Masterful mix of hoops, homework
TAIYUAN, Shanxi - Does participation in sports negatively affect academics?
A girls basketball team from a middle school in central China is proving otherwise.
The ongoing Taiyuan tournament is the second Chinese Youth Games challenge for coach Peng Lijun's squad, a team from Yali Middle School in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province.
Four years ago, Peng's team defeated under-18 champion Team Guangzhou in the group stage of the first Youth Games in Fuzhou, during which the players relished every minute of their on-court experiences.
After the Games, one of the student players, Zhang Yi, was admitted to Peking University, one of China's top educational institutions.
Media labeled the team China's equivalent of "Linsanity" - solid proof that students playing basketball can also get good academic grades, just like Jeremy Lin, the first NBA starter from Harvard University in more than 50 years.
This time around, despite a new squad, Peng's squad has another star who has just received her Peking University offer letter. Wang Ying, 17, a straight-A student, was a member of China's Under-16 national team in 2017.
"I get up early every day for shooting practice. I also take time between my dinner and evening self-study sessions to practice. I usually attend the self-study sessions for about 50 minutes less than my classmates, so I have a total of around three hours for training every day," Wang told Xinhua on the weekend.
Coach Peng sees it as a win-win.
"On the one hand, our players train hard to keep our skills and strategy consistent. On the other hand, after each major tournament, we arrange for teachers to help them make up for missed classes. That's how we are able to balance study and training. That's why we have straight-A players," said the 58-year-old Peng.
"In China, many people have a prejudice that good students can't play professional basketball. We have defeated that bias."
Peng led her team into the last eight in Fuzhou, and Wang is eager to reach the podium in Taiyuan.
"I don't want to leave any regrets at these Games," said Wang, who notched 10 points and five assists in a 63-58 victory over Taiyuan Elites.
The Youth Games organizers have adjusted the rules for this tournament, dividing the competition into categories for school teams and professional clubs in order to promote the sport among teenagers.
"The new system will attract more teenagers to play basketball as they will have more opportunities to prove themselves on the biggest stage for China's young athletes," Peng said.
"I could have chosen to register as a school team, but I chose the professional club campaign without realizing I had underestimated the other clubs. I found out many of them are reserve teams for the Women's Chinese Basketball Association.
"We had previously participated in many games in both categories and won national titles, so it's not a bad thing."
The coach said she hasn't had a good rest since arriving in Taiyuan last week.
"My assistant coach is now at a basketball camp in the US with our younger players. I have to take care of everything for my girls, training and daily life, so I feel a bit tired," said Peng.
"In America, no games are played in the morning. All the boys and girls sit in the classroom, where teachers teach them how to play, how to keep their manners on the court and how to have a good sleep during a major event. They do physical tests and establish a database for young players," added the coach, who visited the US last year.
When Peng returned to China, she adjusted her training plan and asked the fitness coach and team doctor to get more involved.
"I hope my girls can comprehensively improve during this tournament," she said, adding that she hopes to see more 'Linsanity' in China.