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On your marks: How Indian athletes balance sports and studies

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran in action during the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. Getty Images

Gnanasekaran Sathiyan isn't hugely familiar with the Harry Potter Universe but there's a good chance he'd like to borrow the magical time-travelling device Hermione Granger uses in the books in order to cope with an ever-increasing Hogwarts workload.

"I'd always wish I had a few extra hours in the day," says Sathiyan, the highest-ranked Indian table tennis player, describing the years when he was trying to balance the demands of a full-strength computer-science engineering degree while trying to make a mark in the Indian table tennis scene.

Sathiyan's wish is a common one for young athletes across India, who often find little support while coping with the rigours of their academic life. Heavy workloads on the field and long periods away from their lessons at national camps can wreak havoc on scholastic endeavours.

They may not have 'time-turners', but in order to help young athletes balance their scholastic and athletic goals, the Sports Ministry last week directed the National Sports Federations and the Sports Authority of India to hire tutors for the sportspersons who are part of the national camp at various SAI centres across the country. The ministry wants players to get tuition for mathematics, science and English, among other subjects, and is willing to pay up to Rs 15,000 per month as remuneration.

It's an important step, but it only goes so far in addressing the fundamental balancing act. While some athletes just want to focus on the game, and join degree mills, where they only have to show up for exams, those who take both fields seriously have to make some hard choices.

What young athletes invariably compromise on is sleep. "My sleep pattern is completely messed up," jokes long jump national record holder MS Sreeshankar. "It started in my Class 12 board exams when I was studying till way past midnight. I was doing my athletics training throughout the day and then I would be trying to complete my studies in the evening. Ever since then, I've only managed to sleep at around 1 am. I only complete the rest of my required sleep during the afternoon," says the 21-year-old.

An afternoon siesta wasn't an option for 16-year-old Jeremy Lalrinnunga, one of the brightest Indian weightlifting prospects who won gold at last year's Youth Olympics. As a student at the Army Sports Institute in Pune, he felt his eyelids grow heavy at the worst possible time -- in the middle of his board exams.

"I had just been training with very heavy weights in the morning, so I was very tired. But I still had to write my Hindi board exam a few hours later. After writing a few answers, I went off to sleep on my answer sheet itself. I only realised what happened because my examiner, a lieutenant colonel officer, woke me up. I thought he would yell at me, but luckily he just let me finish my paper," says Jeremy.

The government's latest diktat regarding tuition teachers isn't the first time they have aided young athletes. "Manu had her board exams delayed last year because she was taking part in the Commonwealth Games. When she went to the exam centre in Chandigarh, there were just three other students there and they were all shooters like her," says Ramkishan Bhaker, father of 17-year-old Commonwealth Games gold medallist Manu Bhaker.

Support needs to come from every front. Sathiyan's teachers would provide him with additional tuitions, while he would also go to friends' homes to understand lessons he had missed. The lessons were reciprocal. "In exchange for them explaining lessons, I was expected to give my friends some tuition in table tennis. So I would teach them a few tricks also," he says.

The same was true for Bhaker. "When Manu was training at the national camp, her teachers would record lessons for her so that she could study in her free time. They would send the lessons through WhatsApp and we would play it over the speakers when she was travelling in the car to and from the shooting range," says Ramkishan. Support came from the family as well. "When she was studying at home, we had to ensure there was no disturbance. We even removed the doorbell so that there would be no sound entering her room when she was studying," he says.

Finally, young athletes need to be willing to push themselves. "You simply can't waste any time. In my first year of psychology, I was a full-time member of the Indian senior as well as the U-19 team. I would squeeze out every second I had. Instead of listening to songs while travelling, I would finish assignments on my laptop. Then once we got internet connectivity, I'd be able to mail out my assignments," says Indian footballer Dalima Chibber. Dalima recently moved to Canada, where she will play collegiate soccer while also doing her post-graduation in psychology.

Perhaps the most extreme case to stretching every possible day is that of badminton world champion PV Sindhu. Back in 2014, she was unwilling to compromise on either taking her second year BA exams or competing in the Uber Cup in New Delhi. According to her college professor, Vimala Reddy, Sindhu would complete a tie, then catch a flight to Hyderabad and study as much as she could until it was time to write the paper. Once she was done, she would catch the next flight to Delhi and take part in the next tie. Sindhu would give three exams this way, clearing each of them.

The real hardships often begin when athletes move out of the sheltered junior environment and a supportive school structure. "The real challenge is when you move into the seniors. You are suddenly in the deep end of the pool. And if you are studying a challenging subject like engineering, it gets even harder," says Sathiyan. The first year of engineering was the hardest for Sathiyan. He had also just started working with S Raman, who told him he had to work on his fitness and strength if he had to have a chance in the seniors.

"I was juggling so many things that first year. I would have to get up at 4.30 in the morning and train. Then travel out of the city in a bus to my college. After college, I had to get back to the city to train under Raman sir and then do weight training after that. Then I would get back home and have to study and complete assignments. I was finally done with everything around 11 in the night. I got about five or six hours of sleep and then had to start all over again," he says.

Shifting to a less-challenging course was not a choice Sathiyan was willing to make, but it is one many athletes do. When Manu Bhaker won her first World Cup gold in Guadalajara in March last year, she was studying in the science stream and had told ESPN her dream was to be a doctor, just like much of her extended family. Yet long spells at the national camp put paid to that ambition. "As she progressed in shooting, it got harder for her to manage. Four months before the Class 12 board exams, she shifted to the arts stream because she wasn't confident about graduating with decent grades in science," says Ramkishan.

Sreeshankar made a similar choice as well. Although he had cleared his NEET exam, joined an engineering college in Palakkad, and even topped the civil engineering course in the first semester, he decided to study for a maths degree the following year. "There was a big problem of attendance and giving practicals if I had to train or go to competitions. Studying maths meant I didn't have to go to college as regularly. Maths is a subject that you don't need to sit in a class for. It's only important to have the conceptual clarity of the subject. I just make sure to keep my books of calculus with me when I go for competitions or a camp," he says. In contrast to Bhaker's choice of arts, the sciences are far easier for him. "Math is easy. I always struggle with Hindi grammar because I can't mug up any of that," he says.

Despite all their efforts, there are moments when athletes hit a breaking point. A few months ago, sprinting star Hima Das took six weeks off in order to prepare for her board exams. Her time away from the track took a significant toll on her body. When she did restart training, her coach Galina Bukharina said that it would take a year and a half for her to regain full fitness.

For Sathiyan, that was at the end of his first year. By choosing to study engineering, he had missed out on the opportunity to travel to Sweden and train under Peter Karlsson -- an opportunity that instead went to compatriot Harmeet Desai. "That one year was hell because I had given up the chance to go to Sweden and even back in India the results weren't coming in table tennis as quickly as I thought. I considered shifting my attention wholly to studies. I even started planning my masters in the USA. Luckily, at the end of that year, I got a job with ONGC [in 2012] and it became easier for me to pursue table tennis full time," he says.

The players themselves wonder how much of a difference the ministry's tuitions can make in the absence of a systematic support environment. "The problem with taking tuitions is even then you need regular hours in order to study. But not all athletes can guarantee that there will be fixed times in which they can sit with a tutor," says Sreeshankar.

While it does feel like an unbearable load at times, athletes say there is a reason they make the decisions they do. For Sathiyan and Sreeshankar, it was simply to have the security of a college degree to fall back on. Dalima Chibber though feels her degree helped her on the field. "I chose psychology because I really wanted to know how the mind affected the player. Through personal experiences, I felt that I needed a psychologist because I was nervous and anxious before a match. If a player understands this, it makes it easier to make better decisions on the field," says Dalima.

The choice to study was instilled in Indian hockey captain Rani Rampal from a young age too. "I've been part of the national camp since I was 14. And while it has been hard and there have been moments I've felt I was going to fail exams, I've always felt that choosing to study along with my hockey career opened up my world so much more than if I had just played hockey. I would be a very one-dimensional person then," says Rani.

It's that philosophy that has encouraged sports federations and coaches to start their own training programmes even prior to the sports ministry's order last week. Herrmann Volker, the high-performance director of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), certainly thinks so. About a month ago, he put forward the proposal to start a course in which national campers would be taught English.

"As I've gone around the national camps in the country, I've spoken to a lot of the players and they were in support of the idea. Perhaps, by the next season, we will be able to get short certificate courses done in the camps," he says. Volker isn't just going to be an observer though. For while athletes might think they would be done with the headache of studies once they graduate, Volker suggests that learning must continue all through an athlete or coach's life. He plans to do a bit of studying himself while he's part of the national camp. "I've told the AFI that I want to learn the local language," he said. "I see that athletes are from different states which have completely different languages. Part of my job is to travel to different SAI centres, so I think Hindi can be the language I speak when talking to coaches and athletes. When I told the national campers about the plan to study English, they were very keen and I told them if they learn English, I will learn Hindi along with them," he says.