Freshman Tuukka Jaakkola, originally from Helsinki, Finland, has had to adjust to the cultural and athletic changes that come with being on the Cal Poly men’s basketball team.
Majoring in construction management and playing forward on the team, Jaakkola’s schedule is anything but easy. “Being an athlete is a lot of work. It’s a 24/7, 365 day kind of thing,” Jaakkola said.
Jaakkola’s passion for basketball was inherited through his family. “My grandfather played when he was young, my uncle played, my mom played, my dad played, my sister, my brother and now my cousins play, so it’s kind of a family thing to do,” he said.
He began playing at five years old. Jaakkola realized that basketball was more than a hobby after seven years of recreational playing.
He began to play for the International Basketball Federation. Jaakkola played in Finland’s under-16, under-18 and under-20 teams at the FIBA Europe championships placing sixth, ninth, and fifth.
He also competed in Finland’s under-17 squad for the 2017 FIBA world championships placing 12th.
He decided to leave Finland to pursue basketball, because the sport is not as popular over there. “I got the idea [to leave] on my 1st year of high school when I saw how many guys were leaving. I kind of understood how it actually is possible to get to come here [the states] and do basketball and study at the same time,” he said.
It’s hard to balance basketball and sports in Finland according to Jaakkola. “Of course, there always is the chance of combining both, but usually that means that one of them suffers or then you really have to work hard. So most likely something is going to suffer. Either you’re going to have to skip some practices, some classes or graduate way later,” he said.
At Cal Poly, Jaakkola’s day starts at 6 a.m.. He spends his morning eating and watching YouTube videos. He often watches tech or gaming videos.
Jaakkola practices with the basketball team from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.. In the fall the practices are often longer, and more intense; however, as the season ends they go down in length, and focus on film and taking care of one’s body.
During practices, Jaakkola noticed the difference between American sport attitudes, and Finnish sport attitudes. In Finland, basketball is played as a hobby, according to Jaakkola, but in the United States it is about individuals and competition.
Not only is the player competing against the opposing team during games, but also against his own teammates for play time during practices. “It’s like, if you don’t compete, you’re going to be sitting on the bench. Almost like don’t even bother coming to practice,” Jaakkola said.
This is a common sentiment among international student athletes according to International Student–Athlete Adjustment Issues: Advising Recommendations for Effective Transitionsin the NACADA Journal. Emily Newell wrote, “The overall results indicated that U.S. student-athletes tend to place a higher priority on competition than do their [International Student Athlete] counterparts,” which may account for transition issues.
The constant competition is mentally and physically rough, but as time goes on players can see their improvement, according to Jaakkola.
The men’s basketball team recently received a new coach according to Mustang News. “Now with the new coach it’s been really great. It’s been super intense, working hard and competing all the time. Everyone is cheering each other on. We have a great thing going on right now, and I feel like everyone is getting a lot out of the practice,” Jaakkola said.
He noted that the team spirit has been high, and everyone is getting along great.
Jaakkola jumps into studying or classes after practice. This quarter he is doing over 25 hours of class a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays he has seven hours of class straight, Tuesdays and Thursdays he has five hours of class straight, and two hours on Fridays.
He usually only has a 30 minute lunch break between the stretch of classes. “It’s certainly a rough stretch to do 5 hours straight,” he said.
He tries to schedule a lot personal time. “That really makes it a challenge to manage to do all [my] homework before I get out of school, because I really feel like the time after school is when you need to relax,” he said.
The basketball team is given at least one day off a week, according to the National Collegiate Athletics Association. For Jaakkola this doesn’t feel like a day off. “It usually is not really an off day to be honest since you’ve got to do something on your own. Take care of your body, maybe shoot more, or study,” he said.
Speaking and learning in a different language is a big challenge Jaakkola had to overcome. The culture shift of the U.S. was also something he didn’t expect.
Eating large meals before practice was one of the things he didn’t understand, along with having to “get used to asking how’s it going, or what’s up every time you see someone,” he said.
Being far from home was also a difficult shift. “There are mornings when I wake up and I am so happy to be here, and there are mornings when I wish I was back home. It’s hard to say which one is better since I like being in both,” he said.
His father visited over Christmas break, and Jaakkola found time to go home over spring break. He plans to fly home over the summer for a month and a half but doesn’t know when he’ll go back after that. “It’s really hard to say when the next time [I will go back] after that is, because it might be next summer, or spring break. It depends,” he said.
Still he finds support with his Finnish friends that he plays PlayStation with. They also came to the states to play basketball, so they often relate experiences.
Jaakkola’s classes end around 5 p.m. He typically gets dinner, and heads back to his dorm and is in bed by 9 p.m.. “I try not to schedule anything before I go to bed, because that is time I can spend on my own,” he said.
He often thinks about his future plans. The goal is to go professional with basketball, and possibly play for an American, Chinese, or European team. If basketball doesn’t take off, he said he’d want to go back to Finland to get a master’s degree. “[I want to] spend that two or three year process to rethink where I want to spend my life. There are so many options in the world. There’s over 200 countries where you could basically go, so trying to choose one of them is a hard choice,” he said.