Metsä-Tokila Timo

Koulussa ja Kentällä. Vertaileva tutkimus huipulle tähtäävän urheilun ja koulutuksen yhdistämisestä

At School and in the Field. A Comparative study on combining top-level sports training and education


English summary

Sport is the most popular leisure time activity in many countries. One of the most popular sports in, for example, Northern Europe and Canada, is ice hockey. Many young hockey players are fascinated by the impression presented in the media of the life of famous hockey stars, and some of them also dream of becoming professional players. In fact, ice hockey is one of the sports in which the income of the athlete can be phenomenally higher than the average wage. Nevertheless, success will not ensure a high income in most other sports, even if the athlete has reached a good international level.

Competition for a place at the top is hard. For example, there are only about three thousand athletes altogether in the four most respected North American professional leagues. The dream of a wealthy professional career will come true for few people and even for these lucky ones the career on the top is usually short. The careers tend to remain short as the competition for opportunities to play is hard and the risk injury is high. (Staudohar & Mangan 1991; Sage 1990, 159.)

An Athlete Needs Education

Occasionally some athletes stay in the spotlight after their sporting careers working as coaches, sports managers or as various kinds of commentators in the media. However, the majority of athletes tend to end up in positions other than those to do with sports. The posts in which professional athletes are most likely to find themselves after their sports careers have been studied in the United States. The result of the study was that an athlete is most likely to have a job equivalent to his/her educational level. Thus, the ones who have taken a university degree before the professional career, will hold positions requiring a university degree. Consequently, those who have not been able to finish their university studies or have not even started them are bound to be employed in positions for which the basic required qualification is the high school diploma. (Sage 1990; Stråhlman 1997.)

During the last decades, education aiming at a degree has become more highly valued. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to enter working life without a suitable education for a certain profession. Like any other young person, a youngster doing sports needs education to place him/herself in working life. When comparing an athlete’s position in the labour market after completing his/her sports career with other people of his/her age, one thing must be remembered: the latter have not only completed their education, but they also have several years of working experience, which is, in fact, a more important factor than education itself when it comes to vocational competence.

The problem of combining studying with sports was introduced by Mihovilovic (1968) more than thirty years ago. Van Oosten (1985), too, stresses the importance of education when it comes to life after the sports career. According to Van Oosten, it is important that the athlete has finished his/her studies already before completing the sports career. It would also be advisable to have some kind of working experience in addition to the sports activity. The effect of education on life after the sports career can also be shown in Pawlek`s (1984) research, according to which athletes who have finished their studies before the end of the sports career are actually more successful in working life. According to Hallden (1963), the educational level of the athlete will also affect the length of his/her sports career. Thus, it is easier for an educated athlete to move into working life earlier, whereas a non-educated athlete tries to make a living from sports for as long as possible. Yet, the latter is the one who should give up on his/her sports career earlier and start studying. Despite the fact that one can set up connections with different quarters during the sports career, they are usually not enough to ensure stable employment after the sports career. Also according to Vuolle (1978), educated athletes are not as vulnerable to setbacks as those with no education.

A Busy Road in Two Separate Worlds

Combining sports with education without any special arrangements is a difficult task. Thus, the discussion of the educational possibilities of athletes has broken out in many countries. For example, in Sweden this happened already in the 1960s, as it was decided that the public sector and the sports organisations together should carry the responsibility for creating alternative educational possibilities for young athletes. In the United States this problem was realised a long time before it was taken into account in Europe.

Several researchers (e.g. Wylleman et al. 1991, Stråhlman 1997, Jonsson 1997) have listed the problems which the athlete will be faced with when studying in a secondary education institution or in a university. The most noteworthy problem has to do with the allocation of time. Athletes raise the issue of the lack of time in nearly every single study concerned with sports and education. Another issue is that the athletes’ competition season often overlaps with the busiest examination period. According to the researchers’ views, sports and education can, however, be combined in case both the school and the training programme are flexible. Inflexibility often leads to a situation in which the athlete’s studies will be prolonged or they might even be left uncompleted. Due to the prolongation of the studies, the studying athlete usually loses his/her financial aid or scholarship as they often depend on the capability of taking courses on schedule. A reference to what is known as the peer group problem can also be made when considering the studies of athletes. As sport takes up almost all the spare time, the young person will be left with little time to spend with friends of his/her own age. Contacts with other students will remain few, especially if the athletes are placed in one study group designed for athletes only. Problems might, therefore, arise if the young person decides to quit sports or is injured.

The schools where athletes study have a dual role. These schools aim at giving young people a decent general education or a vocational education as well as opening the doors to institutes of higher education or working life. Furthermore, these young people should improve as athletes at the same time. The athletes’ studies can be seen as a challenge for the educational institutions as well. The schools can create themselves a sporty image by offering athletes individual studying possibilities. At the utmost, schools are competing for the most promising young athletes, which can also lead to many negative phenomena. (Lapchick 1996; McPherson et al. 1989; Sperber 1993; Thelin 1996.)

During the last ten years, the studies of athletes, especially in the institutes of higher education, have been discussed in many countries. And, for example, in Great Britain and especially in the United States, part of the identity of universities already relies on competitive sports. Theoretically, accomplishments in the sports fields open the doors to the very best universities for youngsters of all social classes in these two cultures.

Aim and Method of this Study

The purpose of this study is to analyse the possibilities of young athletes in combining top level sports with studies on both secondary and higher education levels. The study includes eight countries and it categorises the factors which have influenced on the creation and the development of the educational possibilities designed for athletes. The study includes the following countries: Finland, Sweden, the United States, the former Soviet Union and the current Russia, China, Kenya, Great Britain and Belgium.

Technically, it would have been clearer to restrict the topic of the study to one educational level only. Comprehensively thinking, however, it is important to analyse both secondary education and higher education in the same study. This study discusses only the "official" education designed for athletes on the national level. There is a variety of local solutions in several countries but discussing, analysing and comparing them all would be rather difficult. Drawing the line between the "official" and the "unofficial" education designed for athletes is almost impossible.

In my analysis I will concentrate on educational alternatives other than those to do with sports and physical education, even though I touch on those as well regarding a couple of countries. Choosing an education as well as a working career related to physical education is a natural option for a young athlete. Yet, it is more interesting to analyse education for other professions since all athletes simply cannot end up working as coaches, physical education teachers, etc. Besides, I have not considered the armed forces at all in my study, even though they have traditionally been a notable employer of athletes.

As source material, I have used theoretical literature as well as reports and accounts of both produced by educational authorities and sports organisations. I have also used interviews, statistics, television documents, personal correspondence, the annual reports and leaflets of schools, and other such publications as well as the internet as source material to fill the gaps left by the literature and official reports.

Elite Sport and Education

My study was based on the assumption that an educated athlete, compared to an uneducated one, will manage better the challenges of everyday life during the sports career and especially after it. Many agree with this assumption in principle, but few are willing to do something about it. The actual topic of my study was to analyse the ways in which education and top level training have been combined in different countries.

From an organisational point of view, the education designed for athletes can be broken down to four models. The former Soviet Union and China represent the state-run model, Finland and Sweden represent the Nordic model and the United States represents the market economy model. Great Britain, Kenya and Belgium have their own category, which is named as a intermediate model. Placing Russia under these categories is rather problematic as the whole educational system there is under pressures to change.

On the one hand the market economy model and on the other the state-run model represent the opposite ends of the study. Despite the differences, success is a strong determinant of assessing the quality of the system in both the models. As a result, the functioning of these systems has been considered almost purely in light of sporting achievements. In the Nordic model the emphasis has been laid on both sporting success and the studying opportunities of the young athletes. Countries that are classified as belonging to intermediate model have been affected in many ways by the US school and sport system.

The Secondary Education of Athletes

In Finland a young athlete has three alternatives to choose from. He/she can apply for a place in actual sports-oriented upper secondary school, in one specialising in sports, or in vocational education for athletes. There are plenty of study places to choose from due to which there are not enough national-level athletes for every school. Educational authorities have little control over the education designed for athletes and the educational institutions are rather free to take measures they consider the best. The public sector is the main sponsor of the education designed for athletes but some sports federations provide financial support as well. Both the sports federations and the young athletes are satisfied with the athletes’ educational possibilities on the secondary level. The strength of the Finnish system is in its flexibility and the fact that it is based on a modular system without a rigid year structure.

The core of the three-levelled sports-oriented upper secondary school system of Sweden is formed by the national sports-oriented upper secondary schools which are supplemented by regional and local educational institutions alike. There are so many such schools that everyone eager enough can apply for a place in them. However, the Swedish sports-oriented upper secondary schools have been criticised for not being able to offer the best athletes sufficiently high-quality training conditions. Over the last years the number of student places in the national sports-oriented upper secondary schools has, therefore, been reduced and the schools are now being transformed into educational institutions for the most talented youngsters only. Sports federations play a strong part especially in the activities of the national sports-oriented upper secondary schools.

The education designed for athletes in the former Soviet Union can be outlined as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid was formed by the outstanding network of children’s and young people’s sports schools and the Olympic reserve schools; the most talented children were recruited into these schools often before the beginning of their actual compulsory education. On the top of the pyramid were the sport boarding schools. In the top schools designed for athletes the amount of training provided for the young athletes reached professional level. Moreover, the screening of the athletes-to-be was tough due to the hard training programmes. The Chinese sports school system resembles the system of the former Soviet Union in many ways.

American high school sports are very popular among both young people and their parents. At best, sports unite the students, teachers and other people living in the same neighbourhood. The sports activities of the schools are highly autonomous and they have no relations with the sports federations that would be worth mentioning. The sports activities are mostly financed though the school budget, but there often are several kinds of outside organisations taking part in the financing as well.

The purpose of the British sports colleges is not merely to train top athletes but to promote sports among young people as a whole. Sport colleges have been active for only a couple of years so far, due to which they still have not taken their final form. School activities are mostly financed by the state, but in order to gain the status of a sport college, the school first needs outside financing.

Athletes in Higher Education

American universities and other institutions of higher education are the best-known example of the athletes’ educational possibilities on the higher level. Nearly every single institution of higher education in the United States has its own sports programme. Since the first competitions between the universities 150 years ago, sports activity has turned into a big business. University sports is also regarded as a possibility to rise on a social scale and to carry the American dream through. In principle, the doors of the best universities do open to the offspring of every social class for as long as they are good enough at some particular sport. Academic exploitation is another issue which has been under discussion for several times in the States. This means that the educational institution does not care about the studies or the graduation of its athletes, but it simply wants them to give their everything for the sports success of the school.

The sport scholarships in American universities have drawn many foreign athletes to the United States. There are both good and bad sides to this. Even though moving to the United States is often the only possibility to combine sports with education, the way of living and the training methods used in the States may not, however, be suitable for everyone. Thus, the fact that athletes move to the American universities has aroused resistance in many countries. In Belgium, for example, a higher education program designed for athletes was developed in Free university in Brussels.

The system developed in Free university is a good example of how an individual educational institution can pay attention to the needs of the athlete. The strength of this particular university lies in its locality and small size. The board of trustees of the university has helped in creating good conditions and sufficient flexibility to let the athletes concentrate on both their studies and sports.

Sport - Raising the Game - programme, founded by the British Government, insisted that the athletes’ studying opportunities in higher education were to be improved. The system used in the States had set an example for such ideas and a few universities and institutes of higher education have now started to grant scholarships for athletes. Nevertheless, these are rather modest in comparison with the ones granted by the American universities. Great Britain is the only Western country in this study in which the state authorities have directly attempted to affect the athletes’ study opportunities in higher education.

In the former Soviet Union athletes tended to continue studying in institutions concerned with sports. Working as a coach or as a physical educator was considered a natural continuation for a sports career.

In Sweden the sports federations and individual institutes of higher education have given the athletes a possibility to combine training with studies. The educational programmes designed for athletes have mainly been founded in the small regional institutes of higher education. The municipalities and the institutions of higher education have been supportive of the athletes in order to be profiled as institutions with a favourable attitude to sports. In Finland higher education has not systematically been combined with competitive sports. A few polytechnics have created study programmes designed for athletes only, though.

The criteria for granting an athlete a scholarship are homogenous in the countries compared in this study. The young person must have a talent for sports besides which the athlete’s diploma from the school of secondary education needs to be at least equal to those of other students. Almost without exception a scholarship will be granted for a year at a time. In order to gain such financial aid again, the athlete has to reach the sports goals as agreed and he/she also needs to make progress in his/her studies within the scheduled time. The scholarship can also be cancelled in case the student breaks the rules of the educational institution in which he/she is studying as athletes are expected to set an example for other people.

In the secondary education athletes’ educational possibilities have been organised in a more analogical way in most of the countries. Operational models vary more in higher education. To combine studies successfully with training, the educational institutions and training schedules are required to be flexible. Universities and the institutes of vocational higher education can be flexible by arranging the examination periods outside the competition seasons.