8 Tips for the Student Athlete

With March Madness on the brain, here are some timely tips on balancing academics and athletics.

By and + More

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to draw the line. College basketball players should actually graduate from college. But we wonder: Do colleges offer their student athletes any tips for actually getting through college? We asked visiting blogger Heather Ryan, director of academic support at Duke University Athletics, and her staff, for their playbook. Here are their eight best tips for the student athlete (and a couple of extras for the future student athlete):

1. Your job is to be a student athlete. Practice, class, film, weights, eat, study hall …. Wait a minute, I don't have any "me time." How am I supposed to check Facebook, do my laundry, call my mom, and play Xbox? Treat your responsibilities as if they were your-full time job, because they are. Create an hourly planner, and update it daily. Stop scheduling nap times, and use breaks between classes to study and get your work done. If you manage your time during the day, you may just find that you have 15 minutes in the evening to sneak in a game of Halo.

2. Telegraph your absences. The key to successfully managing missed classes is to communicate. At the beginning of the semester, let your professors know (in person, by E-mail, or through a letter from the athletic department) the dates you will be missing class to participate in athletics. A week before you miss a specific class, remind the professor, and make a plan for how you will make up the work and obtain the notes. And when you return, make sure your work is handed in at the agreed time.

3. Avoid "imposter syndrome." Inevitably, there will come a time in your college career when you feel as if you're walking around with a sign on your back that says, "Dumb Jock." You may feel you don't belong in the same class as the "regular" students, either because of your lack of self-confidence or poor treatment by those who (for whatever reason) don't like athletics. Step out of your comfort zone: Make an effort to cultivate friends outside your small circle of teammates and coaches. Remember that each student brings value to the institution in different ways, whether it be musical talent, academic excellence, or athletic ability.

4. Don't be a punch line. We all know him, we've all seen him, and we all know how much of pain he is . . . that guy. And trust us, every team has one. You don't want to be the player who causes your teammates daily grief. Be on time (in the athletic world, being on time means being early). Be prepared, whether it's practice, class, or study hall. If you are perceived as responsible and reliable from the start, when you are late or you do make a mistake (and you will), you will have created a margin for error, a little bit of social capital.

5. Manage your brand. Signing on to be a college athlete automatically projects you into the spotlight, not only on the field but off the field, too. You are the face of your university, and your actions reflect on your institution and your sport, both positively and negatively. Make good decisions, especially when it comes to alcohol and drugs. One bad decision will negatively affect not only you but your team, your family, and your whole athletic department. Understand that as an athlete, it's not just about you anymore; you are part of a greater whole.

6. Make the most of failure. Many college freshmen­—especially student athletes who have the twin demands of challenging athletic competition and heightened academic expectations—experience some kind of difficulty in their first semester. For some, it's a low grade on an exam or paper; for others, it's just feeling lost or overwhelmed in their new surroundings. Resist the temptation to give up. Make a realistic assessment of where you went wrong: Did you spend enough time studying? Did you ask questions in class? Did you visit the professor during office hours for extra help? Then take the steps necessary to correct the problem, right away.

7. Value Plan B. Every college student has dreams. For the ones who are athletes, those dreams usually include competing professionally. That's Plan A, and there's nothing wrong with it. The reality, however, is that fewer than 5 percent of all college athletes compete professionally after graduation. This means that you need to make a Plan B for what happens if your athletic career ends after college-level competition. This does not mean you must drop athletic pursuits altogether; it just means you should pay enough attention to the student part of your student athlete status to be ready for whatever opportunities life presents you after college.

8. Plan for life. It's easy to forget the big picture when your daily life is packed with academics and athletics, but remember to use your resources and build your network. You should aim to take at least two classes from the same professor so that when you need letters of recommendation, you will know a faculty member who can write a strong letter for you instead of a form letter. And create a résumé early. Though most student athletes are intimidated when it comes time to write one, it's good to keep in mind that your athletic experience has taught you many skills that employers value. As an athlete, you have demonstrated that you are goal oriented, work well in teams, communicate, and are organized and disciplined.

And here are two bonus tips for the future student athlete:

1. Recruiting presentations are like rap videos.

Every player has a hot girlfriend and a nice car, and every team plays in a sold-out stadium. Get a more realistic picture of each school by asking engaging questions of the recruiter. What's the team's grade-point average? What's the school's retention rate? What are the most common majors among the team members? Determine what is important to you in a school, and leave campus with answers. Do not be afraid to ask the same questions of two or three different people, and make sure you're getting consistent answers. Register for the clearinghouse early! The NCAA uses a sliding scale based upon your ACT/SAT score and GPA in at least 16 "core courses" to determine eligibility, and this information is funneled through the clearinghouse. To save time, include the NCAA as a recipient of your scores; the NCAA's code is 9999. For more information, see the NCAA's eligibility resource center.

2. Prepare your mind for academic work: Read. Athletes know the value of physical preparation for competition. The harder you work on the track, in the weight room, and on the field, the more competitive your game. The same principle applies to your academic work. Come ready to compete. Read, read, and then read some more. Set goals for yourself the summer before you come to school. Reading is a discipline, like running. It may take some practice, but it will pay off in the end with heightened focus and broader knowledge that will help you stay fit in the classroom.

© 2010 Professors' Guide LLC. All rights reserved