We see them on television. We watch them at sports events. We admire them, their strength, their agility and their intensity. Sometimes, we wonder, what must their lives be like? What goes into the making of an outstanding Chinese athlete?
Across China, there are many sport institutes. These are located mainly in provincial capital cities although many times they are also located in the suburbs. Coaches choose potential athletes from sport elementary or middle schools and invite them to join a sports skills institute for concentrated intense training. Divers and gymnasts can be as young as six, seven or eight years old when they leave their families to live at an institute.
For these young athletes, living away from their families can sometimes mean living across the country and, at other times, it can mean being in the same town as their loved ones. They live with their team members in a dormitory, and the team becomes their family. The coaches and administrators become surrogate parents. Depending on the coach, and teammates, these athletes can lead a good life at the training school or a very difficult one.
The living arrangements provide them with much time to practice—usually six to seven days per week and two to three times a day. In this situation, they have little interaction with other people outside the sports training institute.
"Over training" with not enough time for recovery is a common practice. Therefore, most players have injuries. Surgeries are commonplace. Injuries may lead to an early end to their sport careers and chances to gain a scholarship to a university later on are lost. Over-training leads to another outcome: burnout at a young age. Love of the sport and playing is lost.
During their training, these athletes may travel to various training bases located across the country, some at high altitudes or in the mountains in order to train at different locations and times of the year. Travel is done mostly by train and bus, occasionally by airbut only for high profile, wealthier clubs. Many athletes will have opportunities to travel to other countries with their teams for competitions or as individuals invited to compete for clubs all over the world.
The number of athletes in any given sport is generally limited, so if an athlete wants to quit playing, the coach could make it difficult or impossible for him or her to leave for many years. The coach holds their residence permit, their future work and opportunities for education in his hand. Because of this, the athletes must work hard to please the coach and build good guanxi (relationship) with those who surround the sport. Many athletes are treated very well, and the coach will help them with future job placements, securing education and allow them to begin the process so they can leave the institute in a timely manner. This, of course, depends on the program, and there are coaches who will make the athletes' lives miserable.
Most of these athletes are just elementary school graduates, and this spawns their greatest fear—the future. Most will take a few classes after completing elementary school, but the competition in China for high school and university positions and degrees is very tough. Some actually go to classes and study, either on their campus or at a sports university. Classes are offered for them once or twice a week on an ongoing basis. However, since they have very little motivation to study during rounds of vigorous training, and are left exhausted at the end of the day, real academic pursuits must wait until after retirement from playing their sport. If they are fortunate, they could be invited to attend a university, compete for the school team and study for a degree after leaving the institute. This would only apply for a small number of athletes in mostly team sports or other high profile sports. Many of the individual, lower profile sports do not have these opportunities. It is also a common practice to allow athletes to enroll in classes but not require attendance. Nevertheless, a degree is granted at the end of a required period of time. This leaves them still lacking in any real skills for the new open job market of China.
For most, their career is short and their future uncertain. In time, if they continue in the sports field, if they play in some of the ball sports, they will receive a living stipend which is usually quite low (unless they are in men's basketball, soccer or are perhaps a national team player). In some of the other sports, the athletes pay to train themselves as well as for their food and lodging. Depending on their level of performance, years in training, number of medals and so on, they will be given a one-time payment of various amounts at the end of their career.
Interview with an Athlete
A 26 year old athlete told me she started to play her sport because it was fun. Her parents made her quit the team for a while when they became concerned about her education, but her coach asked her to come back. While training, she said that usually athletes register for classes, but do not have time to attend. She only went to classes a couple of times per week for about a month before the tests.
She enjoys her life, being able to travel, and lives happily with her teammates. At seven am they get up; seven-twenty they eat breakfast; from nine to eleven they practice; at eleven-thirty they eat lunch, and then they rest. At two-thirty they get up; three to five they practice; six pm is dinner and ten o'clock is lights out. Free time is in the evening when most players now-a-days watch TV, DVDs, or go out and walk. Very few study.
Everyone on her team has had an injury, and all have had at least one surgery. This girl has had two knee surgeries.
Most of the players, when they are young, have a dream to make the national team and play for their country. However, as time goes on they start to be concerned about their future. This girl's biggest goal for the future is to find a good job and a husband. She would also like to learn English.
Changes for the future
There has been a lot of talk among sports people about the changes that have taken place in the world of high-level training and competition of athletes and the future changes that are needed. Still, today it is considered an honor to be chosen for a sports skills institute. The intense training, hard work and dedication of the coaches and athletes gives them hope for competing for their country on a national and international stage. To be able to compete and win a medal for the country is indeed a great motivating factor.
Coaches, retired athletes and administrators are aware that the training environments and systems of training athletes have to change to adjust to changes in Chinese society. Hopefully, the changes will be made sooner rather than later to afford these young people a good environment for developing not only their sport skills but also to give them more opportunities for developing their social and academic skills—to give them a real hope and future!
Image credit: Beam exercise by Mrs eNil, on Flickr