Student-Athletes: What to Consider Before Playing a Sport in College
By Ally Pelle
Deciding whether or not to play a competitive sport in college is a big one for any student and the answer is different for everyone. After four years of high school swimming and diving, I chose to continue swimming in college. I was a student-athlete for my freshman, sophomore and the first semester of my junior year after walking-on to a Division I swim team in the Big East Conference.
Although I loved my time as a swimmer, there were a lot of things I missed out on. I soon found out that most of the pros of being a student-athlete can also be cons.
Here are 9 things you should consider before becoming a student-athlete in college:
1. Your financial need.
Many schools offer scholarships for athletes, which is great. If you’re one of those lucky enough to receive one and you’ve already got your school’s jersey on your wall, then you’re in the right situation. But if you’re only taking the scholarship because you can’t afford school without it – then think twice before accepting it. You’ll feel trapped by this obligation and won’t be able to enjoy yourself.
Do yourself a favor now and decide to make the most of your four years. They do go by as fast as everyone tells you.
2. Your work ethic.
The way you do work in college will probably be very different than the way you worked in high school. For me, I had to pay much more attention, take better notes, ask for help more often and study much harder than I ever had to in order to get good grades. If you have solid study habits and are willing to be extremely regimented in the way you spend your time at school, than you’ll be a great student athlete.
Sometimes, you’ll have three classes, practice, lifts, club or group meetings all day. But just showing up isn't good enough: sometimes coaches will keep GPA minimums that are above the NCAA requirements or create mandatory study hall hours. In the end - it's up to you to learn how to best manage your time to keep up academically.
3. Your sleeping habits.
If you’re not exactly a morning person, you may not have the easiest time becoming a student athlete. Often, coaches will schedule early practices and lifts to avoid conflicting with classes and exams. I used to routinely go to bed at 9 p.m. every day, having to endure all of my friends calling me “grandma.” Very few people go to bed at 9 p.m. in college. If you find that you’re up with the birds, more power to you!
4. Your dedication to your sport.
This is an important one. How much do you identify as a football/lacrosse/tennis/field hockey/whatever you are player? College sports will likely become your life. The friends you make, the parties you go to, the schedule you keep and the culture you become a part of will come back to this ultimate sacrifice of your time in order to be great at your sport. One of the things that shocked me about being a swimmer was that my teammates and I only talked about was swimming. Sometimes I just didn’t want to think about it anymore.
5. Your other interests on campus.
Are you really excited about joining student government? Or the volunteer organizations? Maybe the newspaper? It’s difficult to manage a sport and academic responsibilities while being involved in a variety of on-campus clubs. There’s always that uber-involved guy or girl that we all love to hate who seems to be able to do it all.
Forget about them – they’re not human. After all of your prior commitments, it’s going to be tough to get to that choir or campus ministry meeting and really contribute as much as you’d have originally liked.
6. Your friend-style.
This is one of the things that originally made me want to be a student-athlete. You get a pre-assigned group of friends! They’re excited to meet you! They want to take you places! A whole big group of guys and girls of all grade levels just waiting to accept you. You will no doubt get super-close with this group of people because you do everything from practicing, to rooming, to eating, sleeping and socializing together. These are some of my best friends from college.
Here comes the bad part: they were my best, but my only friends in college. When I decided not to swim my senior year, I was pretty unknown to the rest of the senior class. I went to parties and can’t tell you the amount of times I got “Hey, where do you go to school?” Once I got over that hump and started making new friends, I had an absolute blast. locked in for “social butterfly” for your school’s yearbook – then maybe opt out of being an athlete.
7. Your FOMO.
In college, my friends and I used to refer to “FOMO” as “fear of missing out.” Usually, this applies to that girl or guy who goes out every night and begs you to come to the bar on Sunday nights because “so and so is there,” even though you couldn’t give a rat’s behind.
As a student athlete, you will probably miss out on a lot of things. For me, it was every Friday night. Our swim team had Saturday morning practice, so we spend Friday nights staying in. Consider that you may only have a few (or no) days off for breaks, one night per week to go out, and miss out on spring breaks and on-campus events. It’s a trade off for the glory on the field, I suppose. If you fear missing out on any college activity, you will suffer from FOMO as an athlete.
8. Plans to study abroad.
This is a tough one to answer before you get to your freshman year – but if you’re dead set on going abroad already, you will probably miss out on some important team time. I spent my second semester of junior year in London, and not only did I miss out on training, meets and social events, I came back disconnected. This led to my not joining the team again senior year. If you’re okay with taking a break in your athletic career and coming back to your sport – do it! Plenty of people do. For me, it wasn’t the right thing to do.
9. What are the perks?
Free stuff! Free hotels! Free food. Assignment extensions! Yes, athletes get a lot of perks. You’ll have to weigh how important those are to you. Sometimes it makes other students resent you a little bit, which is zero fun. No one likes those dirty looks shot across the dining hall when the basketball players walk in with new Air Jordans, but it happens. For me, these things didn’t make it worth staying.
At the end of the day, I am glad that I got to be both a student-athlete and a “muggle,” as the ever-so-wise “axe bros” at my school so intelligently named non-athletes. I got the best of both worlds. I learned discipline, hard work and bonded with my team in incredible ways.
But I also got to experience sleeping past 6 AM, going out as much as I pleased and meeting a whole slew of new people. Whatever you decide, make sure to take the above things into consideration to find out if participating in college athletics its the right decision for you.
Ally Pelle is a 2007 graduate of Providence College, where she was a Division I swimmer for three years. Ally has a degree in marketing and is an Account Executive at CBS Radio Boston.
Photos: SD Dirk Tulane Public Relations mbsurf