The athletes going 'back to school' during coronavirus pandemic

By Ben CroucherBBC Sport
Jordanne Whiley
Jordanne Whiley plans to become a mortgage broker after her tennis career ends

An athlete's career can be relentless - leaving little time to plan for a future beyond sport.

With almost all global sport cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, most athletes find themselves with more time at home and some are using it to focus on what they will do next.

During the lockdown, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) and Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) have noticed an increase in demand for their education and career development services.

“What this might teach athletes is how fragile sport can be,” dual careers researcher Dr Emily Cartigny said.

“If you’re completely obsessed with one thing, when something challenges that like Covid-19, they are going to have mental health issues.

“Having more to their identity offers that mental break from that pressure of all-consuming sport. There is the narrative where you have to commit everything to sport. In the long term, that is quite unsustainable.”

BBC Sport spoke to several athletes going 'back to school'.

Getting the message across

In the past three years, the number of rugby union players enrolled in higher or other education has increased from 43% to 57%, while athlete engagement has nearly trebled since 2010.

Clubs are increasingly seeing the value too, with some integrating future planning into their training schedules.

Ben McGregor, RPA head of gain line, said the current situation "brings perspective on the finite situation of their careers".

“Player apathy is no longer the barrier. There is a bigger picture you can make a real dent into, in this time.”

The PCA's lead personal development manager Charlie Mulraine said there had been a "dramatic rise" in interest in accessing courses: "We wouldn't expect to see that uptake at this time of year. We've got 60 players currently enrolled in different courses in the space of the last two weeks."

Ethan Waller (right) is studying a maths and business degree
Ethan Waller (right) is studying a maths and business degree

Creating a structure

“This period is not going to come again,” Worcester prop Ethan Waller told BBC Sport. “It’s a massive opportunity to better yourself away from the pitch.

“I’ve seen lads struggle from the mental health side [after retiring]. For me, it’s making that inevitable drop slightly less steep. If I can do the hard graft now, it’ll make that step easier.”

Worcester forward Waller is studying a maths and business degree and wants to be a financial adviser when he retires.

To combat the absence of routine, Waller says he has created structure to his time at home to enhance his mental wellbeing and productivity.

“It’s terrible when sport is taken away from you but it’s an insight into the future. Hopefully it gives everyone a wake-up call."

Finishing the degree and learning to code

With the county cricket season on hold, Middlesex batsman Stevie Eskinazi plans on finishing his education.

Along with a number of team-mates, the 26-year-old is studying a business and sport management degree.

“Now I’m back in Melbourne in self-quarantine, I may as well crack on,” he said. “You could see four Middlesex players graduate at the end of this isolation period.

“There’s also an online coding course that I’m looking to get into.

“Sport is seen as cool but if you have your wits about you, and add to that skill-set, you’re in a powerful position,” he said.

England cricketer Tammy Beaumont is also studying. She said: "Cricket is such a mental game, my mind needed some stimulation.

"If all you've ever been is a cricketer and seen yourself as that, you're going to struggle mentally overcoming your self-worth and self-esteem. I'm keen to work on that over the next few years."

Graduation delay

Elinor Barker
Elinor Barker won Olympic gold in the team pursuit at the Rio 2016 Games

Track cycling world and Olympic champion Elinor Barker spent six years studying an Open University degree, but deferred the final year to focus on Tokyo 2020.

Despite admitting it was a "slog" at times, she did feel the benefit, especially when cycling wasn’t going well.

“I really wanted to feel like I was achieving something outside sport,” she said. “It helped me through training camps a lot.

“I’ve always found the rest days a bit of a struggle. I felt a bit bored and lethargic and it helped break things up a bit. It’s a sense of purpose, particularly if you’re having a bad day on the bike.”

With the Olympics pushed back until 2021, Barker will likely have to wait another two years to graduate after a late plea to complete her final year was rejected. Nonetheless, she’s still determined to use her time wisely with a view to potentially working in psychology when she retires.

Work experience problems

Another athlete hit by the coronavirus lockdown and Paralympics moving back a year is wheelchair tennis player Jordanne Whiley.

Having passed her mortgage broker exams in 2019, she had planned to work towards the certificate of competency needed to be able to practise.

She said: “I was going to take 2021 to further that career so, when I came out of sport, I would have something to jump straight into. I still want to do it, it’s just more difficult.”

Whiley also struggled juggling training, playing and studying alongside becoming a mum.

“In 2018, I had a breakdown,” she explained. “I had no other qualifications apart from my GCSEs.

“I knew I wasn’t going to do another [Paralympic] cycle. I thought I couldn’t be retired with no income at 29.

“I feel it’s good to have something more than tennis because, if I’m just a tennis player, it’s not good for your mental health.”