Help or hinder: when sports students enter the workforce

The passion and boiling blood on the field are the best memory of youth, but what happens to sports students when they go out into the world?

A year after graduation, Barry Chen’s teacher sent a message to the fitness class: How many of you are working as fitness instructors?

In the WeChat group, only a handful of students replied to him. According to Chen’s estimation, even if adding those who did not reply, the total number was less than 20. But a year ago, the class that was about to graduate had more than 70 people working as interns in various commercial gyms in Chengdu and surrounding cities.

Now, some of Chen’s classmates are studying for postgraduate exams and civil service exams. Some joined the army. Some switched to sales in real estate, fresh food, electronics and other industries. Some have gone back home. The number of people still earning a living in sports-related industries is less than one fifth of what it was a year ago.

Chen said: “If I had not taken the road of sports students, I might not have even gone to undergraduate school. But having taken this path, I realised that if you’re not a particular standout , the starting point and ceiling of this industry is lower than other industries.”

His classmates, and many Chinese sports students, just like Chen, relying on their athletic prowess to make a living and are also caught in the plight of the sports industry.

When choosing a major in his second year of university, Chen followed the general trend by choosing fitness and bodybuilding.

According to Deloitte Research, the fitness industry in China’s top 18 cities was already close to 4.5 billion pounds before the outbreak of pandemic in 2019, while the total value of the fitness industry in the UK was around 2 billion pounds in 2022. Fitness is no longer just a pop culture in China’s big cities. In small cities like Jinzhou in Liaoning province, with a population of 2.66 million, new gyms have sprung up.

The growing popularity of fitness among China’s young people has led many sports students and parents to believe that fitness instructors will be a sought-after job in the future. Chen said: “Teachers, classmates, parents, everyone thinks fitness instructors will be good paid.”

However, Mingyu Yin, another sports student studying at Sichuan Agricultural University, began questioning the market’s requirements for fitness instructor as early as choosing his major: “Every student from sports-related majors can be a fitness instructor.”

Yin Mingyu entered this university through the general entrance exam in sports, which meant his major options were very limited. He said: “Traditionally, students like me can only choose major from physical education, social sports guidance and management, recreational sports and exercise rehabilitation.”

Likewise, athletes who attended the specific examination for sports students, which is conditional on being a national secondary athlete, have similar restrictions on their choice of major. The physical education major is only available to students from the general exam, and then the athletic training major is only available to athletes. In China, this division is very clear.

In this comprehensive university, Yin’s classmates believe that physical education is a more secure choice. He said: “Other majors do not have counterpart jobs. But teachers are different, physical education is the precise counterpart to the profession of PE teacher.”

For many sports students, entering the university is the “ultimate aim”. They usually have little thought given to their future career, like Chen and Yin.

Yin said: “I did not think about it that much at the time. I just followed everyone’s choice and chose this major …… At the time, all I thought was that it was nice to be able to attend a university.  I believe most sports students don’t have a career plan.”

In his final year at university, Yin and his classmates tried out short-term internships in different professions to plan for employments after graduation. His first internship was as a secondary school physical education teacher, the counterpart of his major.

In 2020, the Chinese Sports Administration and the Ministry of Education launched a policy to deepen the integration of sports and education. The aim is not only to improve the cultural literacy of students in sports schools, but also to raise the importance of physical education in ordinary schools by including sports scores in the overall score of the entrance exam, forming special school sports teams and launching school leagues. Before he went on his internship, Yin had imagined what the new physical education would be like.

However, his enthusiasm and expectations were dashed by the reality.

Yin described the school’s physical curriculum as “tending sheep”. He said: “Gathering the students together, then running, warming up, teaching if there is a teaching task, such as a physical test or something like that, but if not, it’s basically free time. It’s pretty much the same as when I was in secondary school.”

During his two-month internship at the school, Yin’s life as a teacher was very simple. He arrived at school 20 minutes early each day, played on his mobile phone in the PE office waiting for class to start, and his main task in class was to teach the students broadcast gymnastics. After class, he usually go straight back to his school. The most impressive part of the internship for him was writing lesson plans.

When he sat in on the lessons of the school’s other PE teachers, it was just the same routine. Such a outdated pattern led Yin to question, “Is this the life I want?”

He tried to do more beyond the lessons, but the school did not have a sports team, and the children did not need an coach for their after-school recreation time.

The winds of change by “sports-education integration” don’t seem to come in this small town yet. Yin said: “I’m sure that’s not the case in first-tier and second-tier cities, but it’s actually the case in many little counties.”

The two months at the secondary school put his idea of becoming a PE teacher to rest. Yin was looking forward to a job where he could use the skills and knowledge he had acquired in classes, and “tending sheep” was not one of them.

In reality, the opportunity to become a PE teacher who “tending sheep” is rare for students. One of Yin’s teammates studied physical education at a 985 university in southwest China and became a PE teacher at a school in Shenzhen after graduation. 985 university represents the top 39 universities in China, but of the 30 students in his course, only two made it to the teaching profession.

Yin said: “There are few PE teacher positions for graduates now. In some places, there is only one school inside a district, and a school can recruit one or two PE teachers. But every year, for example, in Sichuan province, the physical education students add up to several thousand, so it is very difficult to get into a school and become a teacher.”

Chen, who wanted to work in a flourishing fitness industry, also gradually realised the huge gap between the ideal and the reality.

After really getting into the fitness industry, Chen realised, “The way commercial gyms in China operate is by selling memberships at low prices to attract more members than the gym can accommodate. The fitness trainers are forced to sell classes and required to achieve a sales performance of how many thousands of pounds per month. This market has reached the point of overselling.”

In such a model, what the bosses need is not professional fitness instructors who have knowledge of sports science, but fitness salesperson who are well versed in social interactions and good at marketing themselves.

Jiemian News reveals the traditional way of selling in the fitness industry: the bosses give all fitness instructors the same base price for their classes, and the instructors sell on top of that by adding different prices. This means that the price for the same quality of course is different for each client, depending on which instructor they find and on the customer’s bargaining skills. Similarly for instructors, their salaries depend on their sales skills.

Chen has a classmate who works as a fitness instructor in Chengdu and earns a base salary of around 340 per month. Most of his salary coming from the commission on each class he takes. Chen said: “If people buy classes and do not come to take, he will calls and begs them to come, otherwise the salary is quite low.”

When sales ability is more important than athletic skills and knowledge, the professional advantage that graduates of sports-related majors have is constantly being devalued.

“Many fitness instructors spend hundred of pounds to apply for a training course, and in two months if slow, or two weeks if fast, they can get a fitness instructor’s certificate and then they can be employed,” said Chen. The low entry barrier allows many unprofessional job seekers go into the fitness industry, which has ultimately led to the profession being viewed with contempt by the general public.

Even if they can get a foothold in the fitness industry, coaches have relatively limited room for advancement. Age pressure and performance pressure force many coaches to consider changing careers as soon as they start working. Chen said: “I rarely see coaches in their 40s. When they get older they either become managers or they end up cleaning up in gyms and various venues.”

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 forced the majority of gyms out of business. In the following two years, the policy of not leaving communities made it difficult to resume options. Many commercial gyms in small and medium sized cities closing down due to their inability to pay rents.

Now, although the impact of the pandemic is gradually reducing, the past two years have pushed the Chinese fitness industry towards selling online fitness classes and sports equipment. It is still unknown how much demand there will be for fitness instructors.

Low base salaries, bad reputation and lack of job security all contributed to Chen’s decision to eventually leave the fitness industry, as did most of his fellow students.

Neither Chen nor Yin ended up choosing the careers they envisioned when they first entered university, but that doesn’t mean that four years were meaningless.

For Chen, the certificate was the most valuable thing he gained.

After graduation, Chen applied for a job as a lifeguard at a five-star hotel in Chongqing, and the fitness instructor’s certificate he obtained during university became an important bonus on his CV. Chen said: “The certificate is a premise, lifeguards and swimming instructors in our hotel require certificates. Instructors in commercial gyms with certificates have a higher salary than those without certificates.”

Chen’s salary is modest, with a monthly saving of 260 pounds, but he is satisfied with a job that offers food and accommodation, five social insurance and housing fund, as well as weekend. Compared to fitness instructors who relies on sales performance, working in a hotel is much easier.

Yin, who spent four years at a comprehensive college, found his interest in studying sports science and athletic training skills.

Being able to step outside the sports world and engage with teachers and students from other disciplines has been a great benefit to Yin. He said: “Nowadays, many PE students in China only score 300 or 400 points in the entrance examination. His study ability and self-discipline are already very poor. When they go to a sports college, there is no learning atmosphere and they won’t get any improvement. But if you go to a comprehensive institution, what you can learn is not only knowledge, but also a spirit of research and humanistic literacy.”

In his final year, Yin successfully enrolled in the Shanghai Sports College – one of the top sports colleges in China – to study sports science and training skills. He is now working towards his PhD and hopes to one day bring his knowledge to practical training.

After having internships in three careers: secondary school PE teachers, basketball coaches in hobby classes and coach of sports students, Yin realised that sports students are at a disadvantage in the job market. But even so, he has always seen sport as a help, not a barrier.

Yin said: “I did poorly in my cultural subjects in the entrance exam, so if I hadn’t gone into sports, I probably wouldn’t have even gotten into university. There are some people who have been helped by sport in terms of getting a bachelor’s degree, yet they still blame sport for narrowing their career choices.”

Among the large group of sports students in China, only a few choose this path because they love sports. Many more have to rely on sports exams to enter university due to poor academic performance. However, the long training hours and the loose study atmosphere keeps them tied to this path.

As a sports student, the time spent on the field is always a memorable one, and being able to training with his teammates is a choice that Chen never regret making. Even though he feels that sport has limited his future, he is still grateful for the opportunity it gave him to go to university.

But once they leave school, China’s mass sports industry is not yet the fertile ground for young people to grow up. Today’s graduates are faced with the opportunities and difficulties that sports presented. Whether it is the athlete’s selection and training system that led them down this path, or the fitness and coaching industry, both are still waiting to reform.