Balancing elite sports with student life as a Brummie

Published by Freddie
on 23/11/2018

If I were to tell you that there’s currently six past and present University of Birmingham students in China in a team of 16 representing Great Britain in one of the major women’s sports, I hope you’d be impressed. But the University of Birmingham is one of the leading sports universities and top for women’s hockey.

It takes some doing for those girls to perform to an elite level in the Premier League, plus play for their countries Under 21 squads, while studying full-time, and for Amy Costello, representing Scotland while still a student. We hope to talk to a few of them over the coming months as they look forward to representing their countries – whether England, Scotland or Wales – on our very own Bournbrook pitch in the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

But the toughest task of all was maybe for Lily Owsley, who is still currently a student here at the age of 23, yet has been playing for GB and England Hockey since school. We spoke to Lily, who won Olympic Gold at Rio in 2016, while here at university studying sports science.

Somehow, she managed to mix full-time hockey with full-time study and make it work – with, it has to be said, a bit of help from the university. First we asked if it’s as simple as she makes it look?

“Well it was never going to be simple, but I was able to split my year several times to help train for big competitions like the European Championships, which we won in 2015. And I was given a whole year out for the Olympics the next year, which obviously worked out OK.”

Lily has had to be in two places many weeks over those years, with the standard shared house in Selly Oak half the week, and sharing places close to GB training centre Bisham Abbey, near Maidenhead where she now lives.

What is it like having to study when you’re not in Birmingham in a Uni environment? “Well you find yourself with endless coffee chain loyalty cards from different places all over the world. I’ve done exams in the British Embassy in Valencia, and missed a team trip to Robben Island in South Africa because I had to revise. But I don’t think being a professional sportsman or woman should be an excuse to stop you from finishing your education. If anything, it helps me by giving me a balance.”

What do you mean by balance? “Well I can move from the intense lifestyle of pro sport (Lily is Lottery-funded and sponsored), and put my energy in to something completely different. Like going to a cafe and writing up my lab reports when I get too sports orientated or obsessed. I actually get excited about returning to studying (honest, Mum). Then after all that studying, I want to get back to training. So you play the two things off against each other so the one is always making the change you need from the other. Plus with Uni I get to mix with loads of people who are from a non sporting background, which doesn’t happen with a lot of sports people.”

Did you get any help? “There are always people trying to help you. If anyone else out there is trying to juggle studies with something else – whatever it is, music, sport, a new business, being a carer – don’t put too much on your plate, you can say no to things, and you should definitely, definitely accept the help! But it is OK to feel some stress sometimes. The UoB has been great in letting me miss years and split years – and I still play hockey for them.

So, what’s next for Lily Owsley? “I will look on to finishing my degree this year and I hope have a successful European Championships building up to 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Then after that, it seems mad but I would like to go on to do a masters in something completely different, maybe Politics as it interests me and keeps my mind ticking over. ”

If you’re interested in sports at Birmingham, find out more here.