Universiteit Leiden

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Studying + top-class sport = top-class discipline

Several dozens of students at Leiden University are top-class athletes, in such diverse sports as skating and tennis. Four of them talk about how they combine their sporting activities with their studies. Strict discipline is the absolute key, and the University helps too. 'If you plan well you can have a fun student time too.'

Four students who do top-class sports

Five students talk about their lives as top-class sports people and Leiden students:

  • Lisa van der Geest, master's in Employment Law. Does the marathon and long-distance skating. In 2017 she won the Alternative Eleven Towns Race in Weissensee.
  • Ian Imkers, bachelor's in International Studies (The Hague Campus), plays rugby
  • Saskia Bollerman, master's student of Evolution, Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, does real tennis, the forerunner of ‘lawn’ tennis. In November she won the US Open and in January with Claire Fahey she won her third consecutive doubles at the Australian Open
  • Junior Degen is a bachelor's student of Law and Tax Law, and he also does judo. He has won a several different championships in his weight class (up to 73 kg), including the 2017 Dutch championship. 
  • Julia Noordenbos, International Studies, specialising in Russia/Eurasia. She is also a long-distance skater. In 2017 she was 8th in the National Championships Junior Pure Sprint and is now Neo-Senior.
Lisa van der Geest winning a marathon

Training, and more training

Top-class athletes  have to be devoted to their studies, otherwise they won't make it. Obviously, athletes also have to spend a lot of time training. Lise trains nine times a week in the summer, and five times a week in the winter, three of which are on the ice and one of these times in Heerenveen. Unfortunately, this was not enough to make the grade for the Olympic 5000 metre race, and she is now focusing on the Dutch long-distance championship. 'Right now I'm in Sweden for marathon skating. My aim is to win one of the three competitions here.' 

Saskia can only train abroad. 'In my case, that's England, where I spend two weeks every month. The main contests for me are the four grand slams - the British Open, French Open, US Open and Australian Open - and the world championships in 2019.’

Saskia Bollerman goes to England to train for her sport: 'real tennis' (photo Michael Do).

Training with an objective

Junior does judo at Kenamju in Haarlem concentrating on his studies. Taking two bachelor's programes and training ten times a week just isn't possible. 'In the run-up to competitions I train about five times a week. In June I want to extend my national team title and at the end of September I hope to see whether I can defend my individual title. There are also four Bundesliga competitions in the diary and there will probably also be the European Cup.'  

Training six times a week in Haarlem: that's Julia's programme. 'I'm doing that to prepare for the Holland Cups and hopefuly also for the National Championships in Sprint and  Distance next year.' 

Junior Degen (in blue), Leiden's most successful student athlete, who has won range of different championships

To join or not to join a student association?

Having the status of a top-class athlete gives you more flexibility. Lisa: ‘It took me 4 1/2 years to get my bachelor's (without binding study advice; Ed.). It was tough because I was living in Heerenveen at the time. Recordings were made of many of the lectures, but I missed just about all the work groups. Now I'm living in Leiden again it's a lot easier and I can make it to nearly all the work groups.’ There's no chance of Lisa being a member of a student association. 'I'm not so strict with myself that I never drink a glass of wine, but parties are out of the question. At the right time I do enjoy eating  with friends, with a glass of wine.' 

Saskia has had to miss only a few lectures. 'Keeping to a reasonably strict plan means I rarely fall behind. Occasionally I might miss a couple of days of a subject, but that's not such a problem. I plan everything so that I only have exams when I am in the country.' Because she does her training abroad, there's time for her to be a member of a different associations in Leiden: she's a member of Augustinus and she plays tennis with Tenniphil.

As he is now prioritising his studies, Junior currently has hardly any problems with his timetable. 'But when I started studying three years ago and I was training ten times a week, it took a lot of effort to combine it all. That's why I only got my first-year diploma in my third year. If you're involved in top-class sport, you do have that flexibility. Right at the start of my studies I was told that it would be better for me to put together my own programme and take longer to graduate rather than trying to follow the regular programme and not quite managing it.'  Junior is now a second-year member of Minerva. 'You have to have the discipline to be able to say No.  Parties can't be your top priority; you have to look at them more as a reward for hard work. As most  top-class athletes know, the party after a success feels so much better!' 

Julia Noordenbos thinks that top-class sport keeps her more on the ball with her studies.

Active role in study association

‘I've always felt that my sport keeps me more on the ball with my studies,' Julia comments. 'I just couldn't imagine a life without sport alongside school or studying. The trick is to plan well, keep up with your work and - most important of all - get enough sleep.  I generally manage to work my study timetable around my skating times, and if I don't, then I can call on the University for support. In March I will be going to Canada for a training camp and competitions.' As long as she takes responsibility for catching up with any work she has missed, the University is very supportive.  'Definitely,' is Julia's response to the question of whether it is possible to combine top-level sport and life as a student. 'It does mean, of course, that I can't go out drinking three nights a week. But I am a member and co-founder of the Russia Eurasia Committee within the B.A.S.I.S. student association of International Studies and I organise events such as guest lectures, seminars and  film screenings. Sometimes my competition timetable means I can go out for an evening, although I have to say that the training session the next day seems much harder!' 

Fellow students and lecturers really empathise

These students have no complaints about any lack of interest from fellow students and lecturers. They ask all kinds of questions and really empathise. Judo player Junior comments, ‘After winning the Dutch title in September, I received congratulations by mail from Professor Boer from Tax Law and there was even an article in the University newsletter. That's great.' Other athletes have the impression that lecturers are impressed that they are so fanatical about their sport.   

The Winter Olympics is the time for every sport lover. The student athletes enjoy watching if they have time and particularly if their sport is being shown. Julia: ‘During a lecture I secretly watched  Ireen Wüs skating the 1500 metres!' These top-class athletes and students know better than most how much discipline it takes and they understand all to well how the winners and losers feel.  


Top-class athlete and studying at Leiden University. How does that work?

'It's not the University that determines whether a student is termed a top-class athlete,' student counsellor Marcel Melchers explains.  'The universities follow the criteria of the NOC*NSF.’ In his job at Student and Education Affairs, Melchers is responsible for the top-class athletes. The criteia of the NOC*NSF are: A-status (proven top-class athlete, among the best 16 in the world), high potential (exceptionally talented; is expected to reach the top 3 in the world in a short space of time), selection status (selected by the relevant sporting association) and federation status (the same as selection status, but for young athletes who are too old for youth competitons).

The main support offered by the University comes from the relevant programme department: the study adviser and the athlete together make a plan that fits as well as possible around the training sessions, training internships and competitions both at home and abroad. Where that doesn't work out, the athlete can expect some flexibility from the lecturers: assignments can be submitted later, there may be an extra re-sit, an alternative teaching assignment and/or waiving of the requirement to attend all lectures. Top-level sport can also be a reason for not being bound to the conditions of the BSA. These athletes can also apply to the regulation on Financial Support for Students (FOS).  This applies if a student, in spite of good planning, still suffers a study delay; under this regulation  the student can get study finance for longer. Students are expected to show complete discipline in completing the study programme agreed with the student adviser. In other words, there are requirements on both sides.  

Read more about the regulation for top-class athletes at Leiden University.  

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