How to Be a Successful Student Athlete in College: Support & Resources

This student guide examines the roles, challenges and lifestyles of the modern student-athlete. With over 460,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) student-athletes competing each school year, not to mention those at other schools, it is no surprise that multiple organizations are in place to help protect participants and enforce regulations. The primary organizations in this role are the NCAA, National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

Defining the Student Athlete

Student-athletes are those individuals who are a team member in an officially sanctioned collegiate sport, compete against students other schools, and are concurrently enrolled as a student. Student-athlete associations include the following:

National Collegiate Athletic Association

The NCAA is an organization dedicated to the well-being and success of college athletes. The association is comprised of nearly half a million athletes, 19,500 teams, and 52,500 organizers, coaches and other participants. The NCAA is divided into Divisions 1, 2 and 3 (D1, D2 and D3, respectively). D1 has 179,200 student-athletes and is the highest level of athletics. The D1 designation is for schools with high enrollment, extensive athletic scholarships, state of the art facilities and those that have at least 14 sports for men and women (with a minimum of 2 per gender).

D2 is an intermediate division with 121,900 student-athletes. D2 schools typically offer their students a good balance between competitive sporting events, community engagement, and academics. Approximately 62 percent of students at D2 schools receive some type of academic, athletic or need-based financial aid. D3 has 190,900 student-athletes whose members focus on academic success and do not offer athletically related financial aid. For students to gain eligibility to play in the NCAA, they must follow the NCAA sliding scale, which figures overall GPA with one's SAT or ACT scores.

National Junior College Athletic Association

The NJCAA is comprised of two-year institutions and community colleges. NJCAA also divides its member institutions into 3 divisions (D1, D2 and D3), with 525 schools across 24 regions. The organizations follows a similar protocol regarding financial support and resources for its D1, D2, and D3 as the NCAA.

National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics

The NAIA has a membership of 250 schools serving 65,000 student-athletes and focuses on smaller institutions, including faith-based and private schools, with more limited financial resources. The NAIA is divided into 2 divisions. In most cases, student-athletes belonging to the NJCAA and NAIA must maintain a 2.00 GPA or higher to remain in good standing and be able to participate in sports.

Funding and financial aid for student-athletes comes in multiple forms, including grants and scholarships. Grants and non-athletic scholarships are common at NCAA and NJCAA D3 institutions. Student-athletes with exceptional academic records and standout athletic abilities may be eligible for a full-ride scholarship. A full-ride covers the entire cost of college, including tuition, room and board, textbooks, and sometime living expenses. Most schools require those students on a full-ride to maintain a high GPA and engage in various extracurricular activities on campus and in the community. Walk-on athletes, or those who were not actively recruited by a school's athletic program but become part of the team, typically do not receive athletically based financial aid, but may qualify later on if they display athletic and scholastic talent.

Juggling the Academic Workload and Athletic Expectations

Student-athletes' schedules can be among the most hectic of any college student. From keeping up with assignments and attending class to team practice and games, there is more on a student-athlete's plate than others realize. In addition to academic and athletic obligations, student-athletes must also maintain some kind of social life and find time to rest. In the section below, the guide addresses some of the hurdles that these students face on a daily basis.

Students must maintain full-time enrollment, often with at least 12 credit hours per semester during which their sport takes place. While specific requirements may vary slightly by school, student-athletes must typically maintain at least a 2.00 GPA to remain eligible for participation in sports.

AccreditedSchoolsOnline.org Research

Most student-athletes deal with academic and performance-related pressures every day. Serious and contributing participants in any sanctioned college sport must attend practice sessions, scrimmages, film viewings, and other types of meetings in which group participation and team-building is involved. Each week, these non-academic obligations add up and quickly fill-out the calendar. Students playing at the NCAA level, for example, can expect to contribute 28.5-34 hours per week on sports-related obligations alone. Contrary to popular belief, a recent study by the NCAA shows that student-athletes spend as much time, if not more, on their athletic pursuits in the off-season. This is particularly true for men's football and baseball and men's and women's track.

Unfortunately, student-athletes can't merely reduce their credit hours to lighten the workload each week. For all notable associations such as the NCAA, NJCAA, and NAIA, students must maintain full-time enrollment, often with at least 12 credit hours per semester during which their sport takes place. While specific requirements may vary slightly by school, student-athletes must typically maintain at least a 2.00 GPA to remain eligible for participation in sports. The NCAA, NJCAA, and NAIA exist, in part, to make sure that student-athletes have a fair opportunity to make academic progress in their college program, as well as to protect athletes from being overworked.

Steps to Success for the College Athlete

Like all students in college, student-athletes must learn to manage their time, and use it wisely, to be successful. To get the most out of their program, and to be a thriving team member, student-athletes need to balance their schedule and make time for relaxation, assignments, attending classes, going to practices and games, meets or matches. In the section that follows, the guide offers some tips and tricks on how to be a good steward of your daily schedule.

Be Goal-Oriented. Firstly, it is helpful to start with clear short- and long-term goals in mind. What do you need to accomplish this semester? What's on the horizon? Where do you want to be by this time next year? Redshirted athletes, or those with a temporary suspension from participating in a sport, may need to focus on raising their grades, practicing with the team, or increasing their size or stamina. In these cases, a goal-oriented schedule helps you stay on track and progress both academically and athletically. Make a list or outline and keep it within sight by your desk.

Productivity Schedule. Perhaps one of the most obvious but useful time management tactics is to create a daily productivity schedule. With this schedule you can map out and prioritize items in your daily routine. You will be able to discern how much time each activity takes throughout the day and learn to block out time to complete them. Yes, the duration of some of your sports-related activities may be out of your control. It is important, however, that your teammates and coaches follow a schedule and have a respect for each other's time. If you feel like the team is not adhering to an agreed upon schedule or duration for an activity, and it is affecting your ability to complete other tasks, say something about it. Whether you do it alone, with a teammate at your side or with the support of an academic advisor, clear boundaries on timed sessions need to be discussed with coaches and others in authority when it negatively affect your daily progress.

Set a Timer. For those aspects of your daily schedule that you alone can control, make sure that your productivity schedule is complete with a designated number of minutes per activity. Invest in a stopwatch, or use the timer on a smartphone or computer, to ensure that you move on from one activity to another. It is quite easy to do well in one activity, and enjoy your progress while doing it, and fail to move on to the next task. Take pleasure in the fact that you are doing well at this one task, but make sure you keep moving down the list when your time is up. The same thing goes for challenging tasks that you'd prefer to quit early, before your designated time is up. In both cases, the timer keeps you honest. Set the timer and stick to it!

Academic Buddy System. As a member of a team, you will have teammates who have similar stressors, obligations, assignments, and day-to-day challenges. While it is important to have friends outside of sports, the individuals on your team know the most about the challenges of being student-athlete. They know intimately the hurdles you face as a member of the same team, so find a way for you both to hold each other accountable in matters both academic and athletic. It is important to succeed in each area, so why not develop some kind of buddy system that helps keep you both on track to meet your daily schedule and short- and long-term goals.

Get to Know Your Professors. As someone who has taught undergraduate students, including a dozen division 1 athletes, I can tell you that it is important to get to know your professors. At the very least, during the first week of classes, be sure to introduce yourself and be open with them about your demanding schedule as a student-athlete. Better yet, as opposed to approaching them during the hectic moments before or after class, try to attend their office hours early in the semester so you can have a conversation. Throughout the semester, attending a professor's office hours is an excellent way to receive individualized instruction, ask questions, and keep up with course content. Your professors will likely appreciate your hard work, transparency and initiative. If any issues arise throughout the semester and you need a deadline extension, for example, this may make it easier to ask for help.

Bear in mind, your professor is not going to "take it easy" on you because you are an athlete. What you are doing by having an open dialogue with them is showing your desire to be a good student who respects the professor and the class agenda. The takeaway point is that your professor needs to know from the start that you are going to give your very best effort to succeed given the challenging schedule that student-athletes face on a daily basis. In my experience, those athletes who put forth a serious effort, went to class and attended occasional office hours consistently earned better grades than their fellow athletes who did not.

Use School Resources. Lastly, your school has many academic resources designed to help you succeed. For most schools, this includes access to tutoring services, writing help, research assistance, libraries, archives, study groups, technology and software training, job preparation services and public speaking coaches. With online support, video conferencing, and many 24/7 support services, making use of these tools is much easier in recent years than ever before. You may be able to consult with a tutor online, whether your are on-campus or traveling with the team in another state. These resources are free and you should take advantage of them whenever possible.

Busting the Myth of the Dumb Jock

Unfortunately, student-athletes often face unfair stereotyping from other students, sports fans and even some of their teachers. Certainly, there are students with poor academic records in every department, regardless of their extra curricular activities. Let's consider a handful of the unfortunate myths about student-athletes.

Athletes Don't Understand Anything But Sports

WRONG. One expert, Chad Orzel, argues that offensive descriptors for athletes come from extremely problematic notions of class and racial prejudices, as well as some additional factors. Orzel suggests that, like other scenarios in which the level of commitment needed to succeed "borders on obsession," student-athletes, by default, have a disproportionate chance of excelling in other areas outside of the sport, including social skills and public speaking. He compares the all-encompassing pursuit of professional success by the student-athlete to the career-long scientific endeavors of a physicist. Both the scientist and the athlete, he suggests, can be awkward in daily conversation or scenarios outside the lab or sporting event, but that doesn't mean that either of them is unintelligent or smarter than the other. In other words, for Orzel, extreme focus and a single-minded pursuit of one goal can cause natural and explainable shortcomings in other areas.

They Lack Serious Intelligence

WRONG. Related to Orzel's sentiments above, Daniel Oppenheimer, another expert and a professor of psychology, argues that one reason athletes often earn lower grades has to do with the student's interpretation of their teammates' attitude toward academics in general. While this is only one of many angles from which to debunk this myth, his study showed that individual student-athletes think their teammates take their schoolwork less seriously than themselves. As a result, Oppenheimer suggests that student-athletes attempt to match their teammates level of academic disinterest by spending less time on homework and attending fewer classes. For Oppenheimer, the cause of lower grades is a interpersonal social issue, not a matter of intelligence or ability.

Professors Are Easier On Athletes

WRONG. There is a widespread notion that student-athletes receive better grades because of their performance or status as an athlete. This is an unfair stereotype and a misdirected accusation. Professors are solely responsible for being ethical teachers and graders, not the student. If this unfortunate event takes place in a class, the professor is to held accountable. As a teacher, I had several student-athletes who performed at a higher academic level than many of their non-athlete peers. I did not grade athletes differently or bolster their grades in anyway. They simply applied themselves, managed their time, and took their academics seriously.

Without Sports, Athletes Don't Stand a Chance in the Real World

WRONG. According to an ongoing study in 2016, student-athletes are just as likely, and in some cases more likely, as their non-athlete peers to find full-time employment after college. Employers identify many positive characteristics in athletes, including leadership skills, motivation to see tasks through from start to finish, positive attitudes and general enthusiasm.

Jocks are Popular Because They Play Sports

WRONG. The student-athletes at Yale University make up roughly 15 percent of the student body. About 33 percent of the student-athlete population who responded to a campus survey felt "not respected or actively disrespected by fellow students." What’s more, 59 percent of the student athletes polled said they gave up athletic scholarships at other schools to attend Yale. Yale does not give out athletic scholarships. While I acknowledge that this study involves only one school, there certainly is no automatic pass into popularity, including for those who play college sports.

Student Athletes in the Spotlight

Student-athletes do more for their schools and communities than help facilitate entertaining sporting events. In many ways, they are roles models for their fellow students and sports fans who can engage in mutually beneficial activities on-campus and in their communities. Student-athletes who are active in this arena raise awareness for important issues and experience personal growth, develop leadership and social skills and learn about the importance of civic engagement. The section below highlights some of the ways that student-athletes can get involved.

On Campus

Student Athletes on Campus

Along with the NCAA, NJCAA, and NAIA, organizations such as Campus Compact work to connect athletes and athletic departments and various campus activities offices at their schools. When student-athletes engage in social justice campaigns, campus partnerships and local conventions and workshops, for example, they raise awareness for important issues and help foster a culture of inclusion and respect. These on-campus engagements open the door for future engagements and a type of continuity that leads to the development of student service traditions and worthwhile events that serve the student body. Some athletic programs take these opportunities to raise awareness on issues such as gender inequality, racism, sexism, body shaming and to support their LGBTQ peers.

In the Community

Student Athletes in the Community

According to the NCAA, approximately 87 percent of female and 83 percent of male athletes volunteer on an annual basis. In fact, at least 44 percent volunteer on a monthly basis or more. Student-athletes can take advantage of local civic advocates, public outreach programs, and annual events hosted by their college or university. They can help organize and participate in local field days, reading fairs, book drives and health and wellness fairs. They may also take part in international trips to locations such as Cuba, Morocco and Tanzania to participate in service projects. Organizations such as Student-Athletes Abroad help place students in various academic and internship programs around the globe.

Student Athletes & Preparing for Career Success

As explained in the busted myth above regarding post-college success, it is evident that student-athletes acquire a useful skill set while engaging in collegiate sports. Student-athletes understand teamwork, competition, and can work under pressure. Many of them also have experience in leadership roles that parlay into management abilities and higher-level responsibilities.

Teamwork

Working as part of a team or in a group can be challenging for many professionals. College athletes have spent more time than most of their peers working as a team toward common goals. This skill is highly valuable in virtually any field with team components.

Understand Competition

Athletes know how to give their best effort and still handle defeat. They also have experienced enough winning scores to the point they also know how to be victorious and be respectful of their opponents. Many professionals compete with others on a daily basis in their jobs. They must be strategic, resourceful, and remain cordial.

Deliver Under Pressure

Which aspects of being a college athlete do not have some kind of pressure involved? Student-athletes know how to perform at their fullest potential even when a lot is riding on their actions and decisions.

Leadership

While not all athletes engage in overt leadership roles on their teams, they are at least in constant contact with disciplined authority figures. If they are not leaders themselves, they have the lived experience to understand the importance of a quality leader.

From the Expert: Jarrod Franklin

Hailing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jarrod Franklin is a master's student at Tulane University who played on the football team from 2013-2017. He holds a B.S. in Finance, Management and Entrepreneurship. While pursuing his master's degree in Data Analytics, he works as a graduate assistant in sports marketing and promotions.
How did being a student athlete affect your college experience?

Being a college student as well as a student-athlete definitely has many trade-offs. A student athlete has to be disciplined to say “no” when it comes to parties, formals, mixers and essentially socializing like we would as non-athletes. College athletes have to choose if they want to be a student or an athlete. What I mean by that is, it’s extremely hard to put 100% into being both. Everyone wants to experience the next level in sports and perform at an extremely high level, as well as excel to the fullest in class and leave no stones unturned. So, this experience puts many things in perspective, and athletes have to develop a discipline for being realistic.

During your sport’s season, what would a typical day be like and how do you maintain a sports-homework-social life balance?

A typical day for me when playing football for Tulane consisted of waking up at 6:00 AM, breakfast at 6:30 AM, and being dressed and ready for team meetings for 7:00 AM. As a team, we would start practice or workouts at 8:30 AM and finish at 11:30 AM. All of our classes had to be scheduled after 12 o’clock due to practice or any other team activity. Athletes would have to come back in the afternoon for a few hours to study films on opponents and do homework on the upcoming game. Students-athletes have very little time in a week to maintain homework, social life and football. Many sacrifices have to be made, because you can’t slack off with football. It's what’s paying the bills, and being heavily evaluated. So you have to sacrifice your social life, sleep and sometimes your schoolwork suffers.

How does being a student-athlete prepare you for career success?

Being a student-athlete makes a person feel like anything else is possible in life. Going through the grueling workouts every single day, the structured time schedule and the toughness of everything creates a mindset that many people cannot endure. Sports prepare athletes for career success because these values are very important to companies. This is what employers look for in candidates. It just so happens that sports instill these values in athletes in the toughest ways. These important skills are waking up early, time-management, critical-thinking, teamwork, doing whatever it takes to be the best and sacrificing things you love to be great.

Additional Resources

  • Athlete Network: This company helps athletes achieve their goals at virtually any stage in their careers by connecting like-minded individuals around the globe. The site is especially useful for athletes who want to diversify their skill set and expand their career opportunities.
  • Athnet: This site connects students and parents to helpful resources regarding recruitment and scholarships for athletes, including free eBook downloads.
  • Accredited Schools Online Athletic Recruiting Guide: This guide helps prospective and current student athletes navigate the early stages of their college careers, including recruitment advice and scholarship pointers.
  • College-Bound Student-Athlete Guide by NCAA: This helps students, parents, and coaches understand the initial-eligibility process for students interested in participating in sports programs at NCAA-affiliated colleges and universities.
  • Nutrition.gov: This USDA-sponsored site offers current dietary information, including a special page on dietary supplements for athletes.
  • Federal Student Aid: It is essential for all college students to apply for financial aid by submitting the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
  • FinAid: FinAid is an online guide to locating and securing financial aid and savings in the form of scholarships, loans, tax benefits, and payment plans.
  • MedlinePlus: Sponsored by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus has specialized pages for athletes regarding nutrition and exercise.
  • NCAA.org: Main homepage for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. With over 1,100 college and university members, 100 athletic conferences, and 40 affiliated sports organizations, the NCAA is one of the largest sports-oriented nonprofits.
  • Positive Coaching Alliance Development Zone: This site allows students to browse through book excerpts, videos, and external links that speak to various hot topics in the student-athlete world. From recruiting and tryouts to dealing with teammate challenges, PCA has some advice for you.