Studying for Sports Nuts

How do elite athletes manage to juggle studying and training? A panel made up of UZH student and professional mountain biker Jolanda Neff, ETH Rector Sarah Springman, and Antonia Erni of the Swiss University Sports Federation (SHSV) tackled this question at an ASVZ event last week.

Fabio Schönholzer

A good-humored debate about elite sport with mountain biker Jolanda Neff, Antonia Erni of the University Sports Association, and ETH Rector Sarah Springman (from left to right)
A good-humored debate about elite sport with mountain biker Jolanda Neff, Antonia Erni of the University Sports Association, and ETH Rector Sarah Springman (from left to right)
A good-humored debate about elite sport with mountain biker Jolanda Neff, Antonia Erni of the University Sports Association, and ETH Rector Sarah Springman (from left to right) (Image: ASVZ/Adrian Villiger)


Elite athletes demonstrate three key qualities – talent, hard work, and the ability to set goals. These same qualities are also necessary for students, said Sarah Springman in her opening speech at the event staged by the Academic Sports Association Zurich (ASVZ) last Wednesday evening. The Rector of ETH was talking from experience: In her student days, she also represented Great Britain at the elite level in triathlon, winning numerous medals. Even now she thinks she could still get the world record on the rowing machine – in her age category, she specified with a wink.

Pursuing a dual career in elite sport and academia is not an easy path to tread. Training and competitions often clash with university exams or classes. But these things can’t be postponed – most people are at their peak physical fitness in their early twenties and therefore have to find a way to combine their sporting commitments with their studies.

“Taking a ‘light’ study option is not a viable solution,” said Springman. Rather, student athletes need to do a good job organizing themselves and their time, and universities should work hand in hand with them to help them achieve this.

A reward rather than an incentive

UZH student Jolanda Neff has already achieved impressive sporting success: In her discipline of mountain biking, she is world champion, youngest-ever winner of the overall world cup, and two-time European champion. She is also studying at UZH in order to keep her mind as fit as her body.

For the pro athlete, sport is not something she does to take her mind of her studies, but the other way around: Studying provides a diversion from sport. “Studying helps me stay balanced,” she told the panel. As she studies humanities, she has some flexibility in arranging her studies and training sessions: “I can more or less organize my own timetable.” And at the end of the season, she is able to concentrate fully on her studies.

Neff was critical on one point, however: She said athletes only receive support from their universities once they have already made a name for themselves. For example, they have to show a Swiss Olympic Card, but that is only granted once athletes have achieved some degree of sporting success. The support that the athlete then receives is therefore more of a reward than an incentive, explained Neff.

Expanding support

Many elite athletes would like universities to offer more sport-friendly structures, explained Antonia Erni of the Swiss University Sports Federation. According to a study carried out in 2011 by the Federal Office of Sport, elite athletes rate the general support provided by universities as unsatisfactory overall. Athletes pursuing sporting careers require a degree of flexibility from their universities, for example with submission deadlines. They also need support from advisory services within the universities to take into account their very individual requirements. But such services have usually only just started to develop and are still fairly basic.

Now, a cooperation project between swissuniversities and Swiss Olympic wants to improve matters. To that end, UZH President Michael Hengartner, who is also President of swissuniversities, and Jürg Stahl, President of Swiss Olympic, signed a joint declaration in September this year. Various measures should help elite sport and studying go hand in hand in the future.

One of those measures is a project being run by the Swiss University Sports Federation (SHSV), which is also part of the ASVZ, called Elite Sport and Studying. The aim is to improve conditions for athletes before and during their studies, to better coordinate the existing support structures available at universities, and to help students and universities find helpful flexible solutions for individual cases.

The search for a university-wide solution

UZH welcomes the project and will work closely together with the SHSV, says the Head of Student Advisory Services Ulrich Frischknecht. They plan to join forces to develop criteria that will help elite athletes to find the balance between their studies and sporting careers. But there are still some hurdles in the way: “The challenge is that the individual faculties are responsible for any adaptation to study programs,” says Frischknecht. That makes it difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution. However, Frischknecht stresses that UZH is very keen to help elite athletes to stick at their studies: “They’re very motivated and high-performing people who give their all, in sport and in their studies.” That’s why he wants the University to be able to give them the best possible advice and to make it easier for them to juggle the demands of sport and studies.

Fabio Schönholzer, editor UZH News.

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