Do athletes have to choose between university and stadium?


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Swiss shooter Nina Christen, who dropped out of biology studies to focus on training; she won a gold and a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games in 2020. Keystone / Georgios Kefalas

One third of Swiss athletes who took part in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were students or university graduates. Outside the stadium, it is “normal” students who have to juggle between lessons and high-level sports training.

This content was published on September 19, 2021 – 10:00

According to a new study “Elite Sport in Switzerland 2019”, 47% of athletes aged 25 to 34 have a higher education diploma (from a university or a vocational high school). That’s 5 percentage points lower than the rest of the population in the same age group. But it’s still a fairly high figure, explains Simon Niepmann, a former rowing champion who heads the “Elite Sport and Studies” program for Swiss Olympic, the umbrella organization for Swiss sport. An Olympic gold medalist himself, he managed to successfully complete his studies in sport and geography at the University of Basel, earning a bachelor’s degree in five years instead of three.

As its name suggests, the support program it runs aims to enable athletes to embark on a dual career. As part of the program launched in 2014, a network of 42 people is responsible for helping athletes reconcile the demands of competitive sport with their studies. These contact persons are located in almost all Swiss universities and help athletes plan their studies and their sports career years in advance.

“Elite sport and studies”

In 2014, Swiss Olympic launched the “Elite Sport and Studies” project in collaboration with Swiss University Sports – the umbrella organization of university sports clubs. The project became a program in 2017 and has been affiliated with Swiss Olympic since 2018. Swiss Olympic and Swiss University Sports have a close cooperation on this issue.

Swiss Olympic and swissuniversities – the conference of rectors of Swiss universities – signed a declaration in 2017. Their main objectives are to promote optional part-time studies, to lengthen courses and to reduce attendance requirements for athletes from competition.

In 2020, the two organizations signed a second declaration, adding the option of distance learning independent of time and place, which worked well with the study conditions imposed by the Covid.

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SWI swissinfo.ch: Why was there hardly any organized support in Switzerland for student-athletes until a few years ago?

Simon Niepmann: In the past, student-athletes were extremely autonomous. During my studies, I noticed that in Switzerland, no difference was made between students who practiced elite sports, those who practiced a hobby or those who had a job in parallel with their course. All were considered part-time jobs. It was entirely up to the athletes to organize the time needed to train for their sport in addition to their studies.

In Switzerland, sport is now seen more and more as a full-time professional activity, even if its status is not yet comparable to that of other countries, where being a sportsman is considered as a profession like any other.

SWI: What is the question that young athletes ask you most often?

SN: The most frequent question is: “I play high level national or international sport. What type of diploma training is an option for me?

Of course, I cannot give a general answer, because all athletes can study business or law. I have to look at each case individually. It depends on the field of study that the athletes are interested in, the demands of their sport, but also where they train and the flexibility offered by the university concerned.

SWI: What is the main support you can offer to student-athletes?

SN: Advance planning. This means starting at an early age to combine competitive sports and study. For example, it is necessary to identify the phases where the studies will require a lot of time and the phases of intensive training.

Ideally, schedule a schedule until graduation – the schedule can be readjusted every six months.

Our main task is to make athletes aware that they have to plan and that there are different people who can help them on their two-lane journey.

SWI: An analysis of the Swiss Olympic study in 2018 shows that top student-athletes are rarely registered as sportsmen or sportswomen when they are admitted to university.

SN: We are faced with two problems. On the one hand, we do not have access to information on all athletes regarding their education; on the other hand, universities do not always know which students are involved in competitive sports. We have a lot of room for improvement in this area.

What we try to do is keep competitive athletes informed, as often and as widely as possible, whether through newsletters, sports clubs or other channels.

We have also noticed that there is often a desire for discussion between student-athletes and young athletes still in high school. If athletes are talking to each other, there is less inhibition in asking simple questions than if they are talking to someone from a college official. We have created an online platform to facilitate this exchange.

SWI: The 2020 statement from Swiss Olympic and swissuniversities makes it clear that not all sports are compatible with all training courses. Which sports-study combinations are particularly difficult?

SN: I would hesitate to say that a certain sport does not work at all with a certain university subject, because it is always important to take into account that it is a very personal choice.

But we notice that winter sportsmen tend to study at a distance. The point is, they’re on the road all season, so they can’t regularly attend a class in person.

In terms of subjects, the most difficult for athletes are certainly those where there is a high proportion of practical work or laboratory lessons where students have to be in a certain place at a certain time.

SWI: The United States and China have long been at the top of the Olympic Games medal rankings. In China, for example, competitive athletes have the opportunity to focus on sports and then obtain favorable conditions for admission to a prestigious university. Are Swiss athletes at a disadvantage compared to competitors from these countries because they are forced to combine studies and sport?

SN: We believe that in a number of cases it is useful for athletes to train alongside their studies. Partly because there are a number of hours in the day that are not devoted to sport and where athletes can do other things, and also because studying is a cognitive distraction that motivates athletes to a higher level. different way.

An environment outside of the sporting world is also important for many athletes. It allows for a change of pace and can be rewarding and calming. Preparation for a post-sports career is also a very important point. When you stop playing sports, it is essential to have a second place to invest your energy and develop.

SWI: How does Switzerland rank in a global comparison in terms of support for student-athletes?

SN: We prefer to compare ourselves to countries of similar size. There are always different approaches. In Norway, sports associations collaborate with specific universities. So there you know more or less that if you play a certain sport, there is a university that cooperates with the national association or the Olympic committee.

With our network of coordinators in Switzerland, we want to show that athletes do not have to limit their options. We prefer to try to keep all options open. It is a process that we will continue to work on.

SWI: Is a dual career in competitive sport and school more a story of compromise, or a win-win situation?

SN: It’s definitely a compromise because you can’t commit 100% to sport and 100% to your studies at the same time. You have to plan and find a balance. Still, I wouldn’t say it devalues ​​both aspects. Studying at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean less success in sports – it often even means the opposite.

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