Last updated: March 27, 2013 1:39 pm

MBA and Sport

Ask the Expert

For some, studying for an MBA involves a busy schedule of classes, group projects, internships and social events. For others, it complements athletic aspirations. Students keen to become world-class athletes have to balance their business studies with intensive training for major sporting events.

On Wednesday, March 27th, 2013, two MBA students from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School answered your questions about studying for an MBA while competing in the Boat Race, a quintessentially English rowing contest that takes place every year between Cambridge University and Oxford University.

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IN Ask the Expert

Kevin Baum is a participant of the 1+1 MBA programme at Saïd. He grew up outside Washington DC and went to Stanford University to study biology. After graduating, he worked on renewable energy projects for a technical consulting company before moving to the UK to study for a masters in water science, policy and management and an MBA. He took part in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in April 2012.

Patrick Close is an MBA student at Saïd. He grew up in Montana and then attended Purdue University, where he began rowing. After graduating with a degree in industrial engineering, he worked as a process engineer for Eli Lilly, the large pharmaceutical company, and trained at the US Rowing Olympic Training Center. He moved to Oxford for the chance to earn an MBA while pursuing his dream of rowing in the 2013 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, which will take place on Sunday, March 31st.

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Why did you decide to start rowing, what do you enjoy most about it? And why did you choose to do an MBA?

Patrick: I didn’t grow up around rowing. My first exposure to it was as a fresher at Purdue University in 2004. I thought it looked interesting and the coach was pretty keen to have me try out, so I decided to give it a shot. Initially, I didn’t like it - I didn’t feel very coordinated with applying power to the water and it was very physically intense. Over time, I grew to appreciate those elements of rowing.

You are striving to perfect a motion and repeat it over and over again. Milliseconds of timing and being out of place by just centimeters with your body often make the difference between an effective rowing stroke and a less effective one. Mastering this is very hard, but when it comes together and you feel yourself really moving the boat, it is an incomparable sense of satisfaction.

I chose to do an MBA because I felt it was the logical step in my career to take at this time. I wanted to build a broader skill-set and gain exposure to other parts of business such as finance. As a project manager, I started to see how important understanding the business lexicon would be and I felt an MBA was the right way to build that understanding.

Kevin: I was looking for a new sport to do in the spring when I got to high school, and my father had rowed so I figured I would try it out. There are two things I love about rowing. First, I love competing. I love racing. All the miles of training are worth it when you race and win. Second, I love the team. I love being on a tight-knit team, and working incredibly hard towards a common goal with people who have similar passions.

I wanted to do an MBA because my experiences in academia both at Stanford and Oxford made me realise that it is incredibly important to understand business no matter what career I end up in. I am currently interested in starting my own business, but I know that MBA skills will be useful in any job I hold in the future.

Did the University of Oxford offer any financial incentive for you to study and row?

Kevin: No. I paid for both degrees through my own savings. There’s nothing left now, so I hope it was worth it.

Patrick: I wish they did! But unfortunately, no - rowers at Oxford or Cambridge do not receive any financial aid for their involvement in sport. Some of the colleges offer a small award of £100 or so for anyone who earns a Blue, an award earned by students for sporting excellence, but this applies for all sports at the university, not just rowing.

Although the Boat Race draws international, elite level athletes, it is a truly amateur event, which is why I think it is so special. It is one of the last professional calibre sporting events where the athletes are there exclusively for the love of sport, not to mention balancing training for the Boat Race and academics.

Did you consider an MBA at the University of Cambridge?

Kevin: No. I was at Oxford already when I decided to do the MBA.

Patrick: I did consider the Judge School at Cambridge as that is a very well respected programme, but decided not to apply. The more I looked into it, the more I found that Oxford was a better fit both for the MBA programme and for rowing.

I’m sure I would have had a great experience at Cambridge, but I’m very happy with my selection. Oxford has a strong emphasis on social entrepreneurship, which draws a lot of unique people into the programme with different perspectives about business and I have benefited a lot from that.

What opportunities and challenges do you foresee for women rowers who are interested in studying for an MBA and rowing in the 2015 Boat Race?

Alison Gill

Kevin: Rowing in the Boat Race and studying at amazing universities like Oxford and Cambridge is an incredible experience. It is also exceptionally challenging regardless of what degree one is pursuing. The toughest part about rowing and the MBA, as I’m sure Pat will attest, is the rigorous class schedule of the MBA, which makes time management absolutely essential. The fact that the MBA has exams two weeks before the race is pretty tough mentally I’m sure with the pressure high on both fronts.

Since I am not rowing this year, I can only imagine how tough it is based on my experience last year. That being said, the women’s rowing team has been training and working extremely hard academically for years now, and will be more than ready for the challenge when they move to the Tideway in 2015.

Patrick: I think the move of the women’s race to the Tideway in 2015 is a big opportunity to increase the race’s visibility. Hopefully, the women’s race will begin to consistently draw in international level athletes as the men’s race does.

I don’t necessarily see any challenges specific to women as their race moves to the Tideway in 2015. They will have to deal with the same things the men do in balancing sport and academics. The schedule is incredibly demanding with about a seven-hour per day commitment to rowing, plus the demands of the MBA programme, which is a very intense experience in itself.

I hope that women and men alike with aspirations of racing in the Boat Race and earning an MBA continue to see the benefit of pursuing both concurrently.

Kevin, what made you decide to study the 1+1 MBA programme?

Kevin: As I mentioned before, the prospect of getting a masters and an MBA in two years is an unbelievable opportunity that I would not have back home. I’ve met so many people over the years with incredible ideas and incredible talent, but a lack of basic understanding of how to translate those ideas into reality and add value to society. I had a passion for the environment and sustainability that I wanted to pursue, but I also knew that in order to achieve the things I want to achieve, I needed to have a strong understanding of business concepts as well.

The 1+1 programme also helps to bridge the divide between the business school and the rest of the university. Having studied on the other side of Oxford last year, I have been able to leverage connections I made last year to bring MBAs and other students together to work on projects and utilise each others skills. The 1+1 programme was the perfect programme for me.

Does the combination of study and sport mean you have little time for the MBA social life?

Kevin: A lot of sacrifices have to be made to row and study, and social life is definitely one of the first to go. Both the constant need for rest and recovery and the minimal amount of time in which to complete your work leave little time for anything else.

However, many people in my college and programme last year were extremely supportive and understanding about the schedule. In no way did I ever feel ignored or socially secluded. Also, thankfully for Boat Race participants, the race is in early spring, which leaves all of Trinity term and the summer to make up for lost time. The social aspect of education is certainly valuable, and there is still plenty of time left in the year once the race is over.

Patrick: Unfortunately it does. Training is about a seven hour per day commitment and studies quickly consume the rest of my waking hours between lectures, group projects, case studies, and all the other things the MBA requires. This doesn’t leave much time for socialising, which is a pity because my MBA class mates are very interesting and have so much to offer. Even if I do find myself with a little free time, staying out late isn’t very conducive to the rigorous training the Boat Race requires.

On the bright side, my team mates are in similar situations, so we manage to have a little fun when we can and outside of training we try to keep the mood light and joke around. Luckily, I’m surrounded by team mates and class mates that really appreciate what I am trying to do and are really supportive.

The Boat Race is a once in a lifetime opportunity and requires a lot of sacrifice, but it only makes the experience that much more special. I do have to miss out on things, but I wouldn’t trade having this opportunity for anything.

I’m an MBA student that struggles a lot with sleeping hours and with reading. I need to minimise my sleeping hours and gain concentration in the hours that I’m awake. I also need advice regarding a technique to practice an effective reading routine. I presume that these two topics are a valid argument in a discussion relating MBA to sport?

Thanks, Hisham Osman

Kevin: Sleep is essential. As an ex-athlete, I am fully aware of how slow and useless one can become if they are sleep deprived for too long. The key to fitting in work while getting enough sleep is time management. It is really easy when working to get sucked into distractions on the internet or with friends. When you need to do work, find yourself a comfortable place where you know you can avoid being distracted and turn everything else off. Focus on what you are doing until the next thing pops up.

Another thing to consider is that sometimes you have to make sacrifices and prioritise the work that is most essential. If you are sleeping four hours a night in order to finish every single reading, it will do you far more harm than good and you will likely not process very much. Sometimes it’s better to just cut your losses, get good sleep, and try to make up any missed reading later if you have time. The goal of an MBA is to learn as much as possible and you won’t do that if you are half asleep all day.

How do you manage your sleep schedules between early morning practices and late night study sessions? Do you have rules you follow to maintain a healthy sleep schedule? Time is precious and the more time you are awake, the more you get to do. However, sleep is a significant factor in staying healthy.

From one American to other Americans and from one coxswain to rowers, I want to say how proud I am of you guys. What an inspiration.

Lea Park-Kim

Kevin: Hey Lea, thanks so much! Sleep deprivation is a tough thing to deal with while training and studying, and no matter what you do, there will be moments when you are pretty exhausted. I always tried to be as efficient as possible with my time when I was awake, squeezing in work whenever there were free moments and trying to avoid unnecessary distractions.

Like you said, and particularly while training, getting enough sleep is essential for both athletic and academic functioning, so I would often set myself a deadline. If I hadn’t got work done by a specific time at night, I would just cut my losses and go to sleep. Doing more work at the expense of sleep would just make me less effective and put me more behind the next day.

It also helps that you are surrounded by great people who are all going through the same thing. There is a lot of strength that comes from the team. It always energises me when I’m in a tough spot to look around and see all the incredible people around me doing amazing things regardless of how busy they might be. I have had some really inspirational team mates who have shown me how hard you can push and that, in the end, you’ll survive.

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