Most elite athletes spend 3-6 hours training a day, six days a week. It can be difficult to find time to study, or even to have the energy. But studying can also provide distraction from training stresses, engage the brain and help to develop a career.

Kerri Gowler of the New Zealand women’s pair is studying psychology at Massey University. For Gowler, studying provides a nice distraction.

“When I’m tired sometimes I would rather nap or do other things than study, but I really enjoy going home and learning about something different and switching off from rowing,” Gowler says. 

Fellow Kiwi teammate Tom Mackintosh is studying international business at Massey University and thinks that it contributes several other key advantages.

“Studying opens up other ways of thinking and problem solving, and this has helped me in the boat in many different ways,” he says.

But the rigors of combining an academic life with elite sport take a tremendous amount of dedication and time. In another corner of the world, Dutch Olympic Champion Maaike Head speaks about some of the challenges she faced and how she overcame them.

“It was really important for me that Josy (head coach) gave me the space to do it. He knew how important it was for me,” Head says.

Head was studying to become a doctor and completed her internships in the Olympic cycle leading up to the Rio Olympic Games. They made a schedule for her to finish her studies a year and a half before Rio. After that she would go back to full-time rowing before the Games. 

“You need flexible people around you,” she says. “Flexible coach, flexible teammates, and flexible people at the university.” One piece of advice she gives is that it is possible to create those situations around you, to build up your support.

“I tried to figure out who was responsible for planning at the university and explained my situation. Most people don’t understand what being an athlete is. I told them, I want to win an Olympic medal, but I need you (to help) in order to be able to do that.”

Gowler’s main piece of advice is to have good time management. “Plan ahead to get things done earlier, so you don’t have the extra pressure of assignments or tests during a trial period,” she says.

And Mackintosh focuses on taking it one step at a time. “My main challenge was coming back from an overseas trip and being about six weeks behind on coursework. Keep chipping away at the lectures. A few hours here and there go a long way.”

But for all athletes, studying allows them a path in the future.  “You never know when your athletic career may come to an end, so having another option in place is pretty key,” Gowler says.

“I think it is so very important that you have something else to do once you’re done,” Head says. “Many people only focus on what is now. But I always had the long-term vision. I knew I was going to quit rowing and if I had waited too long, I never would have become a surgeon.” 

Quotes and information from New Zealand thanks to Jackie Kiddle (Rowing New Zealand)