also training & competing as elite athletes can seem an impossible challenge.

Here’s how George Schwiening, Junior World Duathlon Champion, decided whether to go, where to go, what to study – and how to make it work.

Just over a year ago, I finished my first week at the University of Bath. It was probably a little different to most Freshers’ first seven days. I am very happy to be in the position of actually being able to recount to you what happened.

So what I had spent my first week at university doing if I had not been out partying and drinking to excess? If I am honest I was too busy enjoying myself to be dealing with all of that. I had jumped straight in and found my feet. This mostly involved riding up and down the Mendip Hills, getting very muddy running on the trails around campus and bombing in British Swimming’s 50m intensive training centre pool (and swimming a few lengths too…)

All in all, at the end of the week I was feeling pretty pleased and relieved that I had put some time in to my UCAS application.

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Taking the plunge

Choosing a university sounds daunting enough but being an athlete embarking on this journey is an intimidating prospect at best, an impossible one at worst. It certainly felt like that to me initially. I was so terrified at the idea of having to choose somewhere that I shied away from it. Questions such as “Did I really want to go?” haunted me and the stress of even looking at my attempt of a personal statement was too much to cope with. Home was the best place to train; I was convinced that I would never find anywhere else as good. There were several hurdles in the process but this was probably the most significant in my eyes. I had trained and raced successfully in Cambridge ever since I started triathlon and I absolutely loved it. What would the change do to my love of sport? Even though I really wanted to go, it was a while before I engaged in finding somewhere that might work for me.

The turning point at which the process became more fun (and less of a weight on my shoulders) was when I was prepared to take my athlete’s hat off for certain aspects of the decision. Whilst I do a lot of sport and compete at a relatively high standard {Ed.: George is being rather modest here! – she has won world titles and medals in elite duathlon}, sport doesn’t define me and doesn’t influence every decision I make. All athletes have very normal parts of their lives too. So I decided to let this part of me lead my thought process occasionally.

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Where to start

The first step I took to escape this small hole I had dug for myself was to finally make use of the people around me. Once I had learnt to use the fantastic support network that I had, things started to move forward.

My family, friends, training partners and sixth form tutor all had so much to offer in helping me make a well-informed decision. I was lucky enough not to be tied up in a Performance Pathway so I had no pressure from any NGB (National Governing Body) or funded programme about where I should be studying and training. The decision was mine, yes that was scary but it was great that it was on my back. Taking responsibility was key. I didn’t want to be blaming anyone else apart from myself if I ended up in the “wrong” place. I was grateful for this freedom.

After chatting to lots of people, looking at the websites of various universities and taking time to think I came up with a rough outline of some criteria of what I was looking for in a university. My list below is not ordered based on priority or importance. It simply helped to guide me when I was making my decision:-

  1. Small, manageable city, similar to the size of Cambridge
  2. A high quality degree course in a well-respected department
  3. A university with a good reputation
  4. A sports-friendly environment – sport is supported and promoted by the university and a place with good town clubs too.

It took me a while to work out what I wanted from university and coming up with a list was difficult.

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Course decision

Arriving at university with a bike, trainers and a swimming costume ready to smash every session was not going to be enough. I needed something to do whilst I wasn’t doing triathlon. This brings me to my course decision. Of the time I spent doing my research for university as a whole, 50% was spent looking at the courses out there. For me this was a balance (it goes without saying that “balance” is an overused word in the world of being a student-athlete) but it really is essential. A fun, credible degree that also gave me enough time to train was the battle.

I knew I had to choose a course that I had a genuine interest in. For the majority of the time I was going to be studying when I was tired from training; lectures after morning swimming or studying in the evening after a long ride. Relying on my training and sport to get me through my degree was not an option. It was going to make life much more fun and it was going to keep me sane but I knew I was going to have to really motivate myself to work too.

I wanted to study a science degree and sports science is a subject I am genuinely interested in.

I knew choosing a course simply because of the limited contact time allowing lots of time to train was not going to be a smart move. Even if I did “make it” in my sport after university, a sporting career cannot span a lifetime. So a good degree behind me was going to be essential.

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Open days

The thought of trekking around the country to visit universities whilst I was trying to revise for exams was surprisingly unappealing and probably even more so for my parents; driving me around lost its novelty a long time ago. However it had the potential to be useful. I needed to get an idea of a place.

As the application process runs over the cross country running season, the English National Cross Country Championships in Sunderland was combined with a trip to Durham. Achieving two things in one weekend took the pressure off everything. This was not an official open day but I preferred it this way. What does the university look like and feel like on a normal day? We walked through the tiny town centre, had a quick look at some of the accommodation blocks and university buildings.

It was a flying visit but I got an idea of the area, the weather and the distance from home (it was a long way from home).

I attended two official open days, one at Bath and one at Loughborough. These really did help me make up my mind. The lecturers gave talks about the course and the university in general. There was also a guided tour of the campus and the facilities. From these tours I soon got an idea of what was important to the university or what the university thought the students would find attractive. From here I could then weigh this up against my own set of criteria. Was the tour centralised around showing off the social spaces, clubs and bars or was the approach more balanced, guiding us around the sports facilities, accommodation, the practical labs and the lecture theatres? This process really helped me rule out some places and push others further up my list. It was obvious on these open days about who the university was trying to attract.

For the other universities I had received offers from (Exeter and Leeds), I knew friends already studying at these places, so I could get in touch to find out what they thought.

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Where? North, south, east, west…

The location of the university and how well connected the place is to the rest of the UK and world should not be overlooked, particularly by athletes. Races and training camps are unlikely to be on your doorstep. So you should consider how accessible the university is. Luckily I was not having to travel to a training venue every weekend, but I did want to be able to travel home occasionally and catch the train to races around the UK. Finding out where the station would be in relation to the university and your accommodation is useful but obviously not too important when determining whether it’s the place for you.

Facilities

Facilities on the other hand may determine whether you attend a university or not. Different sports don’t require the same quality of the facilities. As a triathlete the facilities need to be of a good standard. Access to substantial pool time, an athletics track and running trails, good roads and conditioning facilities form a starting point for effective triathlon training.

However for cyclists good roads for tough winter miles and fast summer chaingangs potentially outweigh strength and conditioning facilities. So a university that has a smaller, lower-quality gym can still be considered as an option if the riding opportunities are plentiful.

I was lucky enough to use the facilities and see them in action on more than one occasion before I decided to apply to Bath. So before even arriving I had got a real taste of what it might be like to train there. Not only did this help me make my mind up but it also helped me settle in relatively quickly. Even just knowing exactly where the club meets before sessions and exactly how to get there made the first couple of weeks go much more smoothly.

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Cycling “facilities”

Another consideration I made was the kind of terrain surrounding me. Did I want proper hills, rolling or flat countryside? I would be spending a lot of time running and riding up and down the local geography. I have always liked riding up hills, although I didn’t get chance that often at home so I was excited at the challenge of having a complete contrast in terms of training environment. Pancake flat Cambridge and hilly Bath are very different…

There are two key points to make here. Firstly, a different terrain will have an impact on lots of training variables – the intensity, the distance and the demand on your body (joints, muscles and bones) will change. Furthermore, this could increase injury risk due to different areas being tested – particularly knees and the Achilles tendon. I suffered calf and Achilles problems in the first few months of being in Bath due to the demanding nature of the hills. In hindsight I should not have underestimated how tough the training was, and I should have taken things more steadily to give my body time to adapt.

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Great roads and the distance from your door

Lots of big cities (Birmingham, Leeds and London) have brilliant roads for riding surrounding them. However, there is always that little (or not-so-little) ride through a busy city centre from the university accommodation to get to country lanes. Do you want to be able to nip out for a two hour ride in a gap in lectures during the day? Will 45 minutes of this ride be negotiating city traffic? I chose Bath as there is great riding less than 5k from town despite the chaotic traffic in the centre; it’s relatively short and painless.

Extra guidance – coaching

Different universities will vary in the quality of the coaching provision at student-run clubs. It is difficult to gauge how good it is when you are not on the receiving end of the coaching. Moreover the coaching situation may be transient – the clubs may be able to afford to pay a coach one year but may be unable to the following year. Some clubs may be lucky enough to have great coaches who can work on a voluntary basis. Be prepared for lots of change if you are planning on working with a club coach.

It is worth finding out whether your current coach has any contacts in the places that you are considering; coaches know other coaches around the country. On the other hand, it could be that you and your current coach are prepared to continue working together via email, Skype and phone calls. Just ensure you have this conversation so everyone knows where they stand before you leave home.

I was lucky enough to be contacted by the university’s triathlon coach before I even arrived in Bath so I had a clear picture of what the situation would be. I found the transition to working with a new coach difficult but I was grateful that I took the time to adjust gradually. It is important to appreciate that trust does not develop quickly in a coach-athlete relationship, especially if the move away to university is factored in.

Finally, if you are an independent, self-motivated athlete who usually distances themselves from being coached, just consider the nature of the transition to university; not everything will go smoothly so be open to having some extra guidance.

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A little effort goes a long way

If you have chosen a university based on fantastic facilities, it would be a shame to not make the most of them. You can be in the “right” place but unless you’re prepared to put in a little bit of effort in to making it a good place for you to train, things can still go pear-shaped.

Training partners, quality sessions, good coaches and training schedules did not just land at my feet. I experimented a fair amount in the first few months to try and figure out the best combinations of sessions. It is worth exploring all the options available. For example do the university athletics club sessions suit you better than the triathlon club run sessions? Does the timing of triathlon club strength and conditioning session work better for you than the cycling club strength and conditioning session? Besides being more convenient for you, it’s also great for inter-club relations, meeting lots of new people and finding potential training partners.

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The outside world…

Moreover, students often feel pressured to use the facilities run by the university and the clubs that the university organises. Students are living in a city and can integrate with the place and make use of what it has to offer just like any other resident. I trained with some local city clubs in my first year because the meeting point for the rides, the timing and predictability suited me better than the university organised rides.

I also really enjoyed spending time with a variety of people on rides. University can get claustrophobic as you are surrounded by lots of people all in the same boat (coursework deadlines, exam stress and hangover complaints can wear thin). So it was refreshing to meet new people and get different perspectives from people also living and working in Bath.

Further to this, if the city sports centre is closer and cheaper, perhaps consider using the gym facilities there rather than making the trek to campus. The message from this is simply don’t be afraid of branching out.

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What should I ride away with from this article?

There is not one correct place for an athlete to go and train. The university and sporting experience are what the individual makes it.

Below is a summary of some of the key points:-

  • Remove your athlete’s hat from time to time
  • Do your research!
  • Prepare to compromise
  • Speak to people around you. Your coach, parents, teachers, tutor, training partners and friends. This will allow you to get a clear idea of the university picture from lots of different perspectives.
  • Think carefully whether university is for you. It doesn’t work for everyone. But make sure you research other options before making a decision. Training for a year may sound tempting but whether this is a good use of time is debatable. Most endurance athletes peak in their mid-twenties and beyond. Spending a year training when you’re 18 won’t necessarily increase your chances of “making it” as an athlete.
  • Don’t be put off going simply because of your sport. If you are motivated enough, sport and training will happen.
  • Make a list of rough criteria that you want from a university. Then, when you are researching the universities, you can match up what the universities offer against your list of priorities. It is important to note that this is a starting point. Be prepared to let some things fall off your list to make way for others.
  • Speak to people at the University – whether it’s students, athletes, coaches or lecturers.
  • Go to the open days – get a feel for the place.

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Our thanks to George for her excellent advice. We wish her the best of luck with her study and with her sport.

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1 response to:

Higher education as an athlete

  1. Gareth Rochards
    January 12, 2015

    Really good, sound advice for any student.

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