Being a high-level athlete at Oxbridge: The good, the bad, and the advice

Oxford and Cambridge are notorious for wanting their students to focus on work - but what's it like to juggle it with the rigours of international sport?

While I was at Cambridge, I took up a sport. I wasn't very good (“a bit rubbish” might be an understatement), but I was surrounded by students who were. They played for England, captained teams, travelled internationally, and wore sports kit that said “GB”.

Pretty much all of them “forgot to mention” the extent of their sport to the university.

Take Laura Plant, a Cambridge graduate who played lacrosse for England. Told in her first year that she would struggle to play sport alongside academic commitments, she simply didn't mention her athletic involvement.

"I think they suspected it," Plant explains with a laugh. "But I didn't let anyone know. I was worried they would think it was impacting my studies."

Lucy Crane, an Oxford graduate who captained the women's pentathlon while being president of a charity, agrees. "I didn't really tell my professors. In second year, I listed all the extracurricular activities I'd been doing, and was told off for doing too much."

In her third year, she minimised what she reported.

So what is it actually like being a high-level athlete at an Oxbridge institution? Is it all glory and blazers, boats and trophies? Or is it wizened professors frowning with disapproval? And if you're on your way to Oxbridge, should you make high-level sport part of your future?

The good

Tom Barber is known to his friends as a joker. He's tall, inclined to laughter, quick to smile. He was also a sportsman for England.

While at Cambridge, he trained twice a day, for around three hours, with any one of six different sports teams. His weekends were taken up with a mixture of training and competitions.

The experience, Barber explains, was like being with a group of mates. "The training camps were great. Trips abroad, training with a group… you're all doing the same thing, you're all into the same sport."

For Erin Walters, a PhD who played lacrosse for Wales while studying, the sport was more than just fun. It helped her do better academically.

"My first year, I didn't play lacrosse. I just focused on my academics, and I struggled a lot." In her second year, Walters returned to sport. It helped her manage her time, creating a structure where her PhD did not.

"I've always been like this. Whenever I was in season, I would do better academically," she says.

At the institutional level, both universities support and encourage sport to some extent. Cambridge has recently opened its new University Sports Centre to the tune of £16 million. Oxford has long had a centralised sports centre, along with a centralised coordinator to bring all the sports teams together. Both offer various sports scholarships.

Then there's the career side of things. Recent studies have shown that the average graduate who played sport while studying earns 18 per cent more than those who do not. Likewise, a study of 821 senior managers found the majority of top women executives had played sport at school or university.

"Sport broadens your skillset in the sense that you become more competent at things like working in a team, or leading a group, or performing under pressure. When you go out into the working world, you will have picked up these skills without even realising it," says Dr Zoe Rutterford, who competed internationally for the Officer Training Corps while studying at Cambridge.

"Some say it's harder to conduct sport against ever-increasing pressure to do well academically," says Lieutenant Colonel Seb Pollington, Chairman of the Army modern pentathlon, who works with students on athletics. "This is not my experience. The better students, and those who are most attractive to employers, are those who demonstrate a balance of sport and study."

The bad

That's not to say playing sport at Oxbridge is without difficulty.

Charlotte Roach, an international runner who had been accepted onto a triathlon training team for the Olympics, learned this the hard way.

"In my first year, I had 37 hours of lectures, including Saturday morning. I was training about 11 times a week. I found it really hard to balance everything," she says.

"A lot of the people I was competing alongside had customised timetables. They would split their course over six years, or they could do their work externally. These were things I wasn't allowed to do. I really struggled."

When Roach was accepted onto an Olympics training team, things got worse: "I think any other uni would have said go for the Olympics. Cambridge said: you can't."

Students keep referring back to this tension between Oxbridge expectations and the demands of high-level athleticism.

"I think that there are a lot of academics who doubt the ability of sportspeople to balance both sports and academics. And that's not right - they need to trust us a bit more. They need to realise that without sport, what are people doing? Just going out all the time? No one's going to be working that much," says Walters.

"People aren't going to switch the eight hours a week they spend swim training for eight hours a week in the library. They'd be sleeping, or watching iPlayer, or boozing. People are only going to work so much," says Plant.

The advice

When it comes to doing sport, the students have a range of advice: get a diary; be very organised; don't be afraid of working with professors to adjust timetables; don't faff while in the library; pass on partying most nights; figure out what's important to you and what you can miss; be honest with yourself; be prepared for variations in the amount of institutional support, differing both between Oxford and Cambridge and also between professors; and be very, very organised.

Yet overall, with all the academic pressure of Oxbridge, would these high-level athletes recommend students brave competitive sport? 

"100 per cent definitely," says Crane. "It gives you something to take your mind off doing work. I've met such a wide variety of people. A couple of them are my best friends. And we all stay in touch because the alumni network."

"My whole Oxford experience has been made by being part of a sports team. If I had just gone and done my degree, I would have had a nice time. But I feel like I've got so much more out of it by being involved," adds Crane.

Danae Mercer is a London media professional. You can follow her on Twitter @DanaeMercer

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