Harry Leitch competes for Scotland

The Blue Bird Talks To Harry Leitch – Part II

In News by Leonardo BuizzaLeave a Comment

We are back to hear more from Dr Harry Leitch, junior doctor, researchers and Hawk of the Year 2014 (see the first part of the interview here).

You hold the record for the most Blues won by any Oxbridge sportsman in one discipline – did you ever consider trying other sports, or has squash always been your one true love?

At school I played squash, rugby and cricket to a decent standard and also tennis and badminton. When I decided to try and give senior squash a proper go it became pretty clear that I’d have to focus on squash and give up everything else. I really miss team sport and did turn out for the college at cricket team a couple of times – before realising that I just didn’t have time. I guess my love of team sports is why I enjoy doubles so much, and being part of Team Scotland at the Commie Games.

Harry Leitch playing for Scotland (credit Squashpics)

Harry Leitch playing for Scotland (credit Squashpics)

How easy is it to train and continue playing now that you are an academic junior doctor, as opposed to when you were a student?

When I was a student I could push myself pretty hard. In the early years I trained twice a day every day and at times I travelled to London 2 or 3 times a week for matches on top of this. I would sleep 3-5 hours a night during the week and catchup on rest on Sundays – I was a machine! Now, the challenges are different. When I am working in the hospital things are much less flexible, and I also have to make sure that I’m not too tired – as that would compromise my ability to provide good patient care. Research blocks are generally more flexible, but then research is really my passion – so I tend to make myself much more work than is possible to do in 24hrs. As I’ve aged I’ve found I need to spend a bit less time on court and a bit more time on injury prevention. I also need more rest and recovery – when I can get it. It also has to be said that the level of conditioning required to be a doubles player is a bit lower than for singles (probably a similar scenario as to tennis). However, I still have an ambition to make the Scotland singles team one more time – if at all possible! That will mean some pretty hard fitness work in the gym over the next few months. Luckily there are lots more strong players in London than in Cambridge – so if I can get myself back into shape then my squash could really improve, even at this late stage of my career. I’ll let you know how it goes…

What more do you feel the University could do to support elite sportspeople?

To be honest, a hell of a lot more. Some of the more famous sports – such as rowing, rugby, cricket – seem to have a very good setup, at least from an outsiders perspective. I guess this goes with the funds they have and sponsorship they raise. I absolutely don’t begrudge them that. But I don’t see this as the University’s success per se – it’s the success of these fantastic clubs. In smaller, less well-funded sports I think it’s clear that the university delivers very little – unless things have changed dramatically in the last 2 years (Ed. – they haven’t, really). Take me as an example. My support form the university came in the form of regular Hawks’ Bursaries (applications for 2016 bursaries are now open), which made a huge difference financially. However, I had to blow most of this to train at a Next Generation gym because of rules about solo training in the old Fenner’s gym. Even if I was in the Blues squash team now, I would still have to pay to be a member at the University Sports Centre – this just seems crazy. During my time, I received no support services from the university – no physio, S&C, sports science, sports massage etc. I have also been lucky to have some generous funding from sportscotland and Scottish Squash, but even then there was nothing in place to help deliver the necessary support within the University setup. As a result I have never really felt part of University sport. Outside of my friends and teammates at CUSRC I don’t think anyone really even noticed me – no bad thing!

So what would you do?

Cambridge has a proud history of amateur sport and they should be doing everything they can to support students to continue this. In some ways, I love and respect the old traditions of Cambridge. I’m not a believer in Wednesday afternoons off, and I like some of the quirks associated with obtaining a Blue. I absolutely do not think we should go the way of other Universities and professionalise the setup so that people are headhunted and compromises are made academically. It is imperative that elite sportspeople at Cambridge are up to scratch academically and stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers – otherwise it devalues the whole idea of coming to Cambridge. Indeed, I occasionally remind my supervisees that as a student I can only remember asking for one supervision to be moved due to sport. I didn’t feel I deserved special treatment, or that my hobby was more important than anyone else’s – Cambridge is full of people doing a whole host of cool things. However, on the flip side I see absolutely no reason why Cambridge cannot provide the help that elite sportspeople need. It’s an embarrassment, really. Unlike some people I don’t believe that modern sport has necessarily consigned world-beating amateurs to the history books. But to be a successful amateur in a professional world you need to have the right environment and professional-standard support services. I would have thought Cambridge, which still seems to see itself as a big player in UK sport, would want to be at the forefront of this.

The new sports centre - not enough! (credit Simon Kennedy)

The new sports centre – not enough! (credit Simon Kennedy)

We now have a great opportunity with the new sports centre. So first of all I would create an elite multi-sport program open to applications from all sports. If accepted you would get free access to the sports centre and access to support services such as sports science, S&C and physio. There could be some ‘drop in’ sessions to create a squad atmosphere and some education/talks on general transferable skills – nutrition, media training, sport psychology – and a social scene too. Clearly, a large amount of support would have to be tailored to an individual athlete’s needs, and the amount of support they already have in place. For instance, someone may have an S&C program designed by their national setup in Manchester, but may benefit from a sport scientist or S&C coach in Cambridge to help deliver that session, while another may come asking for the whole thing to be designed and delivered in Cambridge. The university simply has to provide the place and the people to make this happen. It makes such a difference to feel supported as an athlete. For me, if such a service existed I would have needed different levels of support at different times. For instance, for a number of years I had serious injury problems and had excellent funding for physio – I would have happily paid if there was a good service on offer. However, there were times earlier in my career when I would have benefited massively if Cambridge could have helped with this support. Either way, it was academic as there was no central physio service, and certainly nothing integrated with S&C and rehab services. There are some athletes who may not require help at all – there certainly should be no pressure to join – but even they may just enjoy the opportunity to be around fellow athletes. Without doubt, bringing elite sportspeople together would allow them to share experience and expertise, to learn from and inspire each other.

Thinking back, I did get a perverse joy from doing things my own way, and doing the hard hours alone in the gym – me against the world. But I also think my life would have been much easier if I had a proper elite sports environment that was available to me at the University. I also think I could have given back something too, rather than passing through Cambridge sport like a stranger in the night. I’d love to be involved if there was something I could do, however most of my ideas fell on death ears while I was at Cambridge, so I’m sure no one cares in the slightest what I think now…

Thank you very much for talking to us!

Interested in talking to or writing for the Blue Bird? Get in touch via thecambluebird@gmail.com

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