Achieving two dreams

About 500 students at the University of Kansas are here not only to earn a degree, but to don a crimson and blue uniform and compete as student athletes. It might seem daunting to maintain good grades while also maintaining a spot on the team, but many of the lessons players learn in their sports transcend the playing field.

“We try to tell our guys throughout the entire process, ‘It’s a lot easier to play with the lead than it is to play from behind,’” says Bill Self, head coach for men’s basketball. “You get off to a good start in your classes, and school is a lot easier than if you get behind and you’re playing catch-up the whole semester.”

Despite the difficulty, many student athletes welcome the challenging lifestyle in order to pursue their love of a game.

“There are so many invaluable life lessons you wouldn’t learn if you were just a student,” says Janiece Richard, a former track and field athlete whose skills earned her a scholarship to the University. “You have to have your priorities straight, you have to be responsible and accountable. You have to be loyal to the sport and the school.”

Balancing Act

Richard, now a University of Kansas athletics graduate assistant, says the most difficult thing to do is find the right balance between school, athletics and a social life. Richard says it’s important for student athletes to have enough time to rest the mind and body, though trying to do so often proves frustrating in itself.

“I know there were times I complained to my coach that I need to come to practice early or late,” Richard says. “Coach Stanley Redwine was flexible enough so I could study and take care of the student part when I needed to.”

Richard says that, when it came to studying for exams or preparing for a track meet, there was never a question as to which aspect of her life would require more time.

“I can study for an exam in a couple of hours,” Richard says. “An exam is over in one to three hours, and a track meet can be all day or a two-day meet. A test is much easier than competing.”

Self says that although student athletes have very different time constraints than the average student, success in the classroom and on the court can co-exist. “You have to find time to do both,” Self says. “And certainly there is time to do that, if you prioritize correctly. The magic formula is, work on it daily and stay on top of it as opposed to falling behind, where you feel like you can’t catch up.”

Jeremy Case, McAlester, Okla., senior basketball guard, says an important part of success in the classroom is letting the instructor know who you are.

“Always introduce yourself to the teacher,” Case advises. “I would always sit in the front and make sure I introduced myself. That way my instructors knew if I was going to miss class for games. The harder you work in class, the harder the teacher will work for you.”

Dave Yukelson, coordinator of sport psychology services at Penn State University, says peer advice is very helpful in helping student athletes. Yukelson says that by teaming up freshmen with upperclassmen, freshmen can learn time-management techniques that successfully carried the upperclassmen through their first year of college.

Yukelson also stresses the importance of a social life. “Most athletes don’t have a lot of time for themselves,” he says. “Take an hour to go to the Union or listen to a CD so you’re doing something to gain energy.”

Richard says establishing a social life can be awkward because practice, competition and class responsibilities don’t leave much time to mingle with friends and form close bonds outside of sports. “Most of my good friends are all athletes,” Richard says. “Very few athletes I know date someone who’s not an athlete. I just got married this summer. My husband was also a former track and field athlete at KU. Student athletes don’t bridge out, and then all they have are athletes as friends.”

Richard says all the traveling that comes with being a college athlete can actually be beneficial, as it allows athletes a time to bond witch each other in addition to working on their homework.

“At practice, you kind of talk when you stretch,” Richard says. “But when you’re on the bus you have three hours to get where you’re going. You don’t have that urgency of practice so it’s easy to socialize and catch up with everybody or play games.”

Commitment

Following practice, many athletes head to the trainers’ room to receive treatment on an ailing body part. The long hours practicing can play a role in an athlete’s slipping academic performance. But Bill Self says that, like in sports, student athletes must push through the fatigue in order to meet their academic commitments.

“When I played in college, the toughest thing was to stay as motivated as I needed to be to study when my body was always tired,” Self says. “That was the toughest thing: when your body just feels like it needs to shut down. That’s when you really need to hit hard studying.”

For Richard, a typical day would start with morning practice from 7 to 8 a.m., followed by class from 9 a.m. until about noon. Richard would then attend afternoon practice from 2:30 p.m. until 4:30 or 5 p.m. Track meets would require three to four days for travel and competition.

“We were having track meets every weekend, and we would leave Thursday or Friday and wouldn’t return until Saturday night or Sunday morning and then we would practice at 2 p.m.,” Richard says.

Despite the grueling schedule, Richard says she never contemplated quitting track in order to focus solely on school.

“Coach brought me here because he thought I could do it,” Richard said. “There was never a time I thought I couldn’t do both.”

An Assist

Just as in sports, coaching can play an integral part in academic success. Since July 2006, the University has employed full-time sports psychologist Megan Brent to provide assistance to student athletes. Brent counsels athletes on personal issues, such as relationships and performance enhancement, which often overlap. She also works with sports teams on things like team-building and mental skills training.

Brent says that another of her obligations to the athletes is to assist them in dealing with stress, and she says counseling can provide a place for them to talk about their stressors, receive emotional support, and build healthy coping strategies for managing stress. Brent says that having a sports psychologist at the University is important because student athletes may not know where to go for help otherwise.

“They may avoid counseling because of the stigma in sports in relation to seeking help,” Brent says. “Having a psychologist on staff in athletics makes it more convenient for student athletes to seek counseling.”

Yukelson says the assistance provided by sports psychologists to help manage time and stress may be one of the reasons student athletes at the University set an all-time record last fall with a combined 2.93 GPA, the highest ever for a fall semester.

“The most important thing an athlete can do is make a commitment,” Yukelson says. “The value of education is important. That doesn’t mean that you have to like every class, but you have to go to school and get the skills that are going to help you in the workforce.”

Like in any sport, success in academics comes from training, Yukelson says.

“You need mental training for peak performance,” he says. “You develop mental toughness. When you set a goal for a 3.0 and you fail a test, then you develop strategies. ‘I thought I was studying right, maybe I need to get a tutor, or study differently.’ There’s not a cookbook, everybody is different. You got to know what you need in order to be successful.”

Tapping success can recharge anyone’s motivation, and motivation is crucial in life, where there are no timeouts, halftimes or off-days.

  • Updated Nov. 28, 2012 at 11:22 am