Early morning practices, 20 plus hours of training a week, and grueling workouts; all on top of a stressful academic schedule. How do college athletes do it? Contrary to common belief, student-athletes, on average, graduate at a higher rate than regular students, according to the NCAA. What are the reasons for this trend, and how can having less time to devote to academics ultimately help most athletes in the end?
While it is true that becoming a college athlete will take away many hours of potential study time, the structured schedule of practices allows student-athletes to carefully plan out their days. The blocking of the typical athlete’s schedule creates an incentive to get school work done, and stay on schedule.
“Sports instill a work and team effort into those participating, which spills over into academics and life. You learn to deal with both success and failure” said Bradley Strnad, MD, Interventional Radiologist at Summit Radiology P.C. The work ethic and discipline present in collegiate sports teaches students to persevere through academic disappointments and maintain a positive outlook.
Jonathan Carden, a member of Oglethorpe University’s track and cross country teams, spends around 20-25 hours a week training. While it is true that, without sports, he would be able to devote more time to academics, he believes that his athletic involvement ultimately benefits him in the end.
“The mentality is there. When you don’t want to go to practice, you still got to get up and go to practice, same thing with academics, you may not want to go write that paper, but you got to go write that paper,” said Carden. “It kind of adds a structure to it. If I weren’t doing sports, I would have so much time on my hands.”
Carden has been involved in sports for as long as he can remember. The constant balance between academics and sports has become a normal part of his life, and without it, he believes maintaining his 3.5 GPA would be more difficult.
“If I had more time for academics, I feel like I would lose motivation for academics,” said Carden. “If I go and have a really good run, it clears my head and I can sit down and just focus.”
From an outsider’s perspective, balancing sports and academics may seem overwhelmingly impossible. However, to many athletes, their packed schedules allow them to form a routine and focus on the important aspects of their day-to-day schedule.
In fact, many college athletes are required to fulfill a certain amount of proctored study hours every week. University sports teams set up a minimum number of required hours that align with the number of hours each student spends training in a week.
“I actually see, during season, my grades improve. It makes time management more predominant and important to me, and it gave me a structured time of when I should study. I planned my time better,” said Kathryn Thompson, a member of Oglethorpe University’s women’s soccer team.
While Thompson has effectively found the balance between classes and sports, she does acknowledge the difficulties that come with being a student-athlete.
“It can be a strain, injuries come during the season, it can be tiring. Sometimes you just want to take a nap but you can’t. If you don’t balance your time well, you can really get behind in school,” she said. Despite these challenges, Kathryn Thompson does not allow the pressure to negatively affect her. Instead, she uses these obstacles to push her forward and inspire her to stay focused.
However, efficiently allocating one’s time is only the beginning to a productive academic lifestyle. Students must learn to deal with the inevitable stress that comes with earning a degree. For many college students, finding ways to cope with stress may lead to the involvement in hazardous activities. Students tend to party, drink, and smoke to relieve the pressures of deadlines and tests, however the benefits of these activities only last so long.
Instead, students who discover a constructive outlet for stress tend to academically perform better in the long run. For many, exercise and the involvement in sports serves as a productive escape to relieve stress. Like drinking and smoking, exercise has addictive qualities. The only difference is that physical activity allows for the improvement in other aspects as well, such as physical fitness and mental stability.
Students who find an outlet in physical activity “tend to be more organized, have more uniform energy throughout the day, and likely have a better sleep schedule,” said Bradley Strnad. Using exercise and sports to ease academic stress promotes healthy habits in other aspects of a student’s life. These other benefits will only continue to help one’s academic success in the long run.
If personal accounts are not enough to convince you of the benefits of collegiate sports, allow science to do the persuading. In his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” John J. Ratey, a Harvard University psychiatrist, discussed the physical effects exercise has on the brain. After taking MRI scans of individuals who suddenly increased their physical activity, Ratey discovered that there was an increase in the volume of the hippocampus, frontal, and temporal lobes. All of which are regions of the brain associated with cognitive functioning, memory, and learning.
Rachel Ross, a Pre-Physician’s Assistant major at Auburn University studies the affects exercise has on student’s stress levels. She reported that after a workout, student-athletes were more productive, in better moods, and overall less stressed.
“When the brain is stimulated by exercise, endorphins are released, which are hormones that make the body “feel good” after working out,” said Ross. These hormones cause a physical sensation, commonly referred to as a “runner’s high.” It is because of this that student athletes often report feeling extremely productive and focused after a successful workout.
Despite the scientific evidence supporting the benefits of sports in college, many student-athletes still struggle to find the balance between athletics and academics. College athletes often get too caught up in their athletic expectations, and neglect their academic responsibilities.
“Many athletes are being treated like stars. They have no sense of personal responsibility for grades or their actions. They have a sense of entitlement,” said Bradley Strnad. This common trend often leads to the downfall of the college athlete. Without the good grades to support their athletic talents, many student-athletes forget the true purpose of going to college: to earn a degree.
Universities, as well as the NCAA, hold all student-athletes to specific academic standards that they must satisfy each semester. If they fail to do so, a student could lose their scholarships, be put on academic probation, or even be removed from the team.
While some student-athletes’ resumes do not support the idea of sports improving academic success, the ability to juggle academics and athletics ultimately comes down to the individual. If a student is going to college solely to be a college athlete, the odds of them producing impressive academic work is low. However, if a student comes to college with, and maintains, a sense of responsibility and good work ethic, playing a college sport will only improve their overall academic success.
There are an abundance of personal stories and scientific evidence to show that physical activity increases one’s ability to focus, relieve stress, and perform academically. Being physically active and a part of a team can provide students with a support system of people, an outlet to relieve stress, and a daily routine to follow. In the end, it is within the student-athlete’s control as to whether or not they will use the benefits of playing a sport effectively.
Kathryn Thompson holds true to her belief that, if balanced properly, sports will ultimately help a student become more academically successful. “Across any division, collegiate sports would help you more than hinder. No matter who you are it can act in positive ways in your life.”