Theme 2: Challenges as a student-athlete

Topic 3: What are some challenges I may face as a student-athlete in balancing sports and studies, and how can I overcome these challenges?

Mounisha: My biggest challenge was trying to balance both training and studying. In 2019, I was training twice a day, and I had to travel while balancing school. Our team travelled a lot nearing SEA Games, which meant I missed out a lot of stuff in the first part of school. I missed orientation, so I didn’t have anyone I could turn to for help. And unfortunately, all my competitions coincided with my examinations, and because everything was quite last minute, I couldn’t cancel or reschedule. I really overcame it by approaching a lot of professors and asking for help, and going to my seniors. It helped to have a very understanding coach and teammates. If I had to take a training session off to study, they were really understanding about it and everyone was very supportive.

Xuan: The hardest part is really to manage my time. Because in season, we can become very busy and there is very little free time to catch up on our studies. There’s a lot of self-discipline involved where we have to make sure to catch up and make sure we don’t lag behind too much when we go for competitions. Because once we lag behind, it can get quite hard to catch up later on because we really don’t have the time and luxury like our peers do.

Kerstin: For me, when I couldn’t really cope with the school workload and sports, I was able to take a leave of absence from school to do full-time training. In 2019, I took a gap year to do full-time training to try for SEA Games. Although I didn’t make it in the end, I really tried my best, increasing my training work during that period. The procedure to apply for leave of absence for my school was very seamless. I think I only had two or three email correspondence, and Mr. Eric helped me a lot, so maybe that’s why it was quite simple for me because I didn’t have to go through the backend stuff. I just submitted my application, with my National Sport Association’s backing that I’m a national athlete trying to qualify for SEA Games, and the school supported me after, so that was very nice.

That being said, it’s not always smooth sailing of course. My school is very supportive of sports people, but initially when I first joined SMU, it was a huge struggle for me, trying to do a huge switch from what I had in polytechnic. I was studying one module per month (in polytechnic), and suddenly when I got into university, I have to study five modules in one go. So, that was a huge struggle for me initially. What I’ve learnt over the semester is, when you first enter a class, try to make friends with the people around you. When you have to miss class for trainings or competitions, you can text your friends and ask if they could help to record the class or take down notes for you, and that helped me a lot.

Hui Min: The biggest challenge was learning how to take care of myself, because you know when you have rugby and studies taking so much away from you, you realise that you might end up not sleeping enough or not eating well. For my case, I had to bulk up for rugby. So I really had to make sure I ate and rested properly so I didn’t get injured during training and I could give my best for my studies and in rugby.

School-wise, I don’t really remember having any difficulties because NTU was quite understanding when I had to miss a test. I just had to be disciplined – when I had free time slots, I just had to make sure to do the things assigned to the time slots, like catching up on my readings or things that I’ve missed if I travelled overseas.

Utsav: There are two things I would like to talk about – trade-offs and support system.

For me, when I came from junior college to university, I had this rude shock because suddenly there was so much pressure. Honestly, there was no easy answer because you really have to prioritise, and at some point, there is some form of trade-off you have to make. I think that’s why it’s very important to have some kind of goal in mind about what you’re there to achieve, because that would help to keep your expectations more grounded.

I remember there was one day, I was writing a 6000-word essay. It was a few days before the submission date, and I was training. Our trainings are normally 8pm to around 12am. I knew that I couldn’t do a good job if I had submitted it on the actual deadline, so I had a lot of anxiety during that period. But what it just took was for me to send an email to the professor, and he gave a nice one-week deadline extension. I think that empathy and understanding is something that is not easy to get when you go overseas. I think professors in local universities generally have some kind of understanding of what you might be through, so that was life-changing for me and I really appreciated that.

Leonard: The number one pitfall with juggling training and studies is burn out and mental health issues. I’ve had swimmers who went through some of these things. I coach at the National Training Centre (NTC), and we do have a good mix of athletes who study overseas and in local universities.

We do have quite a few who are studying in local universities right now, and I think they are quite successful. Amanda Lim (SEA Games Women’s 50m freestyle gold medalist) studied in NTU. Teong Tzen Wei (SEA Games Men’s 50m freestyle gold medalist) is studying in SMU right now. They balance their work by communicating with their coaches, because we train 10 times a week at the NTC. We spend about 2-3 hours per session at the pool, and they have to wake up very early in the morning.

It’s not a process we go through only with the university athletes but also those in secondary school, IB schools and polytechnics. Rest is the biggest thing that will help in their studies and training. We push them in their trainings for sure, but if they don’t rest, all sorts of problems will occur. On their end, they have to work closely with the school, and as coaches we plan their trainings based on their school schedules. The athletes will go back and forth between us and their schools to work out something suitable.

If they have to miss one session, that’s fine. We work around, and adjust the training cycle for the swimmers. It’s worked out quite well, for athletes like Amanda and Tzen Wei, who are SEA Games gold medalists and on the verge of qualifying for Olympics.

What if my trainings have frequent changes? How can I communicate that to my school?

Utsav: Even though you do sports, sometimes you still somehow can squeeze out some time to do the work and then submit it before the deadline. So sometimes you really end up pushing yourself. I’ve learnt from my experience that if you communicate and be clear, there are people there to listen and understand. So, I guess communication is critical.

Sometimes, you realise there are more options available than you might think there are. I think nowadays, especially after COVID-19, there are a lot of other ways to administer things. For example, right now we have exams on Zoom, and you’re actually doing your exam online. I think that moving forward, there will be a lot of creative ways in which problems can be solved.

Kerstin: I’ve been quite lucky because my competitions haven’t clashed with my exams so far. But I know that there are people who experienced these clashes. They just need to inform the school, and the school can arrange for a make-up exam.

For me, I will miss school. Class participation point is important in our school, but our teachers are pretty understanding. You’re missing class for a valid reason – like going overseas to compete, so they’re always very helpful. My professors would give me advice and some extra exercises that I could do, and I can always go back to them for any help for the classes I’ve missed. They also have timeslots for students to approach them to ask any questions you have about class. In these sessions, it’s usually you or you and a group of friends with your professor. The time you get with your professor is very dedicated, so you can really clarify any questions you have. This is something that every professor offers, so if you don’t understand anything or if you missed any class, you can always inform your professors and go for these sessions.

Topic 4: How do I keep myself motivated as the intensity in both my academics and sports increases?

Utsav: There is always that dilemma in your mind – whether you’re going to focus more on studies or you’re focusing too much on sports, and that sort of really gets into your head. I’ve told myself maybe I’ll try to focus entirely on studies for a while, but I always find myself being pulled back to the game. As an athlete, when you’re not doing well in other areas, you sort of rely on the sport. Once you start doing well, your confidence level starts going up, and you realise that translates into better performance academically as well.

Before I entered university, I had a chat with a senior partner, and he said, “I like hiring athletes.” To me, that didn’t make any sense at all. When you’re the athlete in the class, you realise that you’re always lagging behind. Sometimes you feel stupid, because you’re not up to speed with the rest. I guess it’s a little bit lonely as well. But I think there is a lot of value to the experience that you’re going through, and that makes you a lot more prepared to overcome these challenges, and do well in whatever field you choose to go into in the future.

Xuan: I really enjoy playing sports so much that I would not want to give up unless I really cannot handle it. When I entered university, I told myself that it will definitely be harder to manage than before, but if I don’t try, I’ll never know. And I don’t want to regret giving up because I think I cannot handle it. I just decided to take that leap and try my best. There are only so many years that we can do sports, so I think right now, while I can, I really want to continue.

Mounisha: For me, our team was formed 10 months before SEA Games. We travelled to so many countries and had a lot of training camps and competitions leading up to SEA Games, which is how we bonded and got closer together. Half the team is studying in university right now, so the fact that we’re all going through this together was what kept each other motivated. When one person is thinking of quitting, we just keep pushing each other to keep going.

We all have a passion for the sport. In medicine, there are quite a lot of national athletes. In my batch alone, I know of a national fencer and shooter. Both of them told me that they were going to retire after 2019 SEA Games, which I was quite shocked about. But to them, they only wanted to focus on academics, which is understandable. But I just started playing this sport, and I really love it too much to let it go so soon, so the passion really kept me going.

Also, I have a very good support system from my team, coach and family. When I told my family I wanted to be committed to this, they were really okay with it, and they just made sure to tell me that I know how to manage my time.

Hui Min: Firstly, what kept me going was the sport itself. Rugby is such a challenging sport – it demands so much from you mentally and physically. I would say the sport has changed me, and has given me so much that I can’t just walk away from it like that. Even if the going gets tough, I know that there is definitely a way around it to balance both – be it work and rugby or studies and rugby.

Secondly, it’s my teammates and coaches. They have given me so much that I cannot just walk away like that just because I can’t manage it. I haven’t given back enough yet, so I feel that keeps me going – just being at training and around everybody.

Kerstin: The SMU team only trains 2-3 times a week, and I train 6 times a week. Apart from these 2-3 times a week, I usually trained alone. That was very tough, and I actually felt like quitting this sport last December because it was so tough to train alone. I don’t normally have a training group, so it was very painful for me. I made the decision to go back to train at Singapore Sports School, because then I would be in an environment with a lot of people, who are all very high performance-focused, to train with every day. That switch was very helpful. The passion in me was reignited by having a group to train together and having a goal to work towards together. So, I was really glad that I didn’t retire. There is something deep inside you that doesn’t know how to walk away from the sport. I think many athletes struggle with walking away from the sport and retiring.