5 Things College Athletes Wish They Knew Before College

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Over the past four years, you’ve learned what hard work means. You’ve made a resume, been recruited, chosen a college and signed a National Letter of Intent. The skills you’ve already learned through sports—perseverance, teamwork and humility among many others—will be essential to your success. But college athletics can be considered a whole new world (and not always in a magical Aladdin sort of way). Whether you’re in Division I, II or III, student athletes are challenged and pushed to their limits every single day to succeed on and off the field. Learn from the experts: here’s what varsity college athletes wish they had known before starting college.

1. Ready yourself

If you’re certain you want to be a college athlete, make sure you know what your college experience will look like. In addition to spending at least 20 hours in the classroom, you may also be spending 40 hours outside of the classroom in practice. This tends to limit your time in exploring several extracurricular organizations and academic and social opportunities.

Erin McDermott, Director of Athletics and Recreation at the University of Chicago, believes the transition from being a high school to a college athlete is significant. “It can be unsettling for many to come from a largely comfortable situation when they were probably a pretty 'big deal' to a lesser known environment with less social credibility,” she says. “College presents challenges in meeting new people, learning new surroundings and needing to demonstrate one’s abilities both academically and athletically in a more rigorous and competitive environment.”

Colby Hoffman, a lacrosse player and sophomore at St. Lawrence University, recommends that you understand that you’ll have to compromise. “Whether you can't go out some nights with your friends, you can't join that club that meets during your practice time or you can't eat those unhealthy late night treats, you have to be ready and willing to make these sacrifices.” 

Since there’s only so much time in a day, make sure that you’re truly passionate about and invested in being a college athlete before you take on your new role and responsibility.

2. Find balance

Succeeding as a college athlete isn’t just about sacrifices—it’s also about finding balance. This requires dedicating yourself to your academics but also finding a few things outside of the classroom that get you excited. Just make sure you’re not overscheduling yourself!

Dr. Elizabeth L. Abbey, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Health Sciences at Whitworth University, believes that time management is key. “Many of the coaches at our university have students fill out time management forms before classes start,” she says. “ Student athletes have to break down every day of the week into one-hour chunks and account for classes, practices, training room time, meals, work, studying, sleep, etc. They are often surprised to see that they do have pockets of open time for other activities.  Student athletes should take advantage of study halls and plan to study while traveling.”

McDermott recommends prioritizing a balance weighted towards academics. “College athletes have to figure out what works best for them depending on the demands of their classes, their eventual major selection and sport commitment,” she says. “Understanding that time demands will be more intense when in-season is important in course selection.”

Balance is also important in your friend groups. “Student athletes need to prepare for success in life beyond athletics,” Dr. Abbey recommends. “ It can be easy to only make friends with teammates, but I encourage student athletes to branch out and develop relationships with other students in their classes who aren’t athletes.

While bonding with your team is inevitable (who else knows the struggles of weird workout hours?), having strong relationships can also be found in a larger cultural or religious community.

Yet sometimes, student athletes are encouraged to prioritize their sport to the extent that they’re not permitted to get involved with other student organizations. This was the case for Brigitte Curcio, a member of the rifle team at the University of Tennessee Martin. “My coach only wanted me to do my sport and nothing else,” she says. “So when I joined a sorority, he was very mad.” 

When you’re looking at your choices going into college, be sure to ask the coach how involved you’re able to get on campus outside of your sport. 

3. Use your resources

One of the biggest misconceptions college students, especially college athletes, have is that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Using your resources and being proactive is essential, especially if you want to succeed. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your coach. Your coach is there to help you grow, both on and off the field. If you feel as though your well being isn’t being prioritized, clearly communicate this to people that you can trust, whether it be your coach or dean.

“The important thing to know is many different kinds of helpful resources exist and they exist because most, if not all students at certain times, could use ‘an assist,'" McDermott says. “Some may seek guidance from peers with how they managed challenging times.” 

Academic advisors are also a great resource. If you’re missing class due to athletic commitments, it’s important to let your professors know as soon as possible since each professor has their own policy. Some professors allow you to make up work ahead of time or after you return, and others won’t want you to be in their class, as harsh as that sounds. 

Paige Vermeer, a varsity basketball player at Yale University, wishes that she had known that it’s okay to struggle. “For even the most talented freshmen, there is a learning curve they have to adjust to, and it's completely normal to feel a step behind for a little while,” she says. “The most important thing is to come to school both physically and mentally prepared, ready to tackle any challenge that is thrown your way.”

Being physically and mentally prepared becomes a lot easier if you have a strong community of support around you. Whether it be your friends, your family from back home, or your teammates, make sure that you have people to rely on through the best and worst of times. 

Related: 5 Bad Academic Habits You Had Last Year (& How To Ditch Them!) 

4. Take care of yourself

Being a student athlete ensures that you’ll be staying fit and active throughout the year. But just because you’re less worried about the Freshman 15 than your NARP (Non-Athletic Regular Person) friends doesn’t mean that healthy habits are any less important. When your nutrition is better, you perform better and get sick less often. “In terms of diet, every athlete has unique dietary needs,” Dr. Abbey says. “There is not a one-size-fits-all approach, even among athletes in the same sport. While not every college team has a dietitian on staff, each university should at least have a registered dietitian (RD) available through its food service department to meet with students.”

After long practices and games, make sure to stay hydrated and eat carbs (or proteins, depending on the sport you’re involved with). Be consistent with your meal plans.

“Making wise choices in the dining halls or when eating on their own will greatly help in optimizing health and performance,” McDermott says. Eating veggies and fruits is a universal recommendation, but you might not have expected that it’s a good idea to keep snacks with you at all times.

Three meals a day might not be enough, and often times, it’s difficult to find the time in your day to sit down and eat three meals. Try to eat a snack within an hour of a practice or game. Before game snacks include bananas and dried fruit and post game snacks range from chocolate milk to a classic PB&J!

With early morning practices, late night games and seemingly endlessly long road trips, who has time for sleep? “Sleep is probably the most critical to overall academic and athletic performance and the most neglected. Keeping good pace on academic work and not procrastinating is key to having sufficient time for sleep,” McDermott advises. Moreover, having a good night’s sleep consistently helps manage stress. Sleep is not for the weak and your sleep habits might just be ruining you. Rest up!

It’s just as important to take care of your mind as it is your body. Sports (and college) culture is often associated with pressure and stress in order to “stay eligible.” These two factors limit you from reaching your full potential. According to the NCAA’s “Managing Mental Health” guide, symptoms include “social withdrawal, lying, poor concentration, negative self-talk, feeling out of control, lack of motivation and sleep difficulty.” As an athlete, you may be used to pushing past the pain and following strict schedules, but it’s important to realize when you need to take a break.  

5. Set realistic goals

 At some point, the cheering stops. While not every college athlete goes pro, your top priority and identity may be the sport(s) you play.

“College athletes can pursue any career path of interest as long as they have prepared themselves appropriately while in college,” McDermott says. “They should certainly use the advantages they have from their athletic experience in pursuing careers such as learning how to fail and persevere and building relationships with people of diverse experiences and backgrounds. As the NCAA tagline goes, most of them will end up ‘going pro in something other than sports,' so taking full advantage of the holistic education that being a college athlete provides, will allow them to pursue a fulfilled career.”

The post-graduation transition can be difficult, especially if you don’t have a plan (or two) ahead of time. After college, you may no longer be a specific sport player but you can still be an athlete or an active person. There is a life after sports. This is why it’s often so crucial to focus on your major and academics and explore alternate career paths, whether it be through internships, attending career fairs or networking via informational interviews.

Don’t forget to have fun though! Even when you’re riding the stress train, there’s something to look forward to--whether it be your classmates cheering you on at the game or an insanely fun tradition unique to your school. When you’re pushed to your limits and want to throw in the towel, consider and remember your best sports memories. Why did you start your sport? Why didn’t you stop then? Roll with the punches. Push it over the goal line. Ace it.

As always, any piece of advice isn’t applicable to each and every person. Take from this article what you can and realize that every person’s experience—including yours—is and will and should be different. After all, what makes you different is what you makes you unique and stand out! As a college athlete and student, you’ll have an amazing and rewarding experience. Four years from now, who knows where you’ll be?

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About The Author

Rachna Shah is a first year student at Dartmouth College, where she is interested in health economics and healthcare reform. As part of the Board at Bridge the Divide, she uses her words as a platform for change and responsibility, encouraging and enabling youth to stay informed and active in the political arena. Rachna is also a writer and editor for several literary and political magazines, including Young Minds, The Weekly Buzz, and Her Campus. When she is not writing, she can be found munching on almonds and listening to the news in French.