Growing up in Spain trying to combine academics and sports

For most kids, being able to play sports all day seems much better than sitting at a desk and learning algebra, but being a student-athlete in Spain is challenging in reality. Missing an exam or an assignment due to competition is not a big deal when athletes are young, but when high school starts, it gets complicated.

Although there are options to get through it, sports are not highly valued and schools aren’t very flexible when it comes to adapting to competition and practice schedules. However, Spain has some public schools that are specifically for athletes. They’re also completely free.

Bruna Roqueta, a high school sophomore, was born and raised in Seva, a town about an hour away from Barcelona, where she played golf and went to school. When she got to high school it got too complicated to do both so she transferred to IES Blume, a government-sponsored school for athletes where she lived during the week to reduce transportation costs.

“In IES Blume it is easier for me to focus on both academics and golf without having distractions,” Roqueta said. “It is a more professional atmosphere. I have become more independent living away from my parents and I think this is great in preparation for trying to go to college in the U.S. I have some friends who are doing it and loved it, and I am ready for another change and a new experience in my life.”

After graduation, it becomes even harder to combine athletic and academic pursuits. According to Gonzalo Corrales, founder of AGM, an agency that helps students find sports scholarships in U.S. universities, only 1 in 16,000 young athletes make it to the pro level, being able to make a living off of their sport. The rest have to look for alternatives.

Aspiring athletes can stay in Spain and go to college while continuing with their sport, but this can be demanding, especially for non-Olympic sports that get less attention and help. Another option is dropping academics and going for the pro level in sports. These people miss out on their true academic potential. It’s also risky to fully dedicate themselves to sports as the work-span for professional athletes is usually short — age and constant exercise take a toll on the body. Academic preparation to re-enter the workforce after pursuing sport is important.

Being a student-athlete in the U.S. is the best of both worlds. Still, leaving Spain requires an additional effort for these young student-athletes — adapting to a new language, culture and being far from family and friends are common obstacles. But many think the sacrifice is worth it, as there are also many benefits.

Student-athletes can pick classes and change their schedules and exams to fit with their competitions, and sports facilities in U.S. universities tend to be professional, the perfect setting for these students. Student-athletes have the added privilege of representing the university and usually have high social status, with other students admiring them and giving them support.

Young athletes also get support in a more tangible form. Scholarships often cover tuition, athletics, housing and food, giving students an extra help. For the 2016-2017 academic year, Spain had more than 1,000 athletes studying in the U.S., which shows the great potential of Spanish young athletes.

“I got a lot of help from the university, I was very respected for being an athlete and my coaches and team were like a family to me,” said Adria Arnaus, a former student-athlete in Texas A&M. “Having to become independent and combine academic, athletic and social aspects of my life built me into a more responsible person, creating great attributions for the work life and for a professional athlete”.

Once they graduate in the U.S., these Spanish student-athletes have essential work qualities that differentiate them from their counterparts in Spain. They are bilingual, good time managers, are hard-working and are team players. Many Spanish companies have started to value these qualities and are starting to look for profiles like this to be part of their team. Still, the Spanish education system has to catch up to plug the talent leak that has athletes leaving home for the U.S.

These graduates can choose different paths based on their experiences and qualities. They might find a job in the U.S. and extend their visa, or they could go back to Spain, bringing all of their experience from abroad.

“Some of the highlights of being a student-athlete in the U.S. would be getting to be bilingual in English and having the chance to play great courses and tournaments, against great players, which gave me a better view of what I was facing if I wanted to get into professional golf,” said Arnaus, who is pursuing pro golf in Spain.

But the experience is different for other athletes. Cristina Felip was a student-athlete at Long Island University, and returned to Spain looking for career paths in the sports world. She turned to sports-related companies like Fundación Laureus and AGM.

“Both places were looking for people in the world of sports, and they were very interested in my experience in the U.S. From what I lived, college education in the US, in comparison to Spain prepares you more for the working world,” Felip said.

“Companies now look for people that are bilingual in English, disciplined, adapting, hard-working, organized and with a spirit of sacrifice, and who could be better than an athlete graduated in the U.S. for this?”

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV