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Dutch goalkeeper Wouter Donkers graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology while playing for FC Twente. Now aged 25, he is studying medicine at Erasmus University in Rotterdam after three years at Vitesse Arnhem, another club in the Netherlands. He spoke to 'Mind the Gap' about his experiences.

Why did you decide to do a degree?
When I was 16 I joined the first team of FC Twente for all the practices and I saw all these players go home and play (the video game) ‘FIFA’ or go to the city. There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s not my life. I had some sort of intellectual craving to develop myself.

At that point I was really interested and encouraged by Bill Beswick (a sports psychologist) who came over from England to help Steve McLaren, FC Twente's manager, with mental coaching for important games. He gave the team pep talks. That’s one of the reasons why I studied psychology.

How did you combine football and study?
We trained from 10-12 noon and from 2-4 p.m. That meant it was difficult for me to attend lectures, especially when I was at Vitesse (from 2014 to 2017) -- I was about an hour away by car from the university in Rotterdam. But the lectures were recorded so I could watch them back.

The clinical skills, practice on patient – like listening to heart beat, for instance – I had to be present so I had to figure out a way. Because the class was taught at multiple times during the week I got in contact with the professor and said ‘can I join the other group?’ and 99 out of 100 times they were fine with that. Erasmus University was very supportive.

I really learnt to be efficient. To avoid hitting traffic on the way home from Rotterdam I would stop on the way at University of Utrecht’s library near the motorway and study there because being in traffic is a total waste of time. It all comes down to decent planning, motivation and discipline. wouter u17 650(Picture: Goalkeeper Wouter Dronkers (no.16) in 2009 with the Under-17 Dutch team including Werder Bremen's Davy Klaassen (no.10) and Brighton's Jürgen Locadia. (no.9)

What did your teammates say?
When we went with the Vitesse team bus to an away game, I took my books with me to study. The older players like Guram Kashia would say ‘don’t interrupt the doctor, he’s busy saving future lives.’ That was nice because at the time I was the third goalie, which is really lonely. You’re part of the team and also not. You’re in the dressing room but you’re not getting changed.

It gets in your head and at some point, you think is it all worth it? I worked so hard in training but I never got a chance in the first team. But because I was mad and disappointed I started studying harder and harder, spending more hours in the library, and my grades went up. That really felt great.

It’s so good for yourself to get your mindset off football. To get a clear mind again. You can go for a stroll on the beach but you can also try to invest in yourself. You don’t have to go to university. You could do a short course, learn Spanish or whatever, but do something.

Did coaches mind you studying?
There were different views. Some coaches were supportive but others – especially the elder generation -- were like: ‘don’t you have enough confidence in yourself to make it as a pro footballer?’

Clubs should be doing more to encourage players to study. When you’re 14 or 15, even when you’re a bench player, they say if you work on your left foot for example, you will definitely be in the starting eleven. But how many times does that really happen? Coaches don’t want turbulence in the team so they always promise stuff, to make a player happy again for a month or two. Clubs only think about this season, maybe next season, but not the next 10 years of your career. Football is only a tiny part of life and having an education is way bigger.  

What are you doing now?
When last year my contract at Vitesse was coming to an end, I received a once in-a-lifetime opportunity to do a medical research program at Harvard University. It was the first time I chose study over football. I felt like ‘this is that train and you have to hop on’. I carried on playing football in the U.S. (for Boston City FC) but not at the same level. wouter harvard 325

At Harvard, I did some projects on craniofacial surgery in children. The next three years are mapped out for me, which I like: I will continue my medical degree and internships in the Netherlands until 2021. Besides that, I’m studying for an extra degree in biomedical ethics and psychology.

What are your career ambitions?
I would like to be a neurosurgeon…or an astronaut. I’m realistic, the chances of being an astronaut are small but it's a goal. At least I want to figure out whether it’s possible to get some experience in space medicine and whether it’s something for me. Even becoming a neurosurgeon is not guaranteed so I have to earn my stripes and go for it.  

What advice do you have for young players?
Plan ahead. Don’t wait until you are done with school. Plan ahead at least one year before something big happens in your life: before your contract ends, for example. With Google you can find everything. People ask me ‘how do you find out about these things?’ and I say I’m a master in Google. If you want to find out about stuff, just Google it and dare to step out of that comfort zone.