Students build valuable skills juggling academics, sports
Christine Kotarba’s day is scheduled from sunrise to sunset: wake at 7, go for a run, shower, go to class, study in the library, eat lunch with teammates, attend class or study, practice for two to three hours, eat dinner, attend student organization meetings, and study before going to bed at a reasonable hour.
“It’s challenging to figure out how to prioritize and balance your day’s schedule,” says Kotarba, a member of the Hawkeye track and cross-country teams who has earned Academic All–Big Ten honors. “You have to make time to study and practice, but you also have to find time for fun, like watching a movie or shopping with a girlfriend.”
Kotarba, a senior elementary education major from Elmhurst, Ill., is one of about 660 undergraduates at The University of Iowa who balance demanding dual roles as college students and Division I athletes. Doing well in the classroom and on the playing field often requires long days, juggling multiple responsibilities, studying in airports and hotels, and skipping social outings with friends.
“A lot of us joke that we wonder what it’s like to just be a student,” says Jacqueline Lee, a junior tennis player from Canton, Ohio. “You don’t always have extra time during the day to meet with a professor or watch TV.”
But student athletes say the experience is also highly rewarding, offering opportunities to make career connections, meet students from diverse backgrounds, and travel across the country.
“You feel like you’re in an elite group,” says Joe Uker, a senior wrestler from Osage, Iowa, who has earned a perfect GPA two semesters in a row. “It’s rewarding to know you’ve worked hard at something you love.”
Playing field and classroom
Fred Mims, senior associate athletics director and director of Athletics Student Services, says student athletes learn many skills that will help them throughout their adult lives, from managing their time to succeeding under pressure.
“Being an athlete gives you a strong sense of teamwork,” Mims says. “It also allows you to carry heavy mental and physical burdens that you’ll always have to deal with in your everyday life. It really tests you, but then you figure out a way to be successful under those pressures and stressors.”
The experience also exposes athletes to teammates from many cultures and ethnic backgrounds, says Nancy Parker, associate director of Athletics Student Services.
“Some of our teams have students from all around the world,” Parker says. “The time spent together practicing and playing is lengthy and extensive, and their multicultural experience is really rich.”
With days crammed with classes and practices, and weekends and breaks often reserved for traveling, many student athletes say the most important skill they’ve honed is time management.
Lee, a biology major, says she has learned how to squeeze every minute out of her day. She takes note of everything she has to do each day in her planner, from waking at 6:20 for morning workouts to studying and doing homework in the afternoon. She makes lists, prioritizing the things that are most important and the things that can wait until tomorrow.
In her limited free time, Lee is involved with the Iowa Student Athlete Advisory Committee, attends Christian student ministry 24-7 and other church services, and volunteers in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
“I think being able to juggle two things that are very important will look really good to an employer,” says Lee, who is studying to become a physician assistant in pediatrics. “It shows potential employers that you can handle any obstacles you might face in the future because you succeeded in college.”
Less than 10 percent of student athletes nationwide go on to professional athletics careers, Mims says, so a central role of Athletics Student Services is stressing the importance of getting a good education. To demonstrate, Mims says, former student athletes are often brought in to speak to current students about life after college.
“We talk a lot about options,” Mims says. “We tell them, ‘Shoot for your dreams, but also prepare yourself for another option.’”
Chris George, a former Hawkeye swimmer from Ankeny, Iowa, who graduated with honors in 2003, says his experience as a student athlete has helped him deal with the pressures of medical school.
“I learned the value of hard work, how to put in my best effort no matter what the task is,” says George, a fourth-year student in the UI Carver College of Medicine. “I also learned the value of teamwork. The future of medicine, like many careers, is interdisciplinary. You work a lot with people from other specialties. What I learned as a member of a college sports team carries over really well.”
Preparing for a big test is mentally tiring. Student athletes often study when they’re physically and psychologically exhausted after a grueling three-hour practice. They have to stay focused even when the media and fans are berating their recent performance on the field. And student athletes have other worries most students may not have, like eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of rest.
“If you’re having a rough couple days at practice and your body is worn down, it really wears on your mind,” says Uker, a biology major and honors student who plans to attend dental school next year. “It takes a lot of strength mentally to bring yourself out of the wrestling mode and focus on your studies.”
Being successful at school and sports typically requires discipline, drive, and the ability to handle pressure, says Mims, a former Hawkeye baseball and basketball player.
“These students face high visibility and high expectations,” he says.
Mims’ office is charged with helping athletes thrive at the University and beyond, cope with stress, meet expectations, and manage their time. The office provides a host of services, from tutoring to career development seminars.
To deal with the pressure, Aditya Jones, an Academic All–Big Ten sprinter and hurdler on the track team, says she makes a point to schedule at least 20 minutes each day to do something unrelated to school or athletics, such as meditating. Taking a break from everything helps her refocus, she says. Jones, a senior psychology major from Fairfield, Iowa, who plans to attend medical school next year, also has mentors back home whom she calls on when she needs encouragement.
“The most challenging part about being a student athlete is balancing your life,” says Jones. “You don’t want to get too caught up in one aspect or the other.”
Jason Manson, a senior football player from Bloomfield, Conn., says his teammates help him get through particularly tough weeks during the high-profile football season.
“We count on each other,” says Manson, a communication studies major who hopes to be the first in his family to graduate college when he earns his degree this spring. “We ignore the outside expectations and try to live up to what we expect from each other. That helps us handle the pressure a little better.”
by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith