While he was busy winning three golds and a bronze across six editions of the Olympic Games, Australian rower James Tomkins was also working in a full time job. Here, the IOC Athletes’ Commission member offers some words of wisdom about balancing sport and a career

One life, two careers

There was never any doubt that I would have to pursue another career alongside my rowing. The sport was never going to pay the bills by itself, so I always knew that I was going to do my studies and find work. There were certain years that I had to defer some of my studies because I had to commit more of my time to sport, and then there were also times when I would take a break from rowing and focus more on my work.

Right place, right time

I was fortunate because I was living and training in Melbourne, with the river going straight through the city, so I was close to university and close to work. The whole time I was training I was able to study and work as well. Sometimes I’d focus more on one than the other – especially after an Olympic Games, when I’d take a year off and commit myself fully to work. That would actually really motivate me to get back on the water! 

Finding balance

When I started my rowing career we would only be training twice a day. That gave me some time out in the middle of the day to go away and do things – like study or work. By the end of my rowing career, we were doing three or four sessions a day, which doesn’t leave much time to do other things. The increasing workload for athletes today means it’s more difficult to find some other interests, have a balance and start thinking about your next career by either studying or doing some work experience.

A new perspective

I really believe that having a job while I was competing helped my sporting performance, as it gave me a perspective and understanding of life outside sport. If your only focus in life is sport, and your entire self-worth is based on whether you win or lose, then you’re not going to have much perspective and I think this is where a lot of issues can arise.

Every little helps

You have to become really good at time management if you’re pursuing two careers at the same time. You can’t afford to waste time – you go in, do your session, get out and do something else. You’re not just sat there waiting around doing nothing. Even if you only have enough time to do a little bit of part-time work, or a little bit of studying, it will be beneficial and give you that balance. It’s important to have something else to focus on as it takes your mind off sport.

It’s good to talk

If you want to find more time for things like work or studying, it’s important to speak with your coach and work out how you can do it. There are bound to be ways that you can be more efficient in your training so that you can carve out some time to do something else. Even if it’s only for an hour a day or a few hours a week, if it takes your mind away from sport it can be a good thing as it will freshen you up mentally so that you can return to training more focused than before.

Making the transition

When it comes time to retire, if you’ve been working or studying alongside your training then it will show any prospective employers that not only are you someone who has achieved fantastic results in sport – you’re also someone who understood that sport wouldn’t last forever and did something about it. When I retired from rowing, the transition was far easier for me because I had been developing that second career whilst I was competing.

New challenges

I obviously miss being an athlete; I miss the singularity and purpose. Since retiring, I’ve found that I need a pretty significant challenge to aim for, physically or sporting wise. Whether that’s a massive bike ride or running a marathon, I think it’s important to find something that you actually have to train for – something that you can focus on just to balance out the work that you may be doing in your new career. As an athlete, you always need to have some sport and activity back in your life to keep that balance.