Giving students a sporting chance: Sports and study should go hand in hand

As a new report proves sport and study should go hand in hand, we hear from the students who agree

Ali Twomey kept up hurling training six times a week during her Leaving Cert studies

Mark O'Regan

AS exam season looms, a new ESRI report will give parents - and their under-pressure teenagers - food for thought.

The think tank has found that contrary to what many people believe, quitting sports in favour of study is not actually the route to academic success.

In fact, students who took part in sports in the years leading up to the Leaving Cert were more likely to go on to third-level education.

The report, published yesterday, on the link between academic and sporting achievement points out that the critical cut-off point is the end of Transition Year. That is, of course, when the long shadow of the Leaving Cert begins to loom large.

Time - and especially time for study - becomes an increasingly vital commodity.

And unfortunately the decision by some students to put their sporting life on hold can have far-reaching consequences.

The ESRI findings underline what some students already know - that taking part in a sport helps relieve the ferocious pressure of the points race.

Ali Twomey, a 20-year-old Event Management student in DIT, played camogie for Lucan Sarsfields during her secondary school years.

She said the intensity of her training remained the same right up until she sat her Leaving Cert.

"I trained six times a week in fifth and sixth year. It was demanding at times, but I thought of it as a break from the grind of study. I feel it also it kept me motivated.

"Sport helped break up the day. When I got home I knew I had an hour to study before training. I thought of it as something to look forward to.

"Matches at the weekend could be down the country - and the travelling could be consuming. But I never wanted to stop playing.

"It definitely helped me in the Leaving Cert because I had greater control over my emotions.

"Therefore I didn't crack or panic under pressure when it actually came to the exams.

"That came from playing in competitive matches and finals; I learned how to cope during moments of intense pressure.

There were girls in my class who viewed the Leaving Cert as their whole life.

"But I ended up doing a lot better than many of those who had stopped playing in sixth year, even though they had spent the time studying hard.

"A healthier lifestyle made me more focused and I learned about the importance of practice and persistence."

Meanwhile, Colm Carney, a final year Philosophy and French student from Athboy, Co Meath, played Gaelic and soccer for local teams in fifth and sixth year.

"It was crucial in reducing my stress levels," explained the 21-year-old.

"All my friends kept their sport going during the Leaving - although they gave up hurling during the exams in case they got a bad knock on the hand and couldn't write.

"I usually trained for an hour-and-a-half during the week, and had a game every Sunday.

"Towards the end of sixth year my parents said I should cut down so I limited myself to one training session a week. Sport helped with my concentration levels and gave me something to look forward to after a long day at school."

The overall conclusion of the ESRI report is that a balanced approach to study and sport is in fact the best way to try and maximise those all-important CAO points.

However, this will in practice sometimes require a delicate balancing act on the part of the student in tandem with parents and teachers. For the fact is that for the committed student, the amount of study time required for a high-performance Leaving Cert can be somewhat daunting.

And trying to fit in an energetic sporting life on top of all that can be challenging for all concerned. Much will depend on the approach taken by a particular school, particularly in relation to those with "middle of the road" sporting abilities.

There is anecdotal evidence that some schools with a high-achievement ethic in relation to a particular sport may tend to unconsciously ignore those of lesser sporting ability.

Yet the ESRI findings are clear. A totality of approach encompassing academic work and participation in sport at whatever level provides for the best all-round education. Such an approach will be of benefit in a variety of ways such as forging a stronger identity between student and school.

If the student can be persuaded to keep up their sporting interests, during those crucial teenage years from about 16 to 18, then there is an increased likelihood they will continue to pursue their studies to third level.

John Sharkey, a Dublin-based clinical anatomist and exercise physiologist, agrees that physical activity is instrumental in improving student concentration in the classroom.

"It can all help with concentration - and for students involved with sport it can reap dividends come exam time," he said.

"Sport also teaches young people about the importance of being part of a team.

"And for someone who is a track or long-distance runner, they're on their own, but they learn first-hand about discipline.

"These are extremely important character traits to instil in a young person's life. If a person doesn't have this quality they may not in fact set aside enough time for study."

However, he warned some teens risk "overdoing it".

"Teenagers can oversubscribe, and being involved in excessive physical activity can be detrimental.

"There is huge onus on sports coaches to ensure matters do not become too extreme. There is always the risk of burn-out if somebody is over-involved in too many sports."