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Balancing School & College Sports How Student Athletes Can Kill It in Class & on the Court

Student athletes juggle more demands than the typical college student. By the time their dormmates sleepwalk into their 9 a.m. class, student athletes have already run three miles, eaten breakfast and started the week’s assignments. They may be amateurs, but when it comes to juggling sports and their studies, many are forced to become pros quickly. This guide offers tips and expert advice on how to stay on top of your game in the classroom and on the court (or wherever you play).

Meet the Experts

Meghann Percy Division I swimmer at New Mexico State University
Courtney Olson Division I rower at University of San Diego

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Types of College Athletes

When people hear “college athlete,” most imagine D-I football or basketball players. They probably don’t consider the students playing Ultimate at the liberal arts school. Yet college athletes come in many varieties — from recruited NCAA elites looking to go pro to intramural participants taking a break from their studies to extracurricular athletes getting in some exercise here and there. Needless to say, school-sport balance looks different for each group. Here’s how the following groups of student athletes typically balance their days:

Varsity athletes wear the college name on their jersey, and their teams receive funds from the college’s athletic department. Since varsity teams play against squads from other colleges, the games and tournaments are regulated by sports associations. The main association for universities is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Smaller schools may be a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and two-year colleges join the National Junior College Athletic Association.

Since it’s so large, the NCAA is divided into three divisions, with Division I being the most competitive. D-I schools recruit athletes and are required to provide student athletes with scholarships. Division II is much less competitive, although it’s not uncommon for top D-II athletes to play sports professionally after graduation. Division III colleges are the least competitive and do not offer athletic scholarships.

Meghann Percy, a former D-I swimmer at New Mexico State University, and Courtney Olson, a former D-I rower at University of San Diego, break down what their schedules looked like:

Percy: “During the competitive season which, for swimming, started in October with the final conference meet in mid-February, we had nine swimming workouts a week, plus lifting three times a week and dryland, which is like HIIT [high-intensity interval training] or body weight training, three times a week. It was definitely akin to a part time job with about 20 hours a week dedicated to training. School started in August and so did training, which got more intense over the Christmas break. The only people on campus are athletes, who get a week off for Christmas and are back on campus before New Year’s for what is affectionately known as ‘Hell Week’ or ‘Winter Training Camp.’ We amped up to 11 swim workouts a week with the same weight and dryland schedule.”

Olson: “As Division I rowers, we are a part of the only sport that does not have an off-season during the regular school term. Our schedule was 20 hours a week year-round, not including racing. On average, every year we would have about five homes races and 15 that we needed to travel for. We traveled as close as Los Angeles and as far as Virginia. Additionally, we would have winter and spring training camps while non-athlete students were on holidays.”

Like varsity teams, club teams play against other colleges. Unlike varsity teams, they’re almost completely student-run. Not only does that mean there’s no school-based financial aid for club members, but also that teammates have to organize their own games, pay for their own uniforms and perhaps even officiate their own games. Fringe or emerging sports, such as rugby in the U.S., are often played at the college club level. And categorization isn’t the same across all states – what might be a varsity sport somewhere, like lacrosse along the East coast, could be a club sport west of the Mississippi.

Students who participate in club sports dedicate some of their week toward practice but don’t typically expect the daily practices and training sessions Division I athletes contend with. They must also budget time toward games and competitions, to the extent they’re able to arrange them. Some clubs are more intense than others. Successful clubs can lobby their colleges for varsity status, especially if there’s a strong network of clubs at other colleges to play against.

Like club sports, intramural competitions are quite informal. Like varsity sports, however, they’re organized by the college. What makes them different from both is that all the teams are from the same school. A group of friends, fraternity or sorority members, students from an academic department or the denizens of a residence hall might band together to form a flag football team or a soccer squad. Games are competitive but friendly and free of extended commitments.

Students who play intramural sports typically don’t have to dedicate any time to practice — unless they have a zealous captain — and games are usually scheduled during evenings and weekends, when few students have class commitments. Most intramural seasons run for several months during the semester, with perhaps one game per week.

Every college allows students to access a gym, usually with weights, basketball courts and grass fields. Students can use these facilities during open gym hours as they wish — whether to run on a treadmill or find a pickup game. As such, students can be athletes during college without ever joining an official team. And they have total discretion over how much time they dedicate to staying fit.

Many students also take it upon themselves to put together teams for extracurricular sports activities. These students typically play for fun, whenever everyone – or just a few, depending on the sport – can get together. There usually isn’t a strict schedule and students play more for the love of the sport and to take a break from classes, homework and other academic obligations.

Juggling Schoolwork & Sports

With up to 20 hours a week dedicated to a sport, balancing athletics and academics is a big challenge for college competitors, especially if they also want a social life. Olson notes that athletes do get some academic perks, such as a significant amount of academic support from advisors and mentors, including class schedule-making, tutoring and post-graduation support. Nonetheless, it’s still a lot to handle. Here are 11 pro tips to help amateur athletes manage it all.

Set goals

Just as sports are built around targets — either scoring on or outracing the competition — student life requires goals. Think holistically about academic goals, whether it’s hitting a certain GPA, landing on the dean’s list or something else. Athletes instinctively push toward the goals of the sport, so setting a goal for your life as a student can help keep you on track. Percy thinks athletes’ competitive drives often carry over naturally to the classroom: “Competition did not stop on the pool deck. I wanted to be a great athlete to represent my school, but I also wanted to be a great student to represent myself,” she says. I knew there would be life after swimming and I wanted to make sure I was set up to have a good one.”

Choosing your major can be a lot like choosing the sport you play – you should enjoy it, and if you do, you’ll be motivated to do well. “When it comes to a major,” says Olson, “I recommend selecting a focus you know you will enjoy. Being an athlete, especially a rower, is incredibly difficult and if you don’t at least have an interest in your studies, athletics and academics become very difficult to balance.” Ideally, this should be a factor before you even apply to colleges. Says Olson, “I was fortunate enough to be a part of an incredible program where my teammates could be pre-med, pre-law and engineering majors as well as athletes. Not all college athletic teams will allow this as it can interfere with practice schedules.”

As much as possible, try to choose class times based on your practice schedule. If that’s not possible, remember the power of online classes — you can register for distance education classes even as a residential student. And if they’re asynchronously delivered, you’ll have even more flexibility.

Practice isn’t easy, but at least the coaching staff has mapped it out. Studying is a different story. Let’s say you have a 50-page excerpt to read, a six-page essay to write and a two-hour midterm to study for — where do you start? The vague answer is whatever is the most important assignment. The more effective answer is to work backwards and budget your time accordingly. By knowing when each assignment or task is due and then estimating how much time you need to work on each one, you can create a schedule that accounts for everything. If you’re not sure, though, that’s what office hours and your academic advisor are for. Don’t hesitate to ask for guidance from professors and/or advisors when priorities are unclear or overwhelming.

As a student, it’s your responsibility to manage your time so that you can complete your school assignments, pass tests, earn good grades and graduate. As an athlete, you may have road games or other athletic commitments that conflict with this responsibility. Always crosscheck your academic and athletic schedules for potential conflicts. Then…

Professors get paid to do the most important thing at a college – teach students. They’re not likely to give athletes a free pass, but they are likely to be flexible or provide support when needed. “We had our meet schedules at the beginning of the year and would meet with our professors one-on-one to see if there were any conflicting dates,” recalls Percy. “Almost every professor was very understanding and willing to help by letting me turn in assignments or write tests early.”

Olson agrees that discussing your schedule in advance will show professors that you take your academic life seriously and increase their willingness to find a flexible solution. “Developing relationships with your educators and your advisors allows them to know that although you are incredibly busy, traveling, and not always in class, you still care about your education — and they are more willing to lend a hand. The last thing a student athlete needs to deal with is arguing over grades.”

Practice and workouts are on a set schedule so that they become routine. By studying or doing homework during set times each week, your academic life becomes routine as well. That can be a little bit harder for road trips, though, according to Percy. In this situation, her recommendation is to plan ahead and get things done early. “The most challenging was definitely [the conference meet] because we missed a week of school. And when you are competing at the biggest meet of the year, you don’t really want to do homework. But we were all very good at time management. You get everything done early if you can, or time it so you were not working on your big race days.”

Many student athletes are self-driven types who have never let a New Year’s resolution slip. But there are plenty of others that thrive on the accountability that a team of players and coaches provides. Ask one of them to hold you accountable to your academic goals. Better yet, form a study group with other athletes. Some teams bake the accountability into the program. Percy recalls that, “Going in freshman year every athlete was required to do a semester of study hall. If you got under a 3.0, you had to continue going to study hall. That really motivated everyone to work hard in the classroom.”

With practice and workouts taking up most of the non-academic hours in a day, student athletes may be tempted to get in their socializing after hours. But whereas many college students can afford to stay up until 1 A.M. and then mosey into their morning class in pajamas, student athletes who don’t get enough sleep – and still have to get up for early morning practice – quickly burn out and fall behind. And while it might be tempting to cut down on studying to make room for more sleep, doing that over the long term doesn’t bode well for your academic goals.

You are what you eat. And if you want to function at your full potential – inside and outside the classroom – you’ll need to fuel your body with healthy, clean foods. Stay away from fatty fast food and stick with high-quality protein such as lean meats, fish, poultry and eggs. But don’t forget to include some veggies and carbs too. And don’t even think about skipping breakfast.

“If I did it again, I would stress less,” Percy says. “There was a lot of pressure to preform, and much of that I put on myself. You’d be hard pressed to find a high-level athlete that doesn’t strive for perfection, and that is a tough spot to be in. As an 18-year-old moving to a new country, on my own for the first time, living with teammates and figuring out how to ‘adult’ while competing… it was a lot.” Part of the solution, she suggests, has to do with mental preparation. “I think athletes are taking mental preparedness a lot more seriously, and I would have really benefitted from some of the things I use all the time today.” (See the Resources section for mental prep apps.)

The Benefits of Being a Student Athlete

The vast majority of college athletes never go on to compete professionally. So why do they do it? There are numerous upsides to playing a sport in college. Here are eight:

Higher graduation rates

In 2003, the NCAA introduced academic reforms that required Division I and II athletes to progress through their degree at a certain rate. By 2017, NCAA athlete graduation rates had gone from 74% to 87%. The federal government uses a different measure but still reported slightly higher rates for student athletes — according to ESPN, graduation rates among college athletes were at 67%, compared to 65% for students overall. However, prospective student athletes should understand that each college and team’s graduation rates vary.

Staying in shape

Ah, the college cafeteria and its endless — and free! — supply of soda and soft-serve ice cream. Best of all, mom and dad aren’t there to tell you not to eat too much. Little wonder that by Thanksgiving break, many freshmen have put on weight. College athletes may not be able to resist some tasty desserts, but at least they’ll burn it off when training and practicing.

Prioritization skills and discipline

Prioritization is a skill that many veteran working professionals still haven’t mastered. College athletes, on the other hand, have no other choice but to cut out the nonessential. “Being a student athlete, there are choices you have to make,” says Percy. “You can’t have the big party social life, be committed to your sport, get good grades and get enough sleep.”

Valuable skills that translate to the working world

All that discipline comes in handy during career searches. “As an athlete we have grueling schedules, between trying to get enough sleep, staying on top of our studying and constantly reaching for peak athletic performance, we never really get a break,” says Olson. “Day in and day out we constantly have to be responsible with our time because we don’t have a ton of it, and the struggle between academics and athletics will always be a waging war no matter the sport or the school. However, it is also the reason we are hired by top companies right out of college, why so many athletes go professional and why employers might prioritize a collegiate athlete during an interview process. We’ve proven, for years, we can handle the stress of full workloads, time management, deadlines and teamwork.”

Structure

Speaking of time management, athletic schedules really do refine that skill. Percy says her time management was actually better during swim season. “As swimming got more relaxed and our schedules weren’t as rigid, I found it harder to be productive. When you have a deadline and have to get the work done in two hours, you find a way. When you have time to fill, the same work seems to stretch into six hours. After years of managing school work and pool work, I like the structure.”

Scholarships

Not every athlete is eligible for athletic scholarships, but those who are often welcome the opportunity to reduce their future financial debts and get a college education at a discounted rate.

Close-knit community

Winning and losing as part of a team is a life-altering experience. According to Olson, the biggest benefit of being a student athlete is the family and community you develop between your teammates, coaches and alumni. “Today, the majority of my connections originate from the rowing community,” she says. Percy agrees: “You get close to your teammates in a way that transcends friendship. The people I lived and trained with are some of the most important people in my life. We grew up together, they’ve seen me at my breaking points, and I know I can trust them.”

It’s fun

From an outside perspective, being a student athlete sounds grueling. And there are probably a lot of college athletes who say they’d hang up their shoes and pack away their uniform after senior year, if not before. But most still stick with it. Why? Because it really is fun. “To enjoy spending time physically working that hard sounds crazy, but I loved it,” says Percy.

Know Your Rights

Percy and Olson recall their athletic careers positively. Percy says, “I feel so fortunate for the opportunity.” Olson agrees: “Being a collegiate athlete has made me the success I am today.” But in the last decade, the protection of college athletes has become a major issue, primarily because big-time football and basketball programs (men’s and women’s) bring in a lot of revenue and serve as advertising for the school — but college athletes are not paid. This section explains college athletes’ rights so they can get the most out of their playing years.

Resources

Most of the apps that student athletes will find most helpful are the same apps all college students will find useful. Yet there are a few that athletes in particular may benefit from. Here are some that can help college athletes find balance — from time management tools to mindfulness apps:

  • ATracker

    A free app for iOS and Android (with a nominal charge to upgrade to the Pro version), this app helps students budget their time and see what percentage of their day is dedicated to different tasks. It’s great at showing students areas where they can reallocate some of their time.

  • Cold Turkey Blocker

    This free tool for Windows and Mac computers helps students stay focused by blocking their access to certain sites on Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari. Users set a timer and decide which sites to avoid, then the tool locks them out. It’s $25 to upgrade to a more robust version. (Turning off the phone is another story.)

  • Cold Turkey Writer

    Need to really jam to get a paper done? Cold Turkey Writer goes a step further than the Blocker, shutting off every app on the computer until the subscriber hits a pre-selected word count. Buy the pro version for $10 or bundle it with the Blocker Pro for $29.

  • Headspace

    A meditation app for people who have trouble meditating, Headspace delivers short sessions to help people reduce stress and sleep better. The first 10 lessons are free. A monthly subscription is a bit pricey, at $12.99. For something cheaper but less dynamic, try Buddhify.

  • HelloMind

    HelloMind is a Danish app that uses “Result Driven Hypnosis.” The full version is $12.99 a month and aims to help users improve self-esteem, get motivated, reduce stress, tackle fear, or several other issues. Each topic involves 10 half-hour sessions. Users can try before subscribing.

  • iStudiezPro

    A calendar specifically for students, iStudiezPro lets learners plug in class and sports schedules, track assignment due dates, and even monitor grades. The iOS and MacOS app integrates with iOS Calendar but is also available for Windows and Android devices. It costs under $10. The “lite” version is free.

  • myHomework

    A competitor to iStudiezPro, myHomework also syncs across devices. The premium version is $4.99, and a Basic version is free. Cheaper yet is School Assistant. Its premium version is $2.99, but it’s only available on Android devices.

  • stickK

    College athletes are competitive — so they hate losing money. That’s where stickK comes in. Students set a goal, sign a contract, find a referee to hold them accountable, and then put money on it (if they want). If they don’t meet their goal, their money goes to whoever they designated.