Congratulations, you have graduated from High School and are moving on to a University. Before you head off to become the next All-American Student-Athlete, there are some things you should know that will significantly increase your chances of success. You probably have heard this speech many times in your life, from your teachers, coaches, parents, and anyone who hears you are going off to play varsity sports.
Well, now it is time for a fresh voice. As the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at a top athletic university in Canada, I want to provide some wisdom on what I see from our student-athletes that help them excel. And what practical steps they could have taken to avoid first-year struggles.
First, understand a straightforward concept: University is hard. You might be brilliant and High school might have been a cakewalk, but make no doubt about it, University is the next level. You will be balancing academics, athletics, relationships, and top that off with the fact that you are moving away from home, probably having to make food choices for yourself and maybe even getting a part-time job on the side to make some coin. Yes, University is busy. Yes, it is stressful. However, I genuinely believe it can be one of the best and most fruitful times of your young life. That is why I decided to work in a university setting. I genuinely believe this to be one of the most impactful 4-5 years in a young adult’s life. How does one navigate this road through University and end up with a degree at the end while amassing a National Championship or two and even a few individual recognitions?
Learn time management. Success in University as a student-athlete is all about time management. Lots will be going on in your life, and your attention will be pulled in many directions. There is enough time in University for all of these things and more, but you need to manage your time well and get your priorities straight.
Set a schedule. Know when your classes, lifts, and practices are. That time in between classes? That is a great time to eat lunch. The block in the evening looks like a great time for Netflix and Tick-Tock, but believe it or not, and you can get homework done. I learned something from the great coach Dan John that has worked wonders for me: as soon as you have to do something, get started on it. Your paper is due in three weeks, and you have a bye this weekend? Do your paper! Getting things done early is the key to a stress-free time during exams and paper season when you also need to focus on your team’s playoff run if you are stressed out of your mind from school, good luck playing to the best of your potential.
Second, build good habits. Sleep. Drink water. Eat your protein and veggies. Train hard. Show up early to everything. The sooner you can get used to doing these consistently, the sooner you will build a routine that will allow you to develop to the best of your ability and succeed in University. Being disciplined is the key to success, and discipline begins with developing good habits. These habits will carry over to every aspect of your life and beyond. There is a reason most companies want to hire student-athletes when they graduate. They assume they have developed these strong work habits and discipline that is the real deal-breaker in post-university life. As mentioned, you will have many distractions in University that take you away from your focus on your sport. That is normal. If you have healthy habits ingrained into your routine, these distractions will be small speed bumps that shape you instead of completely derailing you.
Third, develop yourself as an athlete as much as you can before coming to training camp. I am not just talking about coming in fit for the conditioning test, but come in as a well-rounded athlete with as few weaknesses as possible. The more skills you have, the more versatile you are, and the more situations coach can play you in. The best way to do that is to reach out to your new coaches. Once you have signed your letter of intent and the school year ends (aka NOW), you can start working with and getting advice from your University’s sports coach and strength & conditioning professional. I cannot understate how important this is. These coaches do not know you very well (yet) and can objectively look at your skills and abilities and help you focus on your weaknesses leading up to your first training camp without having much of a bias. The more skills you have shows that you are severe and intentional about your commitment to the program. College coaches love to have eager athletes that are hungry to learn and grow as an athlete. Soak up everything your coaches tell you like a sponge. This will only benefit you. I know you think that big Hulk-looking guy in your local Rec Centre walking on twig legs knows what he is talking about. You might want a more professional opinion- especially from someone who gets paid to make you better! Learn how to squat, lunge, hinge, do a chin-up, and a push-up (correctly!) for starters. Having a base foundation of movement and technical competency will go a long way in helping your S&C coach turn you into the BEAST you always wanted to be in no time!
Yes, University is hard. Simple but hard. What separates those who succeed as student-athletes and those who do not are typically those who have great work ethics, a hunger to learn, and effective time management strategies. Don’t go into camp, thinking you have the right to anything. You need to earn your place just like everyone else. That fifth-year starter? They were once a bright-eyed freshman like yourself. They are in that position because they put in the time, listened to their coaches and teammates, learned some things along the way (most likely the hard way), and now get to enjoy the spotlight as a result. Learn a lesson from them, because most often they will echo what I just told you regarding what they wish they would have known coming into university sport.
Don’t expect anything from anyone, work hard, pay your dues, and stay humble or university life will humble you pretty quick!