Do athletes make better students?July 23, 2015
Chasing deadlines and running late to lectures are the most strenuous forms of exercise many students engage in. Even the thought of balancing a sporting career with a degree is enough to make some of us sweat.
But evidence suggests that juggling the two can benefit both academic and sporting performance. Research published in The International Journal of the History of Sport last year found that having "dual careers" provides motivation for training and preparation, stimulating athletes intellectually and relieving stress.
But are students who balance sport and study really better for it?
According to Professor Ian Henry, director of the Centre for Olympic Studies and Research at Loughborough University, having an outlet of interest other than sport helps athletes "to put their training and performance into perspective, allowing them to deal more effectively with the challenges of sport, including setbacks and injury".
Opportunities to get involved with sport at university are plentiful and the UK has some world-class sporting institutions. Loughborough University has dominated the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) table, which ranks institutions based on sporting achievements, for the last decade.
It has boasted 25 student competitors in last week's Commonwealth Games. If it was a country it would have come 11th overall.
"Their weeks are very pressurised, so top sportspeople are extremely organised, disciplined and efficient with their time, which are useful skills in the academic side of their lives," says Stephen Baddeley, director of sport at the University of Bath, which had 11 current students at the Games.
Self-discipline lends itself well to academic focus, helping to banish procrastination. "The mind wanders when doing essays, but if you develop a focus and know you have to use your time efficiently then it's a very transferable skill," says Baddeley.
Luke Belton, a geology student at Durham University who smashed two island records swimming for Guernsey at the Commonwealth Games, says he is a better student because of his sport.
"When I've got to do work I just sit down and do it. I don't do much less than your average person because I still get it done and so far my results haven't suffered. Maybe I don't do as much reading around the subject as other people, but I don't think that matters too much at this stage."
Pushing himself to the limit physically has also boosted his academic commitment and perseverance. "If I'm not enjoying the work, it helps to be able to just get through and finish it. Sometimes you're in the pool for an hour for a horrible session but you do it. When it's done you feel really good."
Students are often advised to exercise because of its mood-enhancing properties and for good reason. "The saying that a healthy body equals a healthy mind is absolutely true," says Quentin Sloper, head of sport, music and drama at Durham University.
Four of its students competed in last week's Games and 90% of students participate in sport. "We work closely with the counselling service and the director of that department tells me that our students are mentally healthy because they're physically active. If we've been on a run, we feel better for the rest of the day".
Research by British Universities and Sport (BUCS) last year suggested that involvement in university sport can also boost students' employment prospects.
"Employers have said that sporting students have the traits they're looking for, particularly an ability to balance their academic and other commitments, like training for competitions, plus teamwork and decision-making," says Alex Taylor, head of performance sport at the University of Birmingham, which had six current students in the Games.
Even involvement in the non-physical side of sport – from volunteering on a committee to coaching – provides opportunities to develop leadership skills.
"These have always been important in the workplace and they're increasingly important in a competitive graduate jobs market," says Baddeley.
The best student athletes are also versatile, with an ability to improvise when things don't go to plan. "High level sporting involvement is a challenge and life similarly poses unexpected challenges, such as injuries that you can't plan for," says Taylor.
Student athletes may also be better communicators and team players. "In rugby sevens you're often meeting new team members, so you have to work out how to get on with them to play the best rugby on the field," says Luke Treharne, a medical student at Exeter University who represented Wales in rugby sevens at the Commonwealth Games.
"There are people you can't see eye-to-eye with but you have to work out how to get on with them and being able to learn from your teammates is also hugely beneficial," he says.
But for Treharne and many other sportspeople at university, their degrees take precedence. He sees rugby as the perfect springboard to a medical career:
"Being a doctor, you work in massive teams of nurses, physios and pharmacists, so the skills you learn from meeting people in rugby crossover nicely. If you can get good teamwork within the hospital that's when it runs most smoothly."
According to Keith Fleming, director of rugby at Exeter University, "the most important part of the juggling act is that they graduate with the best degree possible and not to sacrifice one for the other".
While deciding to juggle a sporting and academic career may elicit concern from worried tutors, the examples provided by Commonwealth Games-standard athletes like Belton and Treharne show that, with commitment and the right attitude, it is possible to maintain stellar quality in both.