Athletes in the Classroom: How to Balance Athletics and Academics

Over the years I’ve taught many intercollegiate athletes, including former NBA players Kevin McHale and Randy Breuer. However, one student stood out. Early in my career, I was teaching an interviewing course at the University of Minnesota. During one particular class, this student suddenly stood up to address a couple of classmates who were a little slow settling down for class. I remember him saying, “I have been to the Olympics, to the pinnacle of my sport. Now here I am, back in school. So you might want to think about that and make use of the time you have while you’re here.”

Who was this Olympian, you ask? It was hockey player Eric Strobel, member of the gold medal winning Olympic “miracle on ice” team. After going so far in his sport, Eric suffered an injury and came back to school to finish his degree. I will always remember him as being a very engaged student. I’ve found student-athletes, in general, to add a unique dimension to the classroom environment.

balance-athletics-and-academics-2Many Student-Athletes Are Drawn to CEHD

This semester, out of the 180 CEHD students I teach, more than 40 are men and women student-athletes. I see many ties between athletics and the skills needed for a CEHD major and career. For instance, many student-athletes are very interested in topics related to kinesiology, coaching, youth development and sports management—all fields of study within CEHD. Their fellow classmates in CEHD are also very interested in sports and fitness. Because intercollegiate athletes devote so much time and energy to their sport, I’ve developed tips for instructors and student-athletes to help balance athletics and academics to ensure success in the classroom.

4 Tips for Instructors of Intercollegiate Athletes:

  1. First and foremost, effective instructors of student-athletes must check any negative stereotypes at the door. Most student-athletes are good students and highly motivated to achieve in the classroom. Many athletes perform at the top of my class. To teach successfully, instructors must have high expectations for all students, let them know you appreciate them and offer to help them develop as a student.
  2. Be organized. All students benefit from a clearly structured course where they know what is expected of them and have the materials they need to succeed. Clear expectations help students manage their time—a critical skill for student-athletes and students who work or have other significant out-of-class commitments.
  3. Be flexible. Work to design a course that accommodates the broadest number of students possible. This includes adapting the class for student-athletes, students with disabilities or students with other learning needs. To help accommodate student-athletes who must at times miss class for travel, I use online quizzes to assess student learning. Online assessment makes the process of arranging make-up testing easier for all students. And the quizzes, if necessary, can be proctored by the athlete’s academic counselor when traveling for their sport.
  4. Communicate. Respond to requests from the Athletic Academic Counselors for progress reports on student-athletes. Information from instructors is critical for Athletic Academic Counselors who can help students who are struggling to succeed.

4 Tips for Intercollegiate Athletes:

(Note:  Many students dedicate long hours to something outside the classroom that they are passionate about. These tips are helpful for any student involved in sports, or balancing school with work or other activities.)

  1. Students should become familiar with the academic services available to them. At UMN, we have the McNamara Academic Center, specifically with the mission of providing individualized attention for student-athletes.
  2. It’s imperative to develop time management and organizational skills. With so many hours required for practice and traveling, student-athletes must make good use of their time. Set up a schedule that allows plenty of time for studying and sleep.
  3. Avoid being clique-ish in the classroom. Class may be the only opportunity many intercollegiate athletes have to get to know people outside of their team. Try pushing yourself to get out of your comfort zone. I develop assigned group activities in my classes to help accelerate this process.
  4. Realize that as an intercollegiate athlete, you are always representing the school. This is an extra responsibility that athletes must manage. Positive interactions between high-profile athletes and other members of the student body foster future sport fans and help others to see them as accessible.

In addition to setting up instructors and athletes for success, it’s important for universities to have sound governance structures in place. UMN’s athletics are supported by two committees.

  1. FAOCIA (Faculty Academic Oversight Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics) is responsible for eligibility, compliance and other issues relating to the academic integrity of student-athletes. For example, this committee monitors athletes’ GPAs and progress toward a degree.
  2. ACA (Advisory Committee on Athletics) advises the University’s President and Department of Athletics on policies that affect student well-being such as student-athlete housing and fostering positive interactions between the athletic community and broader university.

These governing committees help student-athletes and teams avoid negative events or scandals and their devastating consequences. Student athletics at the University of Minnesota and other universities continue to provide a unique and positive experience for all sports lovers. And achieving success in the classroom creates an even more positive experience for the student-athlete.

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Cathrine Wambach

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Cathrine Wambach

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