Meet the athletes who have turned to learning in lockdown

Vithushan Ehantharajah
The Independent

For some during this lockdown, less playing time has meant more time studying.

That is especially true for professional athletes. Player representative groups have noted a surge in those accessing remote learning services.

Many are swotting up on subjects closely aligned to their day jobs, such as sports business management and psychology. Others are branching out, either picking up subjects they left too early, such as mathematics, or delving into more vocational courses like journalism and brokering. Languages are proving particularly popular. Some have gone niche: one cricketer is reading “Empire – The Controversies of British Imperialism”.

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The modern sportsperson is self-aware. The pay and opportunities may have increased, but so too has the appreciation of risk. Understanding that careers in this industry are fragile has never been clearer, underlined by case studies of players who gambled on having it all forever before losing everything.

That fragility of a sporting life has always been framed against the robustness of sport itself. Participants come and go, but it remains as it has done through the ages – evolving and thriving. But for the first time in the lifetimes of these athletes, the fragility of sport has been truly exposed.

One cricketer is enjoying this light reading
One cricketer is enjoying this light reading

There are many elements of competitive sport that will be viewed differently because of coronavirus, and education is one of them. And though there is a widespread feeling this hiatus has given athletes the opportunity to learn, some from sports such as football, where education plays second fiddle from an early age, are realising just how tough learning can be.

As one agent tells The Independent: “A lot of people only find subjects they like and the best way for them to study when they get to university. If you stopped paying attention in school at 12, coasted until you got to an academy and have been living a dream life until now, you can’t just pick up a textbook and start absorbing new information. The tools aren’t there.”

Indeed, there are very few sports where aiming to play it at the highest level is not at odds education. Universities like Loughborough and Cardiff are renowned for their production of well-read sports stars, especially when it comes to Olympians. A lot of the learning from those courses takes place remotely, which is less of an issue given in tertiary education the onus is on the student to meet lecturers more than half way. But it is the closure of schools, along with the cancellation of GCSEs and A Levels for 2020, that has shone a light on ways in which primary and secondary school education does not need to be solely in a classroom.

Football is not the only sport that asks so much so young. Anna Hursey might be the best example of that.

Aged 10, Hursey made her international senior table tennis debut – and won. At 11, she was part of Wales’ squad for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. And in arguably her most ambitions move yet, she left Cardiff High School to spend more time in China – where her mum grew up – to gain access to the best table tennis coaches in the world.

Now in lockdown in Wales, her routine has not changed much from the six-month stint she spent on the other side of the world. She trains three hours a day, six days a week. But the 13-year old starts each day just as she does when out in Tianjin, a city near Beijing. With schoolwork online, courtesy of InterHigh – an interactive institution founded in 2005 which provides UK and international students with a full Primary School, Secondary School and Sixth Form College curriculum. Over 10 per cent of InterHigh’s students are athletes.

“It’s something I’ve been doing for a while,” Hursey tells The Independent. “So I can balance my training and learning as I usually do. Things haven’t changed too much now.”

Welsh table tennis star Anna Hursey (Getty)
Welsh table tennis star Anna Hursey (Getty)

The benefits for Hursey relate to timings: she can study at night if she needs to given the open schedule of InterHigh. They also offer round-the-clock access to teachers for any queries. “I find it saves a lot of time,” she says. “I’m never ‘behind’ and having to catch up. I’m just going at my pace.”

As part of catering to athletes, InterHigh recruited former British sprinter and hurdler Colin Jackson as an ambassador. Part of the attraction to the role for Jackson was the circumstances around his own decision to leave the education system prematurely.

“I was running in men’s events from the age of 15,” says Jackson. “I remember after competing midweek I’d be dragged home late on, say, a Wednesday and be back at school on a Thursday. I was just so tired from competition. It was a real drag.”

“It just wasn’t joined up at all. I left at Lower Sixth (aged 17) because I wanted to concentrate on athletics. I binned my educational career quite early because I believed there was nothing for me where I could work so hard in training and get a good level of education.”

Jamie Roberts studied medicine (Getty)
Jamie Roberts studied medicine (Getty)

Beyond making more well-rounded sportspeople, there’s a strong argument that more perspective and a greater understanding of the wider world can influence performance for the better. Wales and British Lions rugby player Jamie Roberts says his eight intense years studying medicine gave him a greater understanding of how to deal with pressure.

But when dealing with teenagers, there’s a much broader scope pertaining to personality and societal issues that requires a good deal more management and empathy. School presents athletes with a chance to take a break from their competitive pursuits and go back to being a kid again. Many a wunderkind has reflected later in life that their biggest regrets were not being “allowed” to be young.

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For the time being, Hursey has no qualms about that. As she points out, social media has her covered when it comes to keeping up with friends when she is overseas.

Of course, the choice between classroom or remote learning depends on the individual and their parents. But the last two months has provided both parties with the chance to see how much more can be done on the road beyond coursework, and at home.

Already places like InterHigh and The Open University have seen an increase in enquiries for the next year. Historic institutions are following suit out of necessity, with Cambridge University becoming the first in the UK to announce it is moving all lectures online until the summer of 2021.

It would be hubristic to think it a waste if players do not emerge from this pandemic better read. But it would be something of a waste if sport and education did come out of this more receptive to working together.

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