For many of us, organized sports were a large part of our childhood. We look back on our rec basketball team in the same way we do our middle school dances. In sports as in middle school love- we had our successes and failures. Some of us peaked early, only to plateau once the rest of our peers caught up. Our peers “catching up” could mean growing 6 inches or simply getting their braces off.
There is no universal timeline for growing up, so whether it’s getting the best date or being the best player on the team, someone could have one reputation in middle school, only to have the opposite one going into high school. 15 straight years of being the most sought after date or the star shooter is incredibly rare, and quite frankly, unnatural.
There are the few 18 year olds who do not look back on their rec basketball team as they do their middle school dances. Their middle school love lives were a phase, but their affinity and skill for their sport was not. These are the kids on the top teams, traveling every weekend, practicing every single day in pursuit of being the best.
At a certain point, a passion for a sport, just like a passion for a person, isn’t enough anymore. By freshman year in high school, college recruiting begins, and it becomes very clear whether a person is good enough to play at the next level or not. There are fewer sports teams because of the time commitment and financial investment it takes to play on travel teams. Those who decide they are either not good enough or do not have the desire to play in college tend to start looking into other hobbies and hanging out with their friends more. Meanwhile, the aspiring college athletes are missing out on parties, proms, and exposure to new activities.
Less than 6 percent of high school athletes will become college athletes, and less than 3 percent will make it to Division 1 Athletics. Making it to division 1 is odd defying to begin with, so few people take the time to explain what to do once you get there. The athletes who do make the transition to Division 1 have spent their lives defying the statistics. They have worked hard, and for 18 years, they have been some of the best in the country at what they do. It’s jarring for many coming into their first practice when they realize they are no longer the best- or in many cases, even close to being the best on the team anymore.
The first thing to remember is that you are going to be surrounded by other players with the exact same relentless drive who have made the same sacrifices you have. This takes many people off guard, and it is a great example of why success in collegiate athletics depends on your mental fortitude just as much as it does your athleticism and skill.
Rankings do not matter anymore. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen the 2x All-American never touch the field and the walk-on break into the starting lineup. I played soccer, but I happen to know this is applicable across the board. You may have a larger scholarship than the person next to you, but I can promise you that they are still competition.
Another aspect of college athletics you do not face when you are younger is the fact that your team can quickly become the only people you interact with all day, every day. It is easy to go to class, do homework with, and eat with teammates because you are on similar schedules. Many coaches also mandate that teammates live together. This is toxic for many reasons, so I will provide the cautionary advice that I can.
It can become a conflict of interest when someone is your competition on the field (or court) and your best friend off of it. Emotions are intertwined with our sport just as much as they are with our friendships. When you don’t have an outlet to talk to about life on your team and on the field, who isn’t going through their own version of the same thing, it can be hard to truly be able to talk (and think) through your feelings. It’s important to have friends who can talk with you about the sport that takes up 90% of your life with unbiased and uninvolved opinions.
I see many student-athletes who only hang out with other players on his/her team. This is unhealthy for the reasons stated above, but this adds a level of drama to “teammates” that can easily be avoided. Misunderstandings are unavoidable in social groups. When a social group is also supposed to work seamlessly together on the court or field, it’s unlikely the players are “leaving all of the drama in the locker room.” When a group of people are literally your life, it starts to become hard to separate the two facets of your relationships: teammates and friendships.
Because so many teams hang out with only themselves, I have also witnessed players get socially rejected by the team for trying to have friends both on and off the team. Sometimes it can feel like an “all in or out” situation, but usually this tension lessens as you get older. By senior year, many people realize it is vital for mental health and team functioning to have friends on and off the team.
The last piece of advice I would give to incoming athletes is to try not to overdo it on their one night out a week. Few teams are given the ability to go out more than once a week. When athletes are able to go out, they are notorious for being the craziest ( and usually the drunkest) ones at the party. Student athletes statistically have a higher propensity to binge drink than non-athletes. When you are finally freed from the reigns of your parents and this is curbed by an insane schedule that you just want one night to not think about- believe me, I’m not blaming you.
What I will say though is that crazy drunk Saturday nights where you get 2 hours of sleep and can’t remember much… do indeed affect you Monday at practice. Have fun, but try and find a good balance because it gets out of hand quicker than you think. This doesn’t come from someone wanting to lecture you… it comes from someone who has personally been through all of this or watched friends go through it.
Being a student athlete at a division 1 school is hard and it’s complicated. When it’s great- it’s the most amazing experience you will ever have. The highs are high, and the lows are low. The least I can do is to try and steer you in the direction of having more highs than lows. My one piece of parting advice will be this: through all of it- remember, you could be a starter or you could be on the bench, but you will forever be in the top 3 percent of the country at something. Now hold your head high, and enjoy the ride.