How can one reconcile high-level sport with higher education?

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A student who is a high level athlete is a special status, but also complicated to assume. The student must be able to juggle classes, training and competitions. To carry out academic and extra-sport activities, universities and schools sometimes grant the following status:
student athlete of high level.

Reconciling daily training, competitions and internships with higher education is difficult, but not impossible ! You just need the will and the belief. Many students are fortunate enough to benefit from accommodations, so they can practice their favorite physical activity, and perhaps, one day, aim for the top level of their discipline.

Even though a lot of progress has been made in recent years, many young boys and girls stop playing high-level sports because they cannot alternate with their school career. Today, we talk about ” double project “.   This concept defines the search for sporting excellence and the success of the athlete. The objective is to avoid situations where high level athletes have to choose between pursuing their sports career and their studies.

Many universities and schools promote access to initial training. This allows athletes to continue to dream of the highest level in their favorite sport. This translates directly into an adjustment of the timetable, but also into a flexibility of absences for sporting reasons (competition, training courses, etc.). A pedagogical follow-up and an implementation of online courses is set up. They are called online courses.

But how can a student succeed in both his exams and the heights of his sport ?

We went to interview a former high level athlete (MTB XCO), when he was in STAPS, in Grenoble : Nathan DUGUA.

Entering the first year of his Master’s degree in Sports Management at INSEEC Chambéry in September 2021, Nathan has joined Julbo as a work-study promoter in France. By choosing this study path, it was difficult to continue to combine high-level sport and studies. Nathan has chosen to put the bike on the back burner and focus on his professional project.

However, he still continues to practice in his spare time.

Tell us about your favorite sport: MTB XCO (cross-country). What does this sport mean to you? How does running make you feel?

” I have been riding cross-country mountain bikes for many years. It is the main discipline of mountain biking. The goal of an XCO mountain bike race is to cross the finish line first. After a mass start, the runners must complete a certain number of laps of the circuit, ranging from 3 to 5 km. The number of laps varies according to the category. The average time for an elite race is about 1h20. The circuits, short and nervous, are traced in natural and varied environments, composed of different difficulties. Climbs, descents, jumps, scree… It is a physical discipline, but also a technical one, which requires the mastery of many qualities to perform well, be it physical, technical or mental.

For me, this sport means a lot, it is what gives rhythm to my days. Indeed, it is not enough to go and train to be efficient. It is also a way of life. You have to pay attention to your diet, your sleep, your recovery time… It’s a very demanding discipline that takes 24 hours a day!

Competition and racing is what drives this passion and pushes me to surpass myself every day on the bike. The pressure before the race, the confrontation, the physical pain, but also the feeling of having given everything after 1h20 of effort. Only racing can provide that kind of thrill. “

When you were in STAPS at the UGA in Grenoble, what arrangements were made so that you could continue your studies while being a high-level athlete?

” Indeed, I was lucky enough to integrate the University of Grenoble Alpes for my 3 years of STAPS license. The university has set up a system for high-level athletes, which allowed me to combine my sports practice with my studies. The university’s SHN (Sport de Haut Niveau) status allows us to benefit from many advantages to put us in the best conditions to succeed in our double project : sport and school. 

Such as changes in training schedules or travel to competitions, staggered mid-term sessions, access to a weight room, access to a treatment and recovery center, but also the spreading of the university course over several years.

I would like to thank UGA for setting up this curriculum !   “

What advice would you give to students who want to practice high-level sports at the same time as their studies?

” Rigor, organization and seriousness. Today, a large number of universities and colleges offer specific courses and facilities for top athletes. It is a real opportunity to carry out this double project of sports and school. However, having the schedule and accommodations is not everything. It is also up to the athlete to take charge of his or her life and to do everything possible to succeed in his or her double project!   “

In high level XCO mountain biking, are women’s official competitions as well publicized as men’s? Do you have an opinion on gender inequality in sport?

” For several years, women’s cycling has been developing strongly. In mountain biking, we find the same races for men and women, both at the national level, with the French Cups, and at the international level, with the World Cups. Women can therefore benefit from the same race calendar as men, and thus have a full season. 

The number of female members is also on the rise, 100% female teams are being created. We find more and more women on the starting line, and this from the youngest age, women’s cycling is going in the right direction!

As far as media coverage is concerned, mountain biking is still too unknown to the general public. Men’s XCO mountain biking is not well publicized, the same is true for women’s races. However, for a few years now, we have been lucky enough to be able to watch cross-country mountain biking live on the L’Équipe 21 channel, with the broadcasting of certain World Cup rounds. And we find there also the diffusion of the female race! 

These broadcasts bring a lot of visibility to the discipline, and allow the general public to discover it, but also to motivate young people to join a club. “

The perfect management of daily life

In order for a student to successfully balance their studies and physical activities, between transportation, revisions, meals, etc., they must have a good management of their schedule.

First of all, the sportsman must be organized ! This allows to keep a good life balance, between 3 important points : sport practice, studies or work, and social life.

The student must also optimize his free time. These should be used well during each day.

It is important to know how to plan your sessions properly. It is important for each high level athlete to schedule his or her sports sessions in his or her schedule. This is an important moment in the week for him to release and evacuate the accumulated stress. This will help to keep a regular rhythm and to find a ” life balance “.

Of course, the athlete will not have a career filled only with gold. There will also be failures. Following his misadventures, he will have to learn to put things in perspective. He needs to move on quickly, so that it doesn’t negatively impact his studies, his personal life, and even his sports results. It is a work on oneself that he must face.

But why try to reconcile the two ?

According to numerous studies, playing sports increases grades and even promotes academic success. Regular sports activity allows students to get away from it all and keep a necessary mental and physical balance.

From an early age, students learn to be physically active. Sports are taught to allow students to perform, to work as a team, but also to exercise. This is essential for the body !

Today, sport is disappearing in higher education, except in those reserved for sport, such as the STAPS license (Sciences and Techniques of Physical and Sports Activities).

However, this does not mean that it disappears completely. There are, in fact, associations in the universities, with the BDS (Bureau Des Sports). They allow students to come and practice the sport of their choice after class, while meeting other students.

So how do top athletes do it ?

For some students, sports are a major part of their lives, sometimes to the detriment of their studies.

It is true that most of them practice an activity, alone, at a low level without the objective of competitions. But others devote their lives as students and sometimes put aside their studies… But for what results ?

Indeed, many young people practice sports at a high level. This often has an impact on their schooling, even though this is a minority. But it’s complicated to add the two together. Competitions are frequent and can last several days. This can lead to absences from school, despite the implementation of Online.

The sport level is often very demanding. Many people want to become a top athlete, but places are extremely expensive.

This is why no student should drop out of school if he/she fails in sports, otherwise he/she may find himself/herself in a complicated situation…

Updated 24 February 2022