Student-Athlete...or Athlete-Student?

Colleges suggest academics comes first, but is that really true?

Posted Aug 05, 2015

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Psy-College-y Today is a blog by college students looking at all aspects of college life through the lens of psychology.

When I first arrived at college freshman year, all of the school’s athletes were gathered in our sports complex for our “student-athlete” orientation day. We took pictures in our new school gear, and administrators lined up to discuss all of the university's past athletic accomplishments. They informed us that we were “student-athletes” because we were first and foremost students, and that athletics, though undoubtedly important, would always take a back seat to our studies.

Yet, the further along I went in my schooling the more I couldn’t shake the feeling that any sacrifices being made were coming from my academics. Out of the 14 Friday classes in this past spring semester, I missed 8 of them for track meets (almost 60%), and that sometimes meant missing Thursday classes, too. Hours on a bus may seem like prime time for homework and studying, but excitement and nervousness—not to mention noise—run rampant, and using that time for studying turns out to be easier said than done. It seemed as if school was centered around my athletic schedule rather than the other way around. When I asked a teammate if she felt the same way, she responded, “Yes, that’s, like, why I go to school.” Keep in mind this friend is a Biology major with a 3.9 GPA. Not exactly an underachiever in the classroom. Looking at a survey done by the NCAA in 2011, it seems like we’re not the only ones who feel this way. Across the board, more Division I student-athletes said they self-identified highly as “athletes” than as “students,” a finding especially high among males.

As an athlete, the “student” aspect of college inevitably becomes increasingly unavailable to you: the classes that you can't take because they fall during practice time, the weekend study sessions at the library you'll miss while you're competing, the teacher office hours that coincide with practice, involvement in extracurriculars. That’s not saying that some schools don’t try to avoid this the best they can, offering free tutoring for athletes and even acknowledging those who maintain a certain GPA at ceremonies, but colleges are fighting what is often a losing battle.

One could ask the question: “If you’re attending college, how could you not consider yourself a student above all else and make school your utmost priority?” but there are numerous factors at work preventing this. At school—a home away from home—a team takes on a family atmosphere. Teammates end up seeing one another more than anyone else, spending hours with them at practice each day and whole weekends with them at games or meets. Being a member of a group can have powerful effects—research shows us that over and over again. Group norms can have an influence on a range of things, from an individual's emotions to their food choices, and the time an athlete spends with their team is often much more than the average group spends together. With the connection between team members being their mutual involvement in a sport, it's not surprising that athletics can grow to be of extreme importance within their group dynamic.

Athletes don’t want to let their teammates down, and they don't want to let their coach down—the “parent” in the family-team relationship. A teacher in a classroom of 100+ is hard to relate to and connect with; a lot of students never even end up having a one-on-one conversation with their professor, while most athletes see and talk to their coach almost every day. As a result of this, a team often becomes more of an individual's social identity than a class does. An athlete is already more emotionally invested in their sport environment than their school environment, and that’s without even considering the psychological benefits of exercise, or the emotional power of a sport-related success.

I've never skipped a run, but I've skipped a class. If it's between staying up another hour or two to study for a test, or using that time to get extra sleep before a big meet or workout, I always choose the latter. I'm a student and I'm an athlete, but when it comes down to it, what I'll remember most about my college career are my races and teammates, not the classes or classmates, and so that's what takes precedent.

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