How do you strike a balance between the sport you love and a life outside it? How do you achieve great results but still have other strings to your bow? A criticism that is often levelled at performance athletes is that they have to sacrifice everything for their sport, which means that they lose the balance in their life between sport and their education or career. Rory Fitzpatrick, Irish Sailing’s Youth & Development Manager has long argued that the most successful sailors are those who strike the correct balance. One such athlete he points to is Irish Sailing Performance Pathway’s Aoife Hopkins, winner of the U21 Laser Radial European Championships this July who achieved a whopping 601 points in her Leaving Cert and is now studying maths at Trinity College Dublin.
We talked to Aoife of Howth Yacht Club about her very busy summer, and how she balances sailing and studying.
Aoife, this summer you managed to score over 600 points in your Leaving Certificate and win the U21 Laser Radial European Championship just a few weeks later. You must be delighted but did this come as a surprise to you?
I was absolutely thrilled as both my exam results and sailing performance reflected two years of hard work put into balancing both. While I was delighted, I wasn’t surprised, as the processes had been in place all along.
Knowing that it would be a busy time how far out were you planning for this?
I actually started planning at the beginning of fifth year when it became clear that I’d be missing a lot of school for sailing. So I guess a full two years!
When you first put the plan together what made it look achievable and worthwhile?
The goal was to get enough time on the water and enough study time to excel at both aspects. The plan, while definitely a challenge, had at least 3 (but usually 4 or 5) days on the water a week while still allowing me to have enough study time (also fitting in an extra subject, applied maths, every day before school). I could see that although my sailing sessions wouldn’t necessarily be long (some were only 1 hour), it was enough that I was keeping touch with the feeling of the boat while continuing to train in a range of conditions. That to me seemed like a success and I was sure that the results would eventually reflect that.
Was there much compromise in your normal school time to balance in sailing over the same time?
Definitely! I missed a huge amount of school in fifth year. I competed in the U21 Europeans (1 week), La Rochelle Olympic Week (1 week), Copa da Brazil (2 weeks), Miami World Cup (2 weeks), Senior Worlds (2 weeks) and Senior Europeans (2 weeks). This was all during term time and doesn’t include all the half days taken to head out to Dun Laoghaire for training. I still got the highest grades in my year in my summer exams that year (613 points). Academics isn’t just about being present in class, it’s about applying yourself to it. I found that if I caught up on homework/study every night, even having missed class, while also writing notes and doing exam questions then I was in the clear. I studied at all the events, my school organised for me to get ebooks for all my subjects. I think with athletes, we’re more focused than the regular student and manage time much more effectively. This means getting more study done in less hours (put down the phones people!). While I missed less school in sixth year (only competing in the Andalusian Olympic Week and Hyeres World Cup during term time), I still had the routines in place to be able to sail 4 days a week, while still getting in gym sessions, cycles (usually as commutes) and study time.
What kind of supports did you have around you to help during the time?
At the start of fifth year I sat down with my year head, vice principal and my coach Rory Fitzpatrick to go through my weekly routine in order to address any conflicts cropping up (eg. I was missing double accounting every single week for training on a Wednesday afternoon, not really a subject you can teach yourself!). This helped as both parties understood how much was expected from me on either side…and both could then make adjustments! I also worked with Eoin Reinisch, Athlete Advisor at Sport Ireland Institute, who had me plan out my week every Sunday night in half hour blocks to ensure I had the correct balance of sailing/fitness/study/relaxation. This made me a lot more efficient and time that I might have wasted otherwise could now be used constructively, obviously I deviated at times but it definitely made me more aware of the opportunities I had to get more work done. Sportsmed were also great, whenever I thought the programme wasn’t doable I let Mark McCabe know and he adjusted it. For example, instead of sitting on a bike for two hours at the weekend I just cycled to/from school, Sportsmed, Dun Laoghaire etc to get that cycling time in without it compromising study. Mark also understood that for this period, sailing had to take priority over shore-based fitness training and he changed my TrainingPeaks to reflect that.
In addition to the support I received from my school and all in Irish Sailing, my parents were a huge help. They took on the role of campaign manager, ultimately giving me the time to train and study as I did. Mum did all the logistics involved in the events (flights, accommodation, boat charter, finding coaching support etc) as well as continuing to fundraise and find private sponsors. All of this is incredibly time consuming (as I've now realised having left school and taking on the job!). My parents' unrelenting support was what got me through two tough years of balancing an Olympic campaign and the Leaving Cert. The value of education has been emphasized in our household for years and has given me the drive to do my best in both school and sport.
What did your normal day and week look like over the period? Was it always the same or were you able to adjust it and if so how?
Sailing 4 times a week, gym twice, cycling for commutes and studying as much as possible. I definitely adjusted at times, depending on the weather forecast (if it was really good I’d sail 6 days in the week, if it was bad it might only be 2 or 3) and also on how close we got to exams. I did the Hyeres World Cup one month before the Leaving Cert started which I actually found great. It got me out of that ‘LC funk’ that starts to creep up in April and May of sixth year. I came home to be on the ‘home run’ and had enough energy to get me through the exams in one piece. I used school breaks as a good opportunity to get 6-8 hours of study done a day plus short sails, those breaks are gold dust…use them wisely!
If you had any advice for any sailors doing the final school year with exams at the start of the next summer what would it be?
First off, keep working! The year does actually fly by (between Halloween, Christmas, mocks, February midterm, St Patrick’s, Easter and then Graduation you’re not actually in school that much!). Use sailing as a tool, remember that the Leaving Cert isn’t a measure of how good a student you are, it’s a measure of how much you apply yourself compared to the rest of the country. The 50,000 other students taking exams don’t have the outlet that you have, to be able to get on the water for 2 hours getting fresh air and a workout, completely switching out of ‘school mode’. Everyone else will ‘halfway study’ for the whole year, doing a few hours then going for a walk, then another few hours, then watching a movie, then another bit, then having dinner. They get so fed up with studying (because they can never switch off like we can) that they never do it right. Use sailing to your advantage, go midweek training so that you can get proper time at a desk without feeling derived, fed up or depressed. Don’t see either academics or sailing as a chore but more as two sides to a coin that can balance each other out perfectly if done right. I can guarantee that if you don’t give one aspect the time it deserves, neither will go as well as they could have.
Go to Irish Sailing’s Facebook page to see a list of Top 10 tips and tricks to balancing sport and studying, and getting the best from both!