Seize The Moment
For Hong Kong squash coach Tony Choi Yuk-kwan, increasingly his biggest headache isn't getting players to win, it's getting them to compete at all.
The 2007 Coach of the Year was relieved after convincing promising 20-year-old Joey Chan Ho-ling that her future lies in professional sport and not the classroom.
But with increasing education opportunities being offered to elite athletes in Hong Kong, he'll need more to make the same decision as Chan as he prepares for major events like the 2009 East Asian Games and the 2010 Asian Games.'We are happy to see growing education support for the athletes over the years. It has improved a lot since my days as an athlete,' said Choi, who was Hong Kong's top player in the late 1980s.
'But unlike financial assistance - the more of that the better - education support must be handled carefully or it will hurt the sport by taking away our future athletes. At the end of the day, the sport will suffer.' Chan, a member of the Hong Kong team who won the junior world team championships in 2005 and the Asian junior team championships last year, will graduate from secondary school this summer.
Already local universities have expressed interest in recruiting her, even before her A-level results are decided.
'I want to stress that if this happens, it will be the end of her sporting career,' said the coach. 'In the highly competitive international arena, only fully committed athletes can reach the top. I don't think they can achieve this by spending half their time in the classroom.
'I always believe athletes have a limited time to pursue excellence in sports. Therefore someone like Chan - who is going to spend the next three years at university training for squash on a part-time basis - will never be able to catch up with her counterparts even if she decides to come back to the sport full-time. Hong Kong would then lose a player who might have been able to win a medal at the 2010 Asian Games.'
Chung Pak-kwong, head of the physical education department at the Baptist University, said more athletes had been recruited in recent years, resulting in a big lift in sporting standards in university competitions.
However, it does not mean that these athletes have helped Hong Kong achieve better results on the international stage.
'We should not give athletes the false impression that they can do well in both the classroom and the sporting field,' said Chung, who was in charge of elite sports development at the Sports Institute for almost a decade before re-joining the Baptist University last year.
'If you are talking about elite athletes who can qualify for the Olympic Games or win an Asian Games medal, they must be fully focused on training.
'People may say there are a lot of athletes in the United States who are doing both university studies and sports training at the same time, but we all know many of them hardly study and spend most of their time training and in competition to achieve success at the highest level.'
Chung said athletes should have priorities.
'If they are competitive enough at elite level, they should first focus on sports and consider studying at a later stage, or even after their retirement from sport.'
Despite not knowing her A-level results - they will be announced in July - Chan has already decided to turn professional as she moves from junior to senior competition.
'I have decided to spend the next couple of years in full-time training, knowing that it will be difficult to cope with both studies and sports at the same time after listening to the advice from my coach,' said Chan, who began playing squash when she was 11.
'I love the sport so much and I don't want to waste the effort I have spent on squash over these years, especially when I am about to move to senior level and with a number of major competitions coming up.
'Of course, I want a secure future in a pragmatic society like Hong Kong and my parents want to see me have one also. A university degree will definitely help, but I think I would only consider this at a later stage, maybe when I'm approaching the end of my sporting career.'
While Chan has committed herself to full-time training, counterpart Chiu Ka-kei, also a member of the Hong Kong team that won the junior world title in 2005, has already started her studies at the Polytechnic University. 'Chiu may continue to train at university, but it will be very difficult for her to break into the world elite now,' said Choi.