Starting university? How to succeed as a student athlete

Rugby league player George Milton in action

Leeds University student George Milton has been there, done that and worn the T-shirt when it comes to combining university life with a commitment to sport. Ahead of the new academic year TASS talked to the Rugby League star about the unique challenges facing student athletes.

On the surface it would seem there are too few hours in a day and too few days in a week to enable George Milton to achieve his dual career goals. One glance at an insanely hectic schedule suggests the Leeds University undergraduate and semi-professional Rugby League star is a modern-day superman – or, at the very least, he has access to some kind of time machine that makes juggling a slew of key commitments possible.

Somehow, the third year Human Physiology student, captain of his university Rugby League club and rising star at Bradford Bulls has found a way to do it all. And still make time for the lighter side of student life.

“It can be tough,” admitted the winner of the ‘Most Committed’ athlete prize at the 2018 TASS Stars Awards. “At the beginning of each week I go through my university timetable and create a block of times which I can allocate to my course work and revision – factoring in my training times and club commitments. I find that if I have clear plan laid out in front of me it makes my day to day life so much easier.

“But it’s not all about studying and sport. Relaxation and enjoying the normal ‘student life’ is vital. I think I’d go insane if I just did university work and played sport without a little break every now and again!”

Milton makes every second count. But this time two years ago he experienced the same nerve-wracking leap into the unknown facing thousands of student athletes readying themselves for a first term at university. Getting to grips with a new-found independence and greater demands on his time didn’t come easy for a teenager determined to achieve his goals on and off the pitch.

“I remember that first term at university vividly,” he added. “The toughest part of the first few weeks was adjusting to the new schedule. I had gone from attending sixth form, which had a very regimented schedule from 9am to 3pm five days a week, to university, which had a schedule that varied day to day.

“Understanding that and getting used to it was hard as I had to change the times during which I trained on my own and, at the same time, catch up on any work and lectures that I missed as a result of training with my professional club.”

Thrown in at the deep end, the learning curve would only steepen. But Milton embraced change and chose to tackle his various challenges head on. Planning ahead proved key to a student keen to pass on his experience to athletes preparing for the next stage in their dual career journey.

“The weeks leading up to exams are always pretty busy and hectic as you have the added revision workload combined with your day to day sporting commitments,” he added. “But I always planned ahead and made sure that I had enough time to complete my revision around my sporting commitments. Get on top of your work and revision and your sport and social life will look after themselves.”

George Milton was presented with the ‘Most Committed’ TASS Stars Award (Credit: Leeds University)

Emma Vickers, TASS Project Coordinator, researched dual careers for a PhD completed at Liverpool John Moores University. Her findings highlighted the unique pressures facing student athletes entering higher education and she explained: “The move to university is a major period of change for athletes as they will experience transitions not only within their sporting and academic environments but also socially, financially, and psychologically.

“When athletes arrive at university, some of the immediate changes they experience include an increase in training and competition commitments, an increased need to be more independent and proactive with academic study, the need to budget independently for the first time and also manage the demands of the new university social culture.”

TASS – in tandem with club coaches and university staff – is there to help. The Sport England-backed scheme works alongside national governing bodies to identify the rising stars of English sport and ensure dedicated support benefits their academic and sporting development.

Milton joined TASS in 2017 and continues to embrace the life of a student athlete. To date he has attended more than 50 strength and conditioning sessions and taken a keen interest in the physiotherapy and lifestyle support available to more than 400 TASS athletes across England.

“The TASS scheme has been really helpful throughout my time at Leeds,” he added. “TASS was vital in helping me to work out an effective university and sport timetable and to achieve the balance I needed to succeed in both areas of my life.

“As a supported athlete, I was able to access the right treatment for a knee injury and my recovery went well as a result. Without TASS I don’t think I’d have hit my targets academically or as a Rugby League player.

“To anyone who is lucky enough to receive TASS support I’d say make the most of everything that you are offered.”

During the course of the next 12 months Milton intends to create a development plan for Leeds University’s Rugby League club, help to establish a women’s club and combine coaching with his playing career. But how do lecturers and club coaches view the various demands on his limited time?

“Both my TASS and professional club coaches – as well as the university staff at Leeds – have been extremely supportive,” he added. “When I moved to a full-time professional contract within my second year at university the TASS staff, course tutors and professional club coaches worked tirelessly together to create a plan designed to ensure I never felt overwhelmed. I was so grateful to know that support was there during a critical point in my academic and sporting development.”

TASS Project Coordinator Emma Vickers is a former England table tennis player (Credit: Table Tennis England)

Vickers is encouraged by Milton’s experience and added: “When athletes arrive at university, support staff should empower athletes to work through challenges to help develop their independence.

“A further coping strategy for athletes is to consider their previous life experiences, such as overcoming challenges and making transitions into new environments, and use these as a resource tool to recognise how they coped.

“Whilst at university, some of the major challenges athletes experience include issues with injury inflicting on academic and sporting performance, dealing with their own high expectations, coping with multiple sources of pressures both inside and outside of university and having to consider post-university options.”

But for Milton help is often close at hand. “I’m lucky that my classmates and my housemates understand my situation,” he added. “They are always there if I need any help with anything work or sport related. That makes a massive difference.”