Student Athletes: Separate But Equal?

‘Life must be lived as play.” 



Maybe by this point you’re tired of people telling you how special you are.  Or maybe you’re still basking in it.  Either way, that’s going to be a part of your student-athlete life for the next few years, and there’s no getting around it.  You are special, you will be treated as though you’re special, and yet your goals are probably the same as every other ‘regular’ student (unless you plan to be a professional athlete or Olympian).  You want to graduate with knowhow and skills to begin a career and become a thoughtful, well-functioning citizen.

But you’re not like ‘normal’ students because you have expectations, obligations, and special treatment that they don’t have.  You have team meetings, training, practices, meals, travel, games, community-relations events, and aches and pains that can’t help but dig into your academic time.  Everyone associated with NCAA athletics will tell you that there’s a good reason you’re called a ‘student-athlete’ with the student part first and academics as the priority.  When you’re immersed in a weekly regimen of ‘team time,’ however, it may be hard to focus on your life outside your sport.  And when you’re showered with special stuff (special course registration, special meals, special gear, special travel, special opportunities in the community, special status, etc.), it might become hard to stay grounded and maintain perspective.

So, it might be beneficial to remember our mantra

Know Thyself.  Have a Plan.  Assume No One Else Cares.

Know Thyself

In high school athletics, you were a ‘big fish.’  It may take you a while to get back to that stature at the college level.  Or, you may never get back there.  Is school your Plan B?  I would recommend making it your Plan A.  This does not mean to abandon your athletic dreams.  Keep them alive, continue to perfect your skills and perform at your best level, and ENJOY this wonderful experience that only a small number of college students get to enjoy.   But before school begins in the fall, please spend some serious time thinking about your life after athletics.  Put all your athletic plans aside TEMPORARILY and consider who you are and who you wish to become WITHOUT athletics.

Remember that you are the one who’s still in control of your own destiny.  At least in terms of planning for your present and future.  You made an agreement with your institution that you would partake in their athletics program, but their part of the bargain was that they would educate you.  What kind of education do you want?  What do you want to do with it when you’re done?  Go back and review some of the advice contained in this book and see if you can find a way to find your bliss apart from your sport.  This should help drive how you approach the academic side of your life for the next few years.

It’s also important to remember that there will be multiple sides to your life over your college career.  You might play the role of a campus leader and an ambassador for your team and your school.  It’s healthy to consider how others might view you and how you’d like to view yourself in this capacity.  You could start by reflecting on how you acted back in high school when you were a celebrated student-athlete.  Were you a good student, teammate and person?  Were you a good role model?  In other words, did you find a way to transcend being identified only by the sport you played?  Were you able to be something else first?

I sat next to a Heisman Trophy runner-up in one of my marketing classes.  He and I exchanged small talk and class notes and, later in life, when he became a college football coach, he sent my son some fun autographed memorabilia to inspire him as he began his young football ‘career.’  This guy was a true Big Man On Campus, but he allowed me to see him as simply a nice, humble guy by the way he carried himself.

One of my son’s friends, Conner, who’s going on to play Division I baseball, proposes this outlook for a student-athlete to maintain proper stature and perspective:  “Stay focused.  Stay smart.  Stay humble.”  These are wise words, and you’ve probably heard something like it from your coaches, parents or recruiters along the way.  But it’s time that you begin to interpret them in terms of your own outlook and your own behavior.

Have a Plan

Let’s keep this simple… and harsh.  Tomorrow you blow out your knee and end your athletic career.  What’s your plan?

Sorry to be so blunt, but this is the best way to figure out if you have truly thought through your plans.  I’d recommend reflection on what your goals are, who you want to be, as a person, as a student, and as an athlete.  Treat them all separately at first, and then combine them into one larger plan.  Of course, what you do over the next few years as a student and an athlete will help forge who you can become as a person, but it’s always good to start with the bigger ‘person’ picture, knowing that your days as a student and as an athlete will eventually fade away.  So, begin with ‘Who do I wish to become and how do I want people to see me?’ and work your way back from there.

Once you’re done planning who you wish to be as a person, you can use what you’ve read in this book to plan what you’d like your student life to look like.  Then, once you’re done with that, move on to your athletic life.  Revisit ‘The June Question’ to think about what you’d like to say after your first athletic year.  Or aim higher and consider what you’d like to be able to say when your college athletic career is done.  Once you’ve reflected on these matters on your own, be sure to share them with your coach, parents and others who care about you.

After laying out all this planning, it’s important to return to the fact that your life as a student-athlete makes you special, and that will require one more bit of planning:  your social life.  The easy way to do it would be to meet your teammates and do whatever the team does.  If that’s the extent of what you’re looking for from your college experience, then stick with it.  But because you’re special, you have the unique opportunity to carpe more college than most.  Consider how you’re going to meet your dorm mates.  Of course, you’ll spend a ton of time with your teammates, but what if you planned one day a week to stroll your dorm halls and say hello to people who aren’t on the team?  What about Bulletin Board Bingo?  With your busy team schedule, it’s going to be tough to find time to experience all the great cultural offerings on campus.  But if you have a plan, you can do it.  Are things a little lighter for you off-season?  Why not plan to do some Bulletin Board Bingo then?  You might even be able to combine that with meeting dorm mates.  To the best of your ability, and in terms of what your schedule will allow, try to reach out and away from your athletic culture as early and as often as you can.  That will make for a richer overall college experience, and you’ll be able to say, in a way few others can, that you really Carpe’d College!

Note:  For planning purposes, try to utilize the entire year to fit in all that you’d like to accomplish.  Consider that you’ll be swamped while your team is in season, but when out of season, you may find time to squeeze in some of this other stuff.  Week to week, you’re simply not going to be able to fit it all in, and you won’t have nearly the time luxuries that other students have.  However, over the course of a full year, you will.  Again, it’s all about what you’d like to be able to say at the end of the year.

Assume No One Else Cares

Simply apply this part of the mantra to your athletic life the same way you’re doing for your student life.  It’s your job to run your life, and you need to care about it more than anyone else.  Of course you should rely on coaches, professors, parents, teammates and tutors, but you’ve got to rely on yourself more.

As mentioned earlier in this book, it’s not that your teammates or fellow students aren’t nice people.  It’s just that they have themselves to worry about.  If you decide to break team rules and get suspended for a few weeks, I’m sure a teammate will gladly step in and take your starting position for game day.  If you forget to tell your professor about your team travel plans, it’s unlikely anyone else will.  And, even if your team offers some formal communication with professors, having a special travel schedule gives you a built-in excuse to talk to your professors and get to know them better.  And we’ve already addressed why that’s a good thing.

And, again, I’m sorry, but what if you blow out your knee and end your career?  Is there anyone who will care more about your next move than you?  (NOTE:  A friend of mine earned an athletic scholarship to a Big Ten football program with a stellar academic reputation.  He blew out his knee before his first season without playing a down for the team, and his career ended.  The school, however, honored his scholarship until graduation.  So, you see, assuming no one cares is not meant to make you cynical and jaded; it’s designed to help you plan for the worst while hoping for the best.  It’s about having YOU in control of your journey even though there are a whole lot of uncontrollable factors that can come into play.  If you have planned in this way, good things can fall into place even after some setbacks.)

What if you want to be something more than just an athlete?  What if you want to have friends outside your team?  What if you want to go on to grad school?  What if you want to do philanthropic work in the local community or abroad?  What if you want to be a head coach some day?  What if you can’t afford to be charged with a crime because your future is riding on your college experience?  What if you want to be nice to everyone?

All of these answers must reside with you.  And you can lay the groundwork with some deep self-reflection and a good plan that begins your first year.

You’ll have a unique opportunity to have a much more rich college experience than most.

Seize it!

(NOTE:  This blog entry is taken from Appendix I of Carpe College! Seize Your WHOLE College Experience by Mike Metzler)