Academia and sport: a balancing act?

Adrian Kearney, of IB World Schools, and Chris Solly, of World Academy of Sport, on the dilemma facing young athletes

Achieving high performance in any field takes dedication and determination, and the first challenge is to stand out in the first place. Young athletes need to balance their school work with their sporting commitments, whilst also trying to squeeze in time to unwind, if they want to have a chance at excelling in their discipline as well as developing essential life skills too. A balanced schedule and understanding from all parties involved are vital factors in a child’s success. 

The International Baccalaureate (IB) and the World Academy of Sport (WAoS) recognise the importance of a balanced lifestyle for these individuals, and undertook a pilot project which gave young people the opportunity to extend their studies to ensure they have adequate time to complete their schooling and train to the best of their ability.

In 2015, the WAoS began to award internationally recognised accreditations for schools and education centres that meet the unique needs of its high-performing student athletes, enabling them to maintain the vital balance between their academic, sporting and personal lives. Athlete Friendly Education Centres (AFEC) were developed because the WAoS team and its international sport partners recognised the challenges that high-performing athletes face; the team knew that in order to address these challenges, providing solutions at the formative stage of athletes’ lives is imperative. 

Chris Solly, WAoS

A pilot project with a limited number of schools is being conducted between the WAoS and the IB so that AFEC schools delivering the IB Diploma Programme (DP) are able to offer their students the opportunity to extend their study, typically over three years. This extension, unique to the DP, provides student athletes the time to train and compete in their respective disciplines, whilst allowing them to better manage their time pressures on their schoolwork so that they don’t feel torn between the two. Jamie Fearn, Olympic athlete (1992 & 1996) commented on the challenge of balancing schoolwork and training requirements. He said, “It was very difficult – there was some understanding by teachers who provided extensions to work deadlines, but working into the night to get things done was common.” Clearly the experience Jamie describes is one that benefits neither the students’ learning nor their ability to push themselves to achieve their sport-performance goals. 

The pilot with the WAoS exemplifies the broader ethos of the IB: that students should have a unique and tailored education. The study-time extension pilot endeavours to enable student athletes to feel adequately supported in their academic studies through the unique programme, which has been designed to promote students’ wellbeing. It is difficult to balance high-level sporting pursuits with academic demands, and it is vital for schools to support each student on their journey to obtaining an education that reflects their true academic ability.

Adrian Kearney, IB World Schools

A teacher’s acknowledgement of the challenges student athletes face is one of the most influential factors on a child’s success. In the pilot, IB teachers at AEFC accredited schools work alongside student athletes at a pace that suits their individual sporting schedules. This acknowledgment of student athletes’ outstanding commitment not only creates a harmonious teacher-student relationship, but it also ensures that each student feels comfortable and supported with the decisions they have made, not discouraged nor having to make sacrifices. Reflecting on the AFEC initiative, Alex Coomber, Olympic athlete (2002), concluded that it would have made her teachers more aware of her situation and “may have helped them to plan [the] timetable and homework so that there were never any pressure points”. 

The opportunity to balance schoolwork and high-performance sporting pursuits is paramount to the success of student athletes; in regards to their academic studies as well as their respective sports. Schools should look to provide a flexible and sustainable programme that relieves the stress young people face when pursuing sport at a high-performance level, and enabling them to thrive both inside the classroom and in their sport. 


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