Sunday, 19 January 2014

Is being a pro athlete like being an academic?

This academic year is a very busy one for me and I spent most of Christmas working (this isn't unusual at all amongst academics) . This didn't feel strange or 'hard': it was simply what I did.

When one of my brothers in law pointed out that writing code on Christmas morning was a bit 'strange' it reminded me of the fact that Jonny Wilkinson (one the best rugby players of all time) supposedly/famously practices on Christmas day (fact #3 here). 

This post is going to be some thoughts about the similarity between professional athletes and academics...

I watched this great +TEDx talk the other day about a kid who describing his 'hackschooling' and in particular discusses 'what he wants to be when he grows up' (the answer is 'happy'):



As a young kid all I ever wanted to be was a professional rugby player (reality set in at about 13-14) . I more or less always had a ball with me, here's a picture of me (I'm the one with my head down) when I was 12ish (I think):


I went to a rugby boarding school when I was 16 and had the best time of my life there. I was never athletically good enough to ever 'be what I wanted to be' (a pro rugby player). A nasty roller blading accident when I was 18 more or less finished off my rugby 'career' anyway. 

From the age of about 15 though I think I realised that I needed a more realistic plan and when people would ask me what I wanted to be I'd always say: 'I want a PhD in mathematics and to be a mathematics researcher'. I don't think I really knew what that was, but that's what I would say.

15 years later that's what I am and I consider myself very lucky to be what I wanted to be when I was a kid.

1. Passion

I think that's probably the first similarity between athletes and academics, it's such a competitive environment. Kids who play pro anything most probably invested (as did their families) a lot of time and effort in to getting there.

Similarly for academics. You have to work extremely hard, to get in to a good University, to do well, to get a PhD and then to finally get a 'pro contract' in the form of post-doc or similar.

2. Luck

For every good pro athlete (I don't mean great), there are probably a bunch that were never 'discovered' (or who themselves never discovered that they were/could be great).

I think this is similar to academics, with less and less funding available for research positions and the extremely competitive job market, there are probably quite a few talented people who never even think of pursuing a career in academia.

A lot of it is probably about being in the right place at the right time. Playing a game when a scout happens to be watching is quite similar to how I got my first post-doc: there happened to be some funding available when I was coming to the end of my PhD and my current employers where open minded enough to appreciate my ability to change fields.

3. Hard Work

Academia is hard. Ridiculously hard. You have to juggle various things: teaching, research, outreach, admin (I really hate admin...) and you have to be good at all of them.

Being a pro athlete is (probably) hard. You have to juggle various things: athletic ability, injuries, athletic IQ, press/media and you have to be good at all of them.

The thing is you do all these things, whether or not that's why you got in to the field in the first place. That's probably because of the passion or the pay (I'll get back to the pay later...).

As a rugby player I was not a good tackler, I was terrible. It was something I had to work on a lot harder than on my vision and fitness for example. I used to spend more time than most working on tackling. 

In academia it took me quite a while to get 'ok' at writing (my PhD supervisor and +Paul Harper who proof read a lot of my early drafts will no doubt agree with that). This was something that I had to work quite hard at (and still do!).

Ultimately athletes and academics are faced with the same 'problem'/'opportunity'. We can work as hard as we want to. There's always further to go (more weights to lift, another training session to have, more tape to watch, more recovery techniques to try...). Here's a good +PHD Comics that was published today illustrating what I mean:



4. Competitiveness

I love competition. I don't really mind losing, but I love competing (I have a rant that I repeat fairly often about the difference between being a bad loser and being competitive but I'll leave that for another time).

When I was in the running for my permanent post I loved knowing that I was working as hard as I possibly could to get it. If someone was going to get appointed ahead of me it was not going to be because I did not push myself hard enough.

The analogous holds immediately with pro athletes and it's a part of my job that I love.

5.  The pay

Ok this is where my analogy perhaps breaks down as the pay is pretty much incomparable but I think there are some parallels to be drawn.

In the press a lot of athletes apparently 'fall out of love with the game' (recently an England cricketer for example was told to go home and remember why he liked cricket), I guess that they sometimes (understandably given how much money comes their way) play for money and it becomes about contracts etc...

For a lot of Academics it's probably the same thing. After a while (snowed under by a pile of admin) it just becomes a job. There's nothing wrong with that of course (a lot of people perhaps end up in Academic 'by mistake' also).

Personally, I think I have the coolest (second to being a pro rugby player) job in the world and am just ridiculously grateful to be able to do it.

The bad sides of this are that I am a workaholic and don't see my wife very often (she sometimes +1s my G+ posts so we do interact), but ultimately I get to do what I wanted to do when I was a kid (if I had been bigger, stronger and faster I'd be writing a flipped version of this on Toulouse's website right now...). In particular I have found teaching to perhaps be one of the most rewarding experiences one can have.

I'm sure there is a lot wrong with my analogy and a huge amount of differences between 'us' and pro athletes... Perhaps this comparison is just a young boys way of coping with his workload and believing that it's actually what he wants to do and that he made it as a 'pro athlete'... ;)