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How student-athletes can successfully balance sport and school

By 19/11/2021November 22nd, 2021No Comments

The Mediterranean College of Sports speaks to university lecturer and sport psychology expert Dr. Adele Muscat about how a dual career path in specialised sports schools can help student-athletes.

For talented young athletes, specialised sports schools provide a unique opportunity to follow a dual career path, carefully balancing education and athletic training to ensure that student-athletes earn the qualifications they need to take the next step academically while also getting enough opportunities to continue their sporting careers or education in Malta or abroad.

While the concept may still seem novel to many, the number of student-athletes has exploded in recent years. National youth teams are now full of athletes following dual career paths, and more and more young people are moving abroad to continue their sporting education in countries like the UK, USA and Italy. 

Dr. Adele Muscat, a sport psychology expert and lecturer at the Institute for Physical Education and Sport, firmly believes dual career paths offer the best opportunity for student-athletes to thrive. 

“Young athletes need the right support,” Muscat says, “and a specialised sport school allows for that by training academic staff to understand the challenges that children in sport may face, having coaches who can speak to teachers on an everyday basis and providing other support staff like physiotherapists, psychologists and guidance counsellers. This level of support may not be present in a normal school where the main focus is on academics.”

Support and mentorship

Student-athletes benefit from mentorship on all levels, whether it’s guidance on their future career in Malta or abroad and support when issues in their sport and life arise.  Feedback from coaches on their training and from academic staff on keeping up with their schoolwork, as well as physiotherapy and strength and conditioning support to ensure they’re dealing with injuries efficiently and developing physically in the best way possible to prevent future injuries may also be present.

“Mentoring is important because the athletes and their parents do not know everything about their sport; different professionals need to have their say in helping the child athlete develop in the best possible way,” Muscat says.

This additional support is crucial because student-athletes inevitably face a range of additional challenges compared to other students. In addition to finding time for homework, study and getting adequate rest, they have to cope with hours of intensive training, regular travel for competition and catching up on any missed schoolwork, as well as finding time for a healthy personal and social life while managing the pressures of their sport. 

Burnout, according to Muscat, can be a major risk, especially for particularly talented athletes who may find themselves in high-level competitions before they are mentally ready, as well as in sports such where athletes are encouraged to specialise early. “These days there is a greater focus on mental health,” Muscat says. “We’re seeing more and more young student-athletes struggling with anxiety and symptoms of depression because they feel overloaded, which is why it’s so important to have the right support team within the school that can recognise behaviours that might indicate a child is struggling.”

Part of the role of a sports school is also educating parents on how best to support their child in sports. Muscat explains that what parents may think of as support may actually end up putting too much pressure on a child to succeed, where the focus should be on making sure the child is enjoying the sport. “Very often what a child really needs is to feel understood when they have particular challenges,” she says.

A question of balance

Within the school set-up, a set programme of career assistance can teach students skills on handling pressure, mindfulness exercises and focusing strategies that they can practice regularly, as well as teaching them how to set goals both in sport and academics and bringing in top athletes to speak about their own challenges and how they overcame them. The specialised nature of the school allows students to learn skills specific to their experiences, be it nutrition and injury prevention, or how to handle moving into an adult team for the first time or pursuing a sports career abroad. 

Muscat says that clear pathways for student-athletes to develop after their secondary education is equally important. While efforts have been made to provide greater support in Sixth Forms – such as flexible timetables to incorporate athletes’ training regimes – she says more needs to be done in this regard as it is at this stage that student-athletes start to grasp whether a career in sport may be possible. She also wonders whether the Maltese curriculum may be too intense for student-athletes, noting that a number of students have found success through alternative systems such as the International Baccalaureate. 

Ultimately, Muscat says, the question is one of balance. “I believe continued education is crucial because it’s not ideal for an athlete to derive their identity purely from sport: it’s important for an athlete to know that, even if they do manage a professional career, they can still enter university or a different line of work if it doesn’t progress as they want it to. With the right support, students can get the qualifications they need as well as the training and competition opportunities to move forward in their sport.”

Dr Adele Muscat is a lecturer within the Institute for Physical Education and Sport with her area of expertise being that of sport psychology. Her PhD thesis and subsequent research has focused on athlete transitions, in particular, the challenges experienced by footballers when they migrate to play professional football overseas. Adele has a Bachelor’s in Psychology degree from the University of Malta, a Masters’ degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the Manchester Metropolitan University and a Doctor of Philosophy from Liverpool John Moores University.

The Mediterranean College of Sport is set to be one of the most pioneering educational and sporting facilities in the Maltese islands, aiming to develop future athletes of international calibre. The co-educational college is set to open its doors to students in September 2023 and will be housed adjacent to St Aloysius College in Birkirkara. For further information please send an email to cbonnici@learningworks.edu.mt.