Personal best: Study, sleep, train, repeat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 10:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 10:51am

Throughout the world many young athletes push themselves to the limit with high training volumes while trying to juggle school, social pressures and other extracurricular activities.

In Asia, especially, youngsters face the pressure to maintain good grades as well as be competitive in every other aspect of life.

Sport is the first to be blamed when grades are not perfect, with parents questioning how long training hours can be of any benefit when the chances of success are unlikely.

We all know the proven benefits of moderate exercise and how it has a positive effect on the brain and bodily functions. In this instance, however, we are talking about youngsters aged seven to 17 who are involved in competitive endurance sports, training up to 25 hours per week for most of the year.

Competitive sport results in people who are more self-aware and likely to overreach 
Adrian halkes 

These long hours are tiring and take up study time, but they are essential to becoming a competitive athlete at national or international level. When young athletes reach maturity, they will have a sufficient base to permit even harder training without injury or excessive fatigue.

Using Hong Kong as an example, where schools start early and finish late, the emphasis is on good grades. With travel often taking a big chunk out of a student's day, it's not surprising why sport ends up taking a hit.

As a coach, I see many talented youngsters drop out or consider dropping out of competitive sport, usually for the reasons mentioned.

My goal as a coach is to keep them in long-term development programmes and to inform their parents about how training hours are extremely beneficial for their development in the long run, whether or not the athlete makes it to the top internationally.

I advise parents to keep their children in competitive sport programmes until they have finished school and can decide whether they want to train full time. A lot of athletes only start showing their true potential in endurance sports once they reach the age of about 17 anyway.

Competitive programmes offer young athletes many life lessons and help develop teamwork and leadership skills as well as various attractive personal traits.

These include competitiveness and a good work ethic; time management; loyalty, trust and self discipline; the ability to handle high-pressure situations; adaptability; how to be goal oriented; and the ability to understand their own limits and act outside their comfort zone.

Schools, universities and prospective employers look for these traits in any applicant and so they will give athletes a competitive advantage.

When talking with several high-level industry professionals, it is quite evident that they see these benefits when dealing with the thousands of applications they receive every year.

Mike Ellis is the managing director of the Motion Picture Association, Asia Pacific, as well as a former Hong Kong National Track champion and Hong Kong record holder who continues to compete in international triathlons and road races. Ellis holds firm beliefs in the lessons learned from the discipline of training and competing in sport.

"When building my team to operate under pressure and make strategic decisions, I look for individuals who have set goals and achieved excellence in their chosen pursuits, whether that is sports or perhaps music or the arts."

Olaf Kasten is the former head of trading Asia at Macquarie Bank. He now now runs his own executive coaching company is also a strong believer that sports can provide life skills.

"It is key when looking for a job to stand out and to be able to talk about an interesting subject with passion, and to be able to give concrete examples of what strengths you are bringing to the table. Having a strong sport background and some results can achieve these objectives easily."

It is possible to maintain both training and studying at a high level - the key is to have the athlete, coach, parents and teachers all on the same page.

In swimming or triathlon, for example, a high percentage of elite participants have either graduated or are studying at university.

One of the saddest concepts I have come across in Hong Kong is coaches who suggest students pull out of school to train full time, especially if the athlete displays limited potential.

Adrian Halkes, a barrister with a history of athletic competition puts it this way: "When I'm putting a team together, I find that people who have a history of competing in the athletic arena usually have a better grasp of the fact that, without proper preparation and hard work, winning is unlikely to follow."

My message to all aspiring athletes is to both study hard and train hard. Both will supplement each other extremely well.

If you make it as a professional athlete you will need to be smart when managing your career and ensure that you have something to fall back on when you're not as fast as you once were.

If you don't make it, or decide against taking that path, then you will still have all the attributes employers are looking for with the qualifications and a good fitness base to match.

Andrew Wright is an elite triathlon coach and a former Hong Kong national athlete. He holds a masters' in sports science