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5 Tips On Balancing An Olympic Career With College, From Table Tennis Player Lily Zhang

By Lisa Costantini | May 25, 2017, 5:24 p.m. (ET)

Lily Zhang poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 9, 2016 in Beverly Hills, Calif.


Studying psychology would be a full-time job for most people. But not two-time Olympian and Youth Olympic bronze medalist Lily Zhang. The 20-year-old table tennis player — who is attending the University of California, Berkeley —juggles a full-time school schedule with a full-time competition schedule. Set to compete at world championships in Germany May 29-June 5, we asked her to fit some time into her busy schedule to share the five tips she uses to help her juggle it all.

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1. How You Use Your Time Is Key

Zhang is not like a lot of her classmates. Before attending the University of California, Berkeley, the elite athlete was used to having her schedule planned out by her parents and coaches. But now as a college sophomore, she said she is “still learning” about time management and how to best use it to her advantage.

“Back in high school, my parents or my coaches used to plan a large part of my schedule, and I would just follow that schedule. Before coming to Berkeley I wasn’t used to so much independence and control over my own time,” she said. “My freshman year I was overwhelmed with all the activities and things I could do,” and as a result she started neglecting table tennis.

If she could go back and talk to her freshman self, her advice would be to “enjoy your time, especially since everything is so new,” she suggested. “But at the same time, take a step back and think about what you really want to do and what you love. If you really love that thing, then pursue it and try to balance your time around that.”

She achieved that by using her time wisely and staying organized. “Just little things like travel time — using the time you’re in a car to study. Or take a power nap to help you be more focused. They’re little things but they help,” she said.

2. Plan, Plan And Plan Some More

There is another tool the multi-tasking athlete thinks is “extremely crucial.”

A planner.

“I recently picked up a planner and I definitely feel like it’s helped a lot,” Zhang said. “Before I never gave much attention to it; I thought I could handle it all in my head. But after a while I realized it’s pretty overwhelming to keep it all in so it’s a lot more helpful to write it down and see it on paper.”

Even though, she said, “I’ve gotten a lot better since freshman year, I still find it tough to make sure I plan time for everything. Because sometimes I really want to go to that concert with friends, but then it means that I can’t go to practice.”

So now she does it like this: “I make sure I put a slot in for practice and studying for class, and it helps me with stress.”

“I’m still learning as I go,” she confessed. “But I think I really started to get the hang of school and sport this year. Hopefully it will continue for my last two years in school as well.”

3. Downtime Is Important

"@zuck great meeting and playing pong with you at @wearespin! Thanks for being such an awesome and humble person!"

Downtime is supposed to be fun, and while it is, Zhang also admitted, “it’s definitely not easy.”

“I have to make a lot of sacrifices, whether it’s hanging out with friends or going out to a movie. But at the same time, that downtime, that social aspect, is still important to me,” Zhang said. “It’s important to have that time for yourself – to have that time where I can get dinner with friends or just watch ‘The Office’ and release some of that tension and stress.”

Her decision to make time for fun is also what led to what she described as “one of the cooler experiences in my life.”

Between balancing school and sport she also has a part time job at Spin, San Francisco, a place she described as “a table tennis club/bar at night.” A couple of months ago she was working on a Friday night and because she had a competition early the next morning she was planning on going right to bed after work.

“But then,” she remembered, “[Facebook creator] Mark Zuckerberg walked in. They asked if I wanted to play him, so of course I had to stay. I got the chance to talk with him and play for about 10-15 minutes. I coached him a little bit and he was actually a pretty decent player.

“The coolest part about it was the next day he found me on Facebook and messaged me. He said it was really awesome playing with you and I hope your competition goes well and that you got some rest. I was blown away that he would actually take the time to wish me luck.”

4. Find A Support System

If you thought school was challenging, it’s nothing compared to trying to make friends at a new school – or finding friends who play table tennis. But choosing a school with a strong table tennis team has helped solve that problem.

“Berkeley has an amazing table tennis team. I think it’s one of the best in the nation,” she guessed. “A lot of the team are former junior national team members, so I really like that I go to an amazing school with also an amazing team.”

As a result of spending so much time with her teammates on and off the field of play, Zhang said, “I’ve made some of my best friends on the team. I think it’s great because it’s a little bit tough to find a lot of people who play table tennis in America, so to have that tight group of people to understand and know what you’re going through is awesome.”

5. Give Yourself A Break

When everything starts feeling like too much, it’s important to take a break. Though, for Zhang, she took that to heart.

After her freshman year, she decided to take a year off from school to devote her time to table tennis completely. That break she said “helped me put everything back into focus.

“Yes, I had a fantastic time traveling around the world doing what I love. But at the same time school and education is something that I value very much. And it’s something that my parents instilled in me to value, so I figured wouldn’t it be amazing if I could have the best of both worlds — school and table tennis?

“I used to think it was either one or the other, but now more and more I’m learning I can really do both. And hopefully set an example for kids later in the future that they can also do both — and you don’t have to have only one or the other.”

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Lily Zhang

Table Tennis