Sydney Uni student talks juggling exams with elite-level canoe slalom

Zachary Thompson is a Sydney University student who competes at an elite level in Canoe Slalom. He shares some of his mental and physical training tips for making it as a student while achieving your sports goals.

Being a sportsperson and a student at the same time can be quite a hurdle, but like all challenges, the tougher it is the greater the reward. I found that striking a balance between training and study was the key to achieving my goals in both Canoe Slalom and my history and political science subjects.

In 2010 I chose to go to the University of Sydney, because their Bachelor of Arts course suited my interests and had a workload that was manageable with elite-level sporting commitments. Being invited into Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness’ Elite Athlete Program* also influenced my decision to choose this path through academia, as the Program is specifically designed to assist athletes striving to balance study and sport.

After a dizzying O-Week, I quickly settled into a routine that accommodated my training program and allowed me to engage with my subjects. An average week consisted of twelve hours of class time, with an additional two to three hours of reading time per subject. My training program consisted of three sessions at the Penrith Whitewater Stadium, four sessions on the flat-water in Blackwattle Bay and on the Lane Cove River, two sessions in the University’s gym; each representing an hour of physical exertion. Maintaining these commitments each week was tricky, but the balance was right and I was able to progress towards my goals, a bit like how a learner stuntman tiptoes across a tightrope. In my first semester, I competed with the Under 21 Australian Team in Xias√¨, China for three weeks and scored an essay prize in history; the tightrope strategy was working.

The drawback was that I had little time to indulge in the regular undergraduate temptations. Being a college ‘fResher’, and keen to make the most of my undergraduate experience meant that pressure to party and make as many friends as possible was ever present; and foregoing opportunities to get involved in student journalism, debating, theatrical or political communities was a challenge. But the advantage of solely pursuing sport and study outweighed these temptations, and I still managed to make friends in first year who are still close to me today.  Procrastination was not a problem, because it was not an option. Making the necessary sacrifices, staying focused on my goals and devoting myself to meeting my training and study commitments each week made my time as an elite sportsperson and student so rewarding. As they say, if you want something done, give it to a busy person!

Unfortunately, when I was trying out for the Australian Senior Team the following year, I injured myself on a nasty section of whitewater in Tasmania. This setback wasn’t so bad, because it allowed me to challenge myself in new ways in with other opportunities that are available to the University of Sydney undergraduate. I still train and compete, but it is for the benefits of an active lifestyle, a reprieve from study and for fun rather than Olympic gold.

When I reflect on what made my time as an aspirational sportsperson and student so rewarding, I believe these four maxims are essential for anyone striving to achieve this tightrope-like balance:

Make life easy for yourself


  • Learn to steer clear of the plethora of options at University that offer the opportunity to stand out. For ambitious athletes, avoiding these temptations is tough, but if they are not necessary for your sporting or academic goals then foregoing these distractions is important.
  • Make training convenient. Having a gym on campus made weights training quick and easy to fulfil. I would put down my pen at 8.30PM, do my session 9PM and be back at college in time for a late dinner.
  • Find a support group. Aligning sessions in your training plan with other people is an invaluable way of staying motivated, maintaining your training commitments and making friends.

Have a solid plan, and devote your life to it


  • Get good at goal setting. Spending time identifying and clarifying long, medium and short-term goals is essential to training and studying with purpose. Once identified, break these goals down into yearly, monthly and weekly sub-goals – this is how you work strategically towards your goals and tweak the mechanics of your balance. I set my goals in four-year blocks, so I could focus on competing at the Olympics.

Accept that it is going to be tough and be prepared to fight


  • There is no way around hard work. Avoiding distractions and being disciplined is exhausting, and it is tempting to waste time looking for short cuts or justifying slacking-off. Remembering that avoiding hard work only made achieving my goals harder, always helped me snap out of these counter-productive thoughts.
  • Obsess over the outcome. Imagine the sensation of achieving that HD or making the team, and obsess over that blissful thought constantly. Having the ‘hunger’ to succeed is essential to working harder than your competitors in sport and academia, and adds to the rewarding sensation of finishing a training or study session.

Be realistic

  • Understand your capabilities. I found that being an effective student and sportsperson hinged on knowing my sporting and academic capabilities and the rate that I could expand them at. Being realistic about your goals, and the rate at which you are going to achieve them significantly affects your motivation. If your goal is to get straight HDs and come first in every race, within three weeks of first year then you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment. Success takes time and perseverance, and incremental goal setting is the most sustainable way of staying motivated and being mature about your rate of improvement.

I am a firm believer that finding the balance between sport and academic commitments can lead to achieving a higher peak performance in both. Like walking along a tightrope, it is tricky, it is a skill that takes time to learn and perfect, but when that balance is achieved, you will be surprised at how quickly you begin to move along the path to success.

*For more about the program, visit: