Seeing college students compete and dominate Olympic competition this year in Rio has been exciting to say the least.
They have mastered the art of being a student-athlete — a balance that more than 7.8 million high school students attempted during the 2014-15 school year, according to an NFHS survey. Competing at the Olympics or playing their sport at the NCAA college level would be a dream come true for any high school athlete.
Unfortunately, an average of only 7% of these athletes go on to play a varsity college sport, meaning that the overwhelming majority of student-athletes going to college don’t end up playing for an official team (See the full breakdown by sport and gender here).
That thought scared me. If I didn’t play a varsity sport, would I lose part of my identity? I was never an Olympic caliber athlete, but I was formidable in my state and had a few options for playing soccer in college. Would I regret not playing a varsity sport in college at all costs? More than anything, I loved playing my sport at the highest levels I could find. I was sad knowing I could be leaving that behind.
And that’s what I did; I made the ultimate decision to go to the school I loved most for its academics, culture and location, passing up my opportunity to play my sport at the collegiate level.
Although playing a varsity sport in college seems like a dream come true — and for some, it absolutely is — I found through my experience that it is by no means the only option. So, to every high school athlete that finds himself or herself in the conundrum I did: You’re not alone! Here are some of the reasons I chose a school over my sport, as well as some of the overlooked advantages of going to college primarily as a student.
There are an overwhelming number of factors that come into play when picking what college is the best fit for you, and no single factor should rule over all of the others — including sports. Fitting into an athletic program and a coach’s style is one thing, but choosing a school that you simply don’t like as much as another or that you aren’t as excited about (except for the athletics) is a bad idea in the long run for numerous reasons.
First, many college athletes become injured and are forced to end their careers early. If your athletic career does not go as planned and you end up leaving the team, it would be a shame if you were stuck at a school you didn’t like. Conversely, you would still have a great college experience if you were going to a place that fit you. Athletic programs are important, as are sports, but in the context of a college decision, you must try to separate the athletic decision from an academic one.
Second is that although your time will be dominated by your sport, you will still spend substantial time doing everything the student half of student-athletes do: Studying with friends, going to classes, eating in dining halls, and living on campus. If the campus and academic environment doesn’t feel right, sports alone won’t alleviate your unhappiness.
The truth is, that the student half of a student athlete will still come first in your college experience in many situations. Choosing a school that fits you is paramount to your happiness and success, even if it means turning down an athletic program that fits you perfectly at a school that doesn’t. In the broader scope of the college process, you will be glad you thought this way. Many college coaches even recommend it themselves.
When you are grappling with the possibility of not playing a varsity sport in college, you are only focusing on what you are losing — and not what you might gain. And there is much to gain in terms of the possibilities that are opened up to you.
As every high school athlete knows, sports take up an exorbitant amount of time. Between scheduled practice, workouts on your own, games and time spent recovering from all of the above, it becomes increasingly difficult to truly explore your other interests.
College athletics exacerbate this time commitment; while playing a sport is a unique opportunity, it prevents a college student from partaking in many other opportunities. Extracurricular activities provide the same social benefits teams do by creating an instant group of friends and can even supplement your academic knowledge and future resume. Additionally, they open avenues for you to explore new interests that you might not have had the time to pursue in high school, or in college, if you had to maintain a rigorous training schedule. These interests could include new hobbies, new career paths or even different sports.
Finally, I had to deal with the ‘identity’ question. In high school, I felt like an athlete; I was labeled an athlete by the varsity letters I had earned, my friends thought of me as an athlete, and what was part of my reputation was also part of my identity. So what would happen in college, when that side of me fades away?
I eventually realized it didn’t have to. I am an athlete because of what I love to do and how I view myself, not because of an official label. Whether you are competing on a club team, intramurals, or playing for the love of your sport in some way in college, you are still an athlete, on a team, improving yourself and those around you. Those are the merits I realized I actually savored about being an athlete — not the title.
As obvious as it sounds, sometimes all you need is a reminder that you are still an athlete and can stay involved in your sport in all stages of your life, regardless of if you play varsity in college. After all, college athletes stop playing at the highest level eventually; only a small fraction become professionals every year.
The point is that the reasons you play and love a sport and love being an athlete are not at all connected to an NCAA label. You can keep your athletic identity, open new possibilities for yourself with the extra time, and cheer on your school’s official team from the stands. Keep in mind that not playing a college sport doesn’t just mean leaving an opportunity behind, but also looking forward to new ones.
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