Helping your Athlete Balance Sports and Academics

One of the biggest fears parents have when signing up their children for youth sports is whether or not their child will be able to balance their school workload, social interactions, and their sporting commitments.

Time management skills vary from one person to the next, and finding out your child’s Athlete Type is a good starting point in discovering how well they can manage time on their own.

Outside of discovering their Athlete Type though, student-athletes will almost certainly need help managing this delicate balance in most cases.

A positive way of looking at the school and athletic balance as a student athlete, is as training for their adult life and managing a work-life balance. Student athletes can learn valuable life skills, simply by efficiently and effectively managing their time, energy, and resources.

So how can parents help their young student-athletes adjust to life with multiple responsibilities that demand lionshares of their time? Here are a couple of different approaches to the student-athlete dynamic for parents to take:

Think of Sports as Co-Curricular

Ray Lokar, a trainer from the Positive Coaching Alliance based in Los Angeles responded to a letter from a concerned parent who wanted to know if they should continue to let their son play hockey, despite a recent influx of poor grades.

In his response, Lokar speaks on how the term “student-athlete” already sets the priority. With the student coming first in the term, “student-athlete”, we all know the emphasis should be placed on the student role.

Lokar then explains how there is a fundamental issue with the way sports and schoolwork are often perceived. The idea of an “extracurricular” activity when talking about sports is slightly incorrect.

Instead, sports should be seen as “co-curricular” or a means to improve life skills in conjunction with schooling.

“Many people view ‘extra-curricular activities’ as a hindrance to academic achievement, rather than as complementary or even a key driver of academic success,” Lokar says. “The misconception that sports are ‘extra’ is at the heart of this sentiment, as though anything ‘extra’ must conflict with activities that are ‘necessary.’ Meanwhile, many schools that treat sports as CO-curricular (rather than extra-curricular) help students excel academically and athletically.”

Sports, in this sense, can be used as a tool to strengthen a student-athletes acumen in the classroom. Lokar goes on to say that unlike most people imagine, student-athletes oftentimes perform their best academically while balancing their primary sporting seasons.

“Numerous studies show student-athletes perform better in the classroom during their season of sport – when they need to manage their time – than in the offseason when they feel like they have more free time,” Lokar says.

Co-curricular activities allow the physical release that allows a student-athlete the ability to better focus on their school work, because their minds will be more clear after physical activity.  

“Competing in athletics reinforces the need to do your best. If you can help your son transfer these habits so there is a correlation between practice and school, a translation between athletic competition and academic achievement, you will go a long way toward developing,” Lokar says.

Sports as a Reward or Privilege

This is a much more traditional approach to the student-athlete workload, but it has been a proven method for a very long time.

Shelly Goldberg, a three-time NCAA Academic All-American while a member of the Stanford University gymnastics team, which claimed two conference championships in her time with the team, said her parents took the academically-hardlined approach.

“Growing up my parents weren’t really athletes. My dad, he really didn’t encourage sport that much, he was really much more on the academic side,” Goldberg says. “So, it was really me pushing my parents to allow me to continue competing at a high level.”   

The “sport as a reward” model is effective in that it emphasizes academics, but also gauges just how much your child is committed to their sport as well.

If they are passionate about playing their sport, they will work hard enough academically to continue to have the privilege of playing.

“My parents never discouraged me, but they also made it really clear that gymnastics wasn’t the end game, it wasn’t going to be my career,” Goldberg says. “They encouraged me to pursue other interests and encouraged me academically, and I was really pushing them in terms of the gymnastics side of it.”  

“When I wanted to start competing and start traveling, I had to encourage them to let me do those things as a privilege. It was always expected that I would maintain my other interests and my academic interests and pursuits– with priority above gymnastics, and gymnastics was sort of almost like a reward, as something I was allowed to do, and not something I was pushed to do,” Goldberg says.

Advanced Time Management

In response to another parent who asked Lokar a question about preparing her children for the new school year and sports seasons, and how to help them manage their time, Lokar provided another in depth answer.

“The easy answer is to tell the student-athlete to take advantage of absolutely every free second they may possibly have,” Lokar says. “There are precious minutes found during breaks or lunch, after school, before practice, while waiting for a ride home after practice or games, and bus rides to and from games.”

Idle time wasted is still time wasted, essentially. It’s certainly a tough habit to develop, but being able to capitalize on any free time alloted to you is key as a student-athlete as well as an adult later in life.

How a student-athlete utilizes their minimal free time is usually a determining factor in their success at balancing their commitments.

“Another good idea is to make sure you have a planner and get in the habit of using it. Writing things down tends to “lock them in” much more than entering them somewhere electronically,” Lokar says.

Organizing things in a planner and actively completing the activities you have listed is something that can come naturally to some, but requires hard work and dedication to others. It’s effectiveness as a strategy can’t be questioned.

Having to write things down cements them in your mind, and you are less likely to forget important things you have coming up if you’ve written them down and read over them.

“Perhaps most important, is to work hard at staying healthy. It is important to be at your best on the fields of play – and in the classroom. Try to eat well, have a balanced diet, and stay hydrated,” Lokar says. “Often times very busy student-athletes forget to take the time to have a good breakfast, stop and eat in the middle of the day, or sit down at dinner. Taking time to rest and getting the appropriate amount sleep will provide the rejuvenation to do it again tomorrow.”

Capitalizing on Competitiveness

Finally, there is the focus on competitiveness. A key driver in most student-athletes, you can mold their competitive nature on the field and have it shape the person they are off of it.

Jean Boyd, the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Student Athlete Development at Arizona State details how he believes this can be done.

“Here’s what we know about student athletes and their desire to be excellent,” Boyd says. “Student athletes are competitive people, and when you challenge a student athlete to see themselves as competitive– not only in their sport, or in the weightroom, or in their workouts, but also in the classroom and in the community, being a good son or daughter. We find they are more motivated to perform in different areas of life.”

“This translates to higher performance, in everything they do. Recognizing the competitive spirit of a student athlete and asking them how important it is for them to win in the classroom, we’ve found, is a great tool to help motivate them towards academic success,” Boyd says.


Featured image for this post: Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

About the Author: