Finding A Balance: College Student Athletes

Headed into my freshman year of college, I was given a plethora of helpful tips and advice from a wide variety of people. Teachers, friends, relatives, siblings, and parents all gave different snippets of their experiences; what to avoid, what to do and what to watch out for. My mother would remind me about clean underwear. My dad would remind me about washing behind my ears. My brother told me to lie as much as possible because no one would ever find out the truth. One recurring tip from all was time management; finding the perfect balance of a successful academic life and a successful social life. The magic of time management is the will power and self discipline to plan ahead, avoid procrastination, and turn in quality work on time. All of this is supposed to happen while experiencing the “typical college lifestyle.” Being a semester and a half into my college career, I can say I’ve finally found the right balance, the perfect formula for fun and school work. But what is the “typical college lifestyle” for a college athlete, who devotes his or her entire life to the school’s various athletic teams? This adds a third area in which time management, success, and balance are a must. My whole life, I wanted nothing more to be a college athlete. I was on the right path to do just that until injuries derailed my football career. Now all I can do is ponder what could have been and wonder how my college life would differ had I been an athlete. To get to the bottom of this and to find answers, I decided to ask friends and coaches from home, all of whom play or played sports at the collegiate level. My goal was to see how these student athletes maintain success in their three fields (athletics, academics, and social) compared to the average student (social and academic).

The people I chose to interview for my answers are as follows:

  • Michael Chiaravalloti – Former baseball player (First basemen) at Iona College, D1
  • Sarah Prezioso – Current softball player (shortstop) at Temple University, D1
  • Emeka Ndichie- Current football player (LB) at Villanova University, D1AA
  • Kelechi Ibeh- Former football player (RB) at Mount Union University, D3

The first category I questioned them about was what I know to be the most demanding: academics. Each player, having different strengths and weaknesses in the classroom, had a different perspective as to how they managed their time. While each perspective varied, monitored study hall and or study hours were a trend in each story. For Ndichie and Chiaravalloti, D1 athletes on scholarship, they needed to meet the GPA requirements as set by their schools in order to maintain their scholarship rewards. D1 rules also have credit hour requirements which are as follows, “In Division I, student-athletes must complete 40 percent of the coursework required for a degree by the end of their second year. They must complete 60 percent by the end of their third year and 80 percent by the end of their fourth year. Student-athletes are allowed five years to graduate while receiving athletically related financial aid. All Division I student-athletes must earn at least six credit hours each term to be eligible for the following term…” (NCAA Eligibility website).

Ibeh, a Division 3 athlete, was not on scholarship because they do not receive that type of aid in their league. Thus, they do not have to meet the same rigorous requirements as other athletes. However, coaches had access to all of their players’ grades and the expectation for their athletes was held at a high standard. Kelechi also came from a home with lofty expectations. While the coaching staff had a set of expectations, his mother’s were even higher. In his case, football was a privilege. He was paying full tuition to play the sport he loved. If his grades did not meet his mother’s standards, he was off the team, no if’s, and’s, or but’s.

A huge factor in academics is missed class time. For the football players, missed classes was minimal, if at all. Games are played on Saturdays and most teams travel Friday nights, so classes aren’t interrupted. However, the baseball and softball players travel quite extensively. Games and practices are spread out over the course of the week, so class time is missed often. College athletes have first choice in classes, however, to ease the burden of missing them. However, both players found it extremely difficult at times. To miss valuable lectures and notes may seem ideal, but over the course of the season, it goes from a gift to a burden. Teachers differ on how to treat athletes. University policies excuse athletes from class as a result of games or practice, but some teachers aren’t always so accommodating.

The second most important aspect of the college lifestyle is the social life. All four athletes said they have active social lives. After interviewing each player, it became apparent that their sports teams are like a permanent group of friends, similar to a fraternity or club. Their fellow teammates shared the same passion for the sport as they did, making the awkward and crucial task of making friends a no brainer. This common love of the game and unquenchable desire to win, combine with constant practicing, training, traveling and living together makes close, lifelong friendships. These friendships are what get athletes through slumps in their athletic careers and how to sort out stress in their academic careers. Athletes face an advantage to the social life aspect of college, because as they all admit, they are free to go into any party they choose. People flock to them in hopes of gaining their attentive eyes.

While you can’t put a price on lifelong friendships, each of the student athletes I interviewed discussed a rigorous schedule and lifestyle they endured. Ndichie, now a junior at Villanova, says, “I think playing football at Villanova gives me a kind of structure and discipline in my life that I wouldn’t have if I was not a student athlete.” Ndichie went on to describe the mandatory runs, lifts and workouts that gave him the focus and drive to succeed on the grid iron and in the classroom.

One disadvantage to the student athlete as far as social life is concerned, is the responsibility they have to their team, their program, their school and their fans. Chiaravalloti comments:

“If I told you we didn’t party, I would be lying, but we definitely keep ourselves on a tight leash. Being a student athlete, you understand that it’s not just you that you have to worry about; it’s the guy next to you, the coaches who put the time in, the kid on the bench who would kill to be in your shoes. You control yourself for them; you don’t take that shot or challenge the bouncer at the bar for them. You have a responsibility regular students just don’t have.”

The last and most unique aspect of the student athlete lifestyle is the athletics themselves. These students worry not only about maintaining their grades in the classroom, but about their performances on the athletic stage. Prezioso says, “There’s no doubt you’ve got a lot on your plate as a student athlete. And I think any athlete will tell you, your relationship with the game is often a love hate one. You love to succeed and win, and you hate to lose or struggle as an individual. It is probably one of the most frustrating things to deal with; struggling.” There is a demand for these athletes to succeed. The pressure from coaches, teammates, media and most importantly themselves proves to be a weight they carry on their shoulders.

However, at the end of the day, these student athletes seem to love what they do. “It is a privilege to wake up on game day, string up your cleats, pull on that jersey and represent your school. The pressure, the competitiveness and the love of the game is what we live for as athletes”, Ibeh says.

With the level of diversity and uniqueness I experience everyday as a student at James Madison, I have come to realize that perhaps there isn’t one “typical college lifestyle”. Each student deals with different things going on in his or her life; work, school, family, friends, clubs, and sports can all effect how each of us experience college. The commonality of being a college student is overcoming the struggles. I see now that college athletes have so much pressure on them to be successful. Pressure comes from the school, their coaches, their families, and themselves. Everyone believes they have it easy because of their status as athletes. While that may be the case in movies, in real life they are no different than you or I. They go through the same ups and downs as I do, and for that, I sympathize with them.