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Balancing Academics and Athletics

By Bob Stulmaker, CASDA Educational Facilitator



It's well known that the average teen faces a multitude of demands on their time. But for a student-athlete, those demands are even greater. How to find the time for class work, socializing and practice? Add to this outside pressures, usually from parents, which could include: obtaining a college scholarship; unfulfilled parental aspirations projected onto their children; and specialization that comes from playing only one sport.


Juggling all of this would be daunting for an adult. But the lessons in how to handle these many demands can be found on the playing field. Acclaimed football coach Mike Ditka captured the essence of those lessons during his induction into the Football Hall of Fame. Ditka said, "Football, as in life, you never lose until you stop trying." Despite the additional demands on a student-athlete, it is on the playing field that these teens learn the importance of always trying and how that applies to their lives beyond a box score.


You'd be hard pressed to find a regularly scheduled class during the school day that teaches the lesson “keep trying.” But that's implied with every practice for every sport. Student-athletes learn to “keep trying” as they learn a new play or a new skill to further their athletic prowess.


Life is not always smooth sailing. Again, sports help prepare student-athletes for the turbulent waters of life. What better classroom than the playing field to learn how to gracefully handle the emotional highs and lows of life that can be experienced through a win or a loss. Under a watchful and supportive coach they are guided through this lesson and many others. A coach can help teach the student-athlete lessons in competition and friendship, sportsmanship and teamwork. Clearly, the gridiron, court or other sporting venues make an excellent, non-traditional classroom.


All of this occurs against the backdrop of everyday life. How to get it all done? After all, school curriculum does not typically include a course in time management. It's a skill student-athletes must become proficient in early on to be successful. For example, consider the student-athlete who qualified for the New York State Golf Championships. This young man shared with me that procrastination was his biggest enemy, both on the links and in the classroom. Through trial and error and determination, something honed through his sport, he finally learned how to assign the appropriate time to the various aspects of his life and was able to achieve success in both academics and golf. In short, he kept trying.


He also learned that to achieve a happy medium in his life there would have to be sacrifices. It may mean choosing between time to socialize with friends or studying either the textbook or playbook. That's also a lesson an accomplished high school ice hockey player told me he had to learn. As he explained, after hitting the gym to maintain his physical conditioning, practice and studying to maintain his 90-plus average, it didn’t leave him much time to be, as he put it "an average American teenager." But he's doing it, having learned that life requires making choices. It's about weighing the value of all that life offers and deciding which item on that life buffet is most important to him.


It's not only time management skills our student-athletes need to acquire at a time when demands on that time are endless, but also learning how to balance their personal needs with those of their parents. It may be that the parent(s) re-lives their own high school experience through their child, and in doing so, places additional demands on their child's time and ability to execute in both the classroom and playing field. That same parent(s) may also have dollar signs dancing before their eyes after reading accounts of student-athletes who are offered scholarships to college or lucrative contracts post college in professional sports. Truth is, few high school athletes will go on to compete with a professional team, but that doesn't stop the parent(s) from pressuring their child, often undermining the child's ability to find balance between sport and classroom. This is where an astute coach can help smooth the waters.


Lastly, because of the financial incentive for an outstanding student-athlete, parents often discourage their children from participating in a variety of sports. This can lead to over-use injuries. Young bodies need time to heal both physically and emotionally. Parents, living their lives through their children can be an intensely destructive force in the ongoing balancing act that student-athletes face. Again, a coach can be a mediator.


The experiences a child encounters in his or her school years can be rewarding, invigorating, motivational and pave the road for the rest of their lives. It's up to the adults in their lives, whether it be their parents, teachers, coaches or all three, to ensure that they have the room to explore, the time to recover, the security to fail and the support to regroup and never “stop trying.”


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