Tue | Nov 12, 2019

Tanya Lee | In support of the student athlete

Published:Friday | February 8, 2019 | 9:55 AM
Student athletes participating in a Class One 100m sprint at the ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys and Girls’ Athletics Championships in March 2017.

Last week I was invited to speak at Trinidad and Tobago’s Secondary Schools Football (SSFL) Awards in honour of the outstanding student athletes from their 2018 football season.

The event’s guest speaker was former World Cup and English Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, who had a crucial message for the youth footballers in attendance.

Hislop, a solid role model for any student athlete, given his vast achievements both on the pitch and in the classroom, encouraged the students to take both their academic and sporting exploits seriously as neither is a substitute for the other.

Hislop’s message came from his own experiences, having played high-school football in Trinidad’s SSFL in the 1980s before attending Howard University, where he earned a mechanical engineering degree and even interned at NASA before being scouted by Reading FC. He went on to spend 10 years in English top-flight football at Newcastle and West Ham, with Newcastle second in the Premier League for two successive seasons and West Ham being FA Cup runners-up in 2006. Hislop also kept for Trinidad and Tobago in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. After retirement in 2008, he seamlessly transitioned into the role of commentator and pundit at ESPN, where he is the Caribbean face of their football broadcasts and discussions. He currently holds an executive MBA from Howard University, which he obtained in 2014.

As I spoke to the students, I shared some good and bad news. The bad news was, for those who ignore their academics and concentrate only on high-school sports, the statistics for success were not in their favour. Of all the student athletes across the world who participate in sports, only roughly one per cent will go on to excel in professional sports. Even fewer will have a long career in sports, and an even smaller number will transition successfully to a post-sport career.


It is evident that most of the outstanding high-school footballers from the Manning and daCosta Cup do not go on to English top flight football, nor to Major League Soccer (MLS), nor to the top clubs across Europe. In reality, the most likely stop for those who wish to continue in football is the local Red Stripe Premier League, which is at best semi-professional. The hopes of getting a lucrative professional contract overseas are not often realised, and eventually, many of these footballers will question and possibly regret their decision to choose sports squarely over academics.

It thus becomes even more important for the high school ‘athlete’ to fully embrace their academics as well. In excelling at both, there is a much greater guarantee of future success both for higher education and future employment. Herein lies the good news.

It’s already well known that high-school student athletes are first picks for most US colleges and universities that will offer full or partial scholarships and bursaries. The cost of university education is enormous, but playing sports and making the academic grades qualifies students for free tuition and boarding at top US universities.

But what’s less known are the immediate benefits of playing sports for the athlete. Studies have shown that regular physical activity increases nerve connections throughout the body and blood flow to the brain, which positively impacts concentration, enhanced memory, and problem-solving skills. Essentially, being physical helps the brain work better!

Fortune 500 CEOs

And as it relates to the future, Fortune estimates that 95 per cent of its Fortune 500 CEOs played sports. Of the female CEOs, 90 per cent played sports at some point in their lives, and 54 per cent played at the university level. Former student athletes make great employers and employees because the critical lessons that sports participation teaches are also advantageous in the boardroom.

Those lessons include discipline, time management, teamwork, immense drive, courage, and a competitive penchant for big challenges. Former athletes are already accustomed to persevering, whether in victory or defeat, and so, they are more likely to rebound from business failures. Athletes often play distinct roles on teams and must excel in that role for the team to win. Similarly, they see their roles in the workplace as an essential aspect of organisational success. They also translate practising a sport until they do well to constantly seeking ways to learn more about their job and industry to raise their value proposition. Encourage your little ones to embrace both the books and the pitch. It’s a win-win.

One love.

Tanya Lee is a Caribbean sports marketer, author, and publicist. Follow her @tanyattlee on Instagram.