Focusing on getting that degree should not be the only thing you do during your time at university. Playing sports, professionally or for fun, can deeply enrich your university experience, teach you valuable life skills and help you make lasting friendships.

So the question is how supportive are universities when it comes to sports and fitness? Do they provide students with the facilities and resources needed to develop a fitness-oriented lifestyle?

Notes spoke to sports officials from several universities, and for the most part their answer was yes.

Programmes and facilities
When it comes to programmes and facilities for sports, most universities in the UAE are well equipped. Take the American University of Sharjah (AUS) for instance.

It has a sports complex fitted out with a swimming pool, two fully equipped gyms, fitness trainers and a large expanse of wooden flooring that serves as courts for various games.

What's more its timings are convenient making it difficult for students to come up with excuses as to why they can't make exercise part of their daily routine.

AUS offers two types of sports programmes: competitive and recreational. "Competitive programmes cover organised men and women's individual and team sports leading to competitions at the intercollegiate level in local, regional and international tournaments," said Munketh Taha, director of student activities.
"Recreational programmes are offered to a member of the AUS community and include yoga sessions, aerobics and similar activities."

The dormitories also have mini-gyms, so that students don't have to go far to get fit.

At the American University in Dubai (AUD) sports include volleyball, basketball, soccer, tennis and cricket. According to Joseph Nohra, athletics coordinator, the university also has fully-functional facilities for track, street basketball, pool ball, bowling and swimming.

The university recently invited student teams from Lebanon's Notre Dame University and the American University of Beirut for spring tournaments in volleyball, basketball and soccer.

Franky Barreto, sports and recreation coordinator at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD), highlighted its programmes. According to him, the basketball, football, volleyball and cricket teams hold regular practice sessions.

There are also teams for women's throwball, table tennis, badminton and squash. Competitions in athletics, swimming, billiards, chess and bowling are held several times a year. "Practice for these teams is not regular but based on tournaments.

UOWD teams participate in various inter/intra university tournaments throughout the year," Barreto said.

'A great experience'

The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) offer volleyball, football, road running, table tennis, beach volleyball, beach football, dragon boat racing and traditional rowing.

In recent years its sports programme has been expanded to give students the widest possible options. It has provided many students with new experiences.

Sharjah Men's College (SMC) student Abdul Rahman Abdul Jalil said he had not been much into sports but now he is doing a bit of everything.

"It's a great experience for me and I am happy for all these opportunities at the college. Before coming to college I only played football; now I run, I participated in the dragon boat race and when I have the time I also use the climbing wall.

There is so much for us to do here," Abdul Jalil said.
Sharjah Colleges health and physical education coordinator David Jenns was understandably excited and appreciative about the students' response to the programmes.

"The sports programme is very much in its infancy at Sharjah; in a little over two years our teams have grown steadily stronger."

Universities located in Dubai Knowledge Village do not have very big sports complexes, simply because of limited space. However, this does not stop them from having a sports programme.

"We do have many different sports programmes at our university," said Steffini Candy Somu, media student at Middlesex University, Dubai. "However, students usually go outside to play or compete."

According to officials, many of these institutions outsource their sports accommodations. "Our university usually hires external facilities as needed depending on the availability of those centres," Barreto said.

What about scholarships?

How nice would it be to be rewarded for something you love — in the case of sportsmen, for their passion for sports? While sports scholarships are still a relatively new initiative in the region, they are fast gaining recognition.

AUS offers athletic scholarships that grant the recipient a 50 per cent tuition reduction.

"The scholarship was introduced to provide aid to student-athletes with limited financial resources who demonstrate athletic excellence and outstanding sports qualities," Taha said. "The scholarship aims to distinguish high achievers and motivate student-athletes.

Hopefully, the scholarship will be full in the near future."

Several other universities also offer scholarships that not only reward students for exceptional athletic performance, but also provide students an incentive to work out.

UOWD, for example, provides four Outstanding Sports Achievement Scholarships – two each for undergraduate and graduate students. They are awarded prior to the commencement of each academic year in the autumn semester.

Benefits and skills

The biggest benefit of including sports and exercise in your lifestyle is physical fitness as well as mental well-being.

"Sports provide a great way of relaxation after a whole day's work; it not only refreshes the mind but it also relieves stress," Taha said.

"Being active in sports helps students maintain a healthy weight, in combination with a balanced diet, of course," Joseph Nohra of AUD said. "It also helps boost their immune system and self-confidence."

However, fitness is not the only advantage of sports. It can also enhance your life in many other ways.

"Exercising will also keep students busy and away from bad habits they might get into otherwise," Barreto said.

Sports also help instill leadership qualities, social skills and discipline. "We make sure that our sports students are not just there to play, but to play the game with a good sportsmanship spirit and at the same time enjoy playing."

By training regularly and taking a professional approach to sports, Jenns said students see the "value of time management and discipline which can transfer to college and into their professional career as a graduate."

Youngsters participating in sports also gain from the exposure they get mixing with other youth, particularly when they play in tournaments in different parts of the country or the world, said Ali Tharammil, basketball coach at UOWD and Delhi Private School.

Encouraging participation

Barreto said UOWD is trying to get "non-sporty students" to be active by introducing fun activities every now and then.

"We organise social football, bowling, stair races, various intra-university tournaments, beach sports parties. Students who are not very sporty do take part in these events as they are fun," he said.

Jenns said that by following a proven sports development model that focuses on inclusiveness and participation, HCT is establishing a 'physical culture' in the college community.

The introduction of a college-wide programme together with a committed coaching team has increased the number of students participating in sports and physical activity he said.

If participation continues at these levels the programme can be developed even further, Jenns added.

"For many players, this is their only opportunity to play sports at a competitive level. At the Sharjah colleges many students are playing sports for the first time. This is often part of their optional Physical Education class. All squads train at least three times a week," he added.

60 seconds with a sports star

Mohammad EsmailL

Name: Mohammad Esmail
Major: Electrical engineering, American University of Sharjah (AUS)
Sport: Basketball
Position: Centrefield
Nationality: Lebanese
How did you get into basketball?

I've been playing basketball since I was eight years old. When I was in high school in Lebanon, I played centrefield and I was always taller than my classmates. The coach recognised my talent and began supporting and teaching me the basics of the sport.

Soon I gained popularity in Lebanon and various coaches began inviting me to join their sports clubs. I joined the Al Riyadi team where I was supervised by professionals, and soon I made my way to AUS with an athletic scholarship.

How does it feel to be a professional player?
It's amazing. Basketball is my heart; I need it to live. It's like eating and breathing for me.

I spend hours every day playing the sport – no matter how busy I am, I make time for it, even if I have exams or finals the next day. I can't imagine myself without it.

What have you gained from your experience in basketball?

Playing basketball has allowed me to travel and meet new people. When you're in sports, you're involved in many competitions and so you meet teams. I also had the opportunity to travel and discover new places.
It's given me leadership skills and allowed me to learn how to interact with different personalities. Basketball gives me something to look forward to every day after my studies. It's what keeps me going.

60 seconds with a sports star

Kasra Asrar Haghighi

Name: Kasra Asrar Haghighi
Major: MBA, University of Wollongong in Dubai
Sport: Soccer
Position: Centrefield
Nationality: Iranian

How long have you been playing this sport?

I've been playing ever since I can remember – I must've been seven years old.

I've played in Dubai, Iran and Canada with the University of British Columbia.

How did you get into sports?
I just picked it up in school. There was a sports and recreation club near my house where I made some friends and ended up going every day kicking the ball around.

What is your training schedule like?
At the moment I train with the university two times a week. There are university tournaments every second or third week. I also play in amateur leagues — Dubai Expatriates League and Duplay League.

Your most memorable soccer moment…
It was an indoor game played against the Iranian national team in Brazil. It was a proud moment to have played with my fellow countrymen.
nHaghighi is a currently on an Outstanding Sports Achievement Scholarship at the University Of Wollongong Dubai.