Balancing time between studying and training is often something that young athletes struggle with. Learning to manage both effectively can have a significant impact on academic studies as well as sporting performance.

Today we’re going to talk with second year psychology student and West London Track and Field pole vaulter, Mercy Gutteridge, on how she has manages both.

Mercy, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. How has your recent exam preparation and training been going?

My recent exam preparation has been going really well. I have been steadily revising for my exams in May ever since the first lecture in January, I feel like I am learning a lot and keeping up with everything I need to do. Training is going equally as well, I am making a lot of improvements in a lot of areas and enjoying every second of it.

Looking back at your first year at university, how did you manage fresher’s week and what mistakes did you make and how do you think you could have avoided these?

In my first year I think I handled everything as well as I could. During fresher’s there’s an event on every night for a week and in my first year I went to three of these. I felt like this struck a nice balance between sufficient rest and enjoying my experience as a fresher. I don’t drink alcohol so unlike a lot of other students I didn’t get drunk. After coming home from events I stayed up talking to my new flatmates, but this gave me the opportunity to bond with the people I’d be living with for the year. Being around so many new people during this week resulted in me getting the dreaded ‘fresher’s flu’ for my first training session, but with more consistent sleep it was gone in time for the next session. Now as a second year I sometimes attend ‘pre-drinks’ to socialise with my friends but as I’m not usually one to go out, I’m in bed before they’ve made it to the club.

How important do you think the choice of university is when considering your sporting ambitions?

To be honest my main focus during university selection was picking the place that could help me develop most as an athlete, although making sure the course is right for you is incredibly important - after all that’s what you’ll be spending a lot of your time on and is the platform for a career after university. The main consideration for me whilst I was looking was the pole vault and the quality of coaching. I narrowed my choices to Brunel, Loughborough, Cardiff and Bath. I chose Brunel as I thought it offered the best coaching and training facilities (IAC, gym, spa and outdoor track) and would be the place I needed to go to further my athletic career. Furthermore, on arriving at the open day the first thing I saw as I walked in to register was the pole vault bed and I knew Brunel was the place I was meant to go.

I chose Brunel as I thought it offered the best coaching and training facilities (IAC, gym, spa and outdoor track) and would be the place I needed to go to further my athletic career.
— Mercy Gutteridge

For lots of young athletes university is the first time that they have to fend for themselves. How did you manage this and organise things like your nutrition?

When I lived at home I was always the one who requested more healthy foods for the weekly shop in order to make myself good quality lunches. I’ve pretty much always been aware of the kinds of things I needed to eat to supplement my training. University can be a struggle for money for me so I quickly found food supplies from chains like Lidl and Aldi where I get all my fresh vegetables and meat. Given that I sometimes don’t have a lot of money I’d feel too guilty buying unhealthy snacks on top of my weekly food shop. As my family eat healthily and my dad is a great cook I asked him to help me create a mini book of recipes (and some recipes from a healthy student cook book) which he taught me how to cook.  Another big help was the flat that I was put in. At Brunel, athletes are put in the same halls of residence so I was able to keep on a good track with my diet by watching other people eat well too. Although I find that it’s nice to go for a meal out every now and again as a treat.

A lot of the time young people often see a trade-off between studying and training. Do you think this has to be the case, or do you think that both can be done to a high standard at the same time?

To me, work and training are about balance. I have never thought training made studying more difficult or vice versa. Throughout GCSE, A level and now university I have never had a day off training because I have had work and this has never compromised my grades. For example last term I was training 5/7 days and was still able to achieve a high grade in my stats coursework. In order to achieve this I make sure I work around my schedules. I first looked at my training and lecture times to see where the best gaps to work would be. I have set times and days which I dedicate to work and certain days I dedicate to training. For example, Mondays are days that I completely dedicate to work and Wednesdays are days I completely dedicate to training. I have time to work on Wednesdays but I have learned that if I revise just before a session I will not get as much out of it as I would if I relaxed before.  Every week I manage to complete the work I need to do in terms of revision before the weekend, which I set for training and socialising. Setting times to complete my work ensures I stay relaxed about both work and training as I know I can finish work within the week which reduces stress for training. I would say that in some circumstances there can be a trade-off, if you have a deadline or an exam coming up, taking the day off training won’t do any harm. Similarly, taking a day of work before a big competition or session won’t negatively impact your academic studies.

What advice would you give to young athletes at college or university that are struggling with the pressure of their studies and balancing this with time for training?

I would advise them to really plan and work out how they best revise and best train. For example, I have learned that I produce my best results in training when I am relaxed so I will not put work into my week schedule before a session. I have also learned how long it takes me to read a chapter of a book I need to read or how long it takes for me to write up a lecture. This means I have been able to accurately plan my week so I can easily fit in all my work around my training schedule and not have it overload my brain.  I also completely endorse working all through the term instead of cramming your revision in close to your exams. Cramming never works for me, putting too much stress and pressure on myself to remember and perform well. Therefore, I work the whole year through and learn as I go along so I don’t have a panic. If you come into a training session panicking about your exams because you are not revising properly you cannot fully focus on the session and the task in hand and any improvements you try to make will be more of a challenge.

Finally, what are your ambitions both academically and for your pole vault over the coming year?

My ambitions for the academic term is either achieving a first or a high 2:1 to put me in a good position to achieve a first in my third year which is the overall goal. Last term I managed to get a high 2:1 which puts me in a very good position for this term. In terms of pole vault I would like to do the best I can. I do not like putting a number on the possible success I could achieve as I have learned that as soon as I have a certain number in my head I tend to back away and not put my all into my jumps through nerves. Therefore, my goals are to be confident in every jump I take, put my all into every jump I do and achieve the numbers I should be achieving.

Thank you for your time Mercy, we wish you all the best with both your studies and your pole vault performances this year!