Amber Gersjes op de judomat
Amber Gersjes op de judomat

High-performance sports and studying: how do you combine that?

When she was only two years old, she was already doing judo. Today, she is training for the Grand Prix in Austria, the World University Games and her main goal is to participate in the Paris Olympics. But that is not all. Amber Gersjes (25) is also doing a master's in public administration at our university. She is one of 92 students who combine their studies at Radboud University with their life as a top athlete or top-level talent in arts and culture. In doing so, they are supported by the top sports or top talent arrangement.

Flexible education 

'This has been a formal arrangement for over a decade', says Sofie van Breemen, the top sports and top talent coordinator. 'The programme has an obligation to offer flexible education wherever that might be necessary for the student and feasible for the programme. How that should be fleshed out is not specified in the regulation, but a study programme cannot simply brush that off. In practice, this is often accompanied by the label of 'flexible student'. This gives students more control over their timetable.' 

Thanks to this arrangement, Amber is able to combine judo with her studies. She explains: ‘I can vent on the judo mat, but I really like being able to use my brain as well. That is why studying is perfect for me! Judo is still my priority, but that doesn't mean studying is just a side activity. I try to plan everything as well as I can. As a top athlete I'm already very busy. I see the fact that I started studying and followed through with that as proof of my desire to not only get increasingly better at sports, but also to pursue a societal career.' 

According to Jan-Kees Helderman, professor of public administration and Amber's thesis supervisor, the arrangement not only requires flexibility from lecturers. You also get a lot in return. He mentions: 'Top athletes work extremely hard, are enormously disciplined and, as a lecturer, you also get a unique insight into their world!' 

Difficult contact with lecturers 

Top athletes' schedules are sometimes underestimated, Amber thinks. 'It's not like I train for two hours in the morning, arrive late at university and then chill out for the rest of the day or miss a class because I'm taking a nap. I am always working on my development as an athlete, but I also take my studies very seriously. I work very hard to keep up with everything, so sometimes it's hard to have to deal with negative prejudices.' 

Amber sometimes felt thwarted by lecturers. 'For example, they wouldn't give me an extra chance even though I was entitled to it, or they would make a big scene if I was not on time for a lecture. When I just started studying, I found that very difficult. So, it is great that I can rely on the arrangement. I am entitled to the fact that the study programme thinks with me. Fortunately, most lecturers are flexible about that.' 

Who is entitled to what? 

According to Van Breemen, there is still room for improvement in terms of awareness of the arrangement. That lecturers do not always understand what it is about, she thinks, is logical. ‘Lecturers receive requests for extra flexibility from many students. So, who is entitled to that? Fortunately, top athletes and top talents in arts and culture can be recognised by a label in OSIRIS. Also, it is not always clear how far you can go in terms of flexibility. It is then up to the student, lecturer, student advisor and ultimately the examination board to find a way around this.' 

Helderman finds it especially important not to hold students back on their greatest passion. 'It is also in my nature to have a flexible and pragmatic attitude towards students. This arrangement makes it easy, because it also provides a formal way to give students extra space. But for me, it goes beyond just those with a top athlete or top talent status. Every student here has a unique talent and as a university we should strive to always allow room for that!' 

Unbiased conversations 

Amber stresses the importance of a good conversation: 'No question is too crazy. Immerse yourself in our lives as athletes and together we'll see how we can best shape our studying.' Van Breemen also finds it important to show understanding for this group: 'They are very serious about two passions. They don't lack effort or commitment. View them without prejudice!' Helderman adds: 'We cannot expect top sports students to choose between their athletic career or their studies. A high-performance sports career is very fragile, and I see with Amber, for example, how serious she is about both her sports as well as her societal career.' 

'I think that as a university we do not propagate that enough', says Van Breemen. 'We have those talents in house. It produces medals. We have students playing in the Eredivisie, competing in the Olympics or performing on other (cultural) stages, not just the main stages, but also some smaller stages. We have a duty as a university to support that!' 

Read more: Adapted studying

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