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How Do I Help My Student-Athlete Balance School and Sports?

Adina Glickman

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Dear Adina,

My daughter is a student-athlete at the moment. She even enrolled in a recruitment platform and seems to be motivated to pursue to play soccer in college. She complains that training is a lot of work and academics also involve a lot of time. She struggles with her balance. How can I support her?

Dear Parent,

Whenever I think about student athletes I’m reminded of Bob Thaves’ cartoon about the dancing duo Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: “Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.”

A student-athlete does everything a student does, but with a jam-packed practice and game schedule and many hours of physical exertion. At the college level, depending on the sport, add some crazy early wake-up times, post-game physical therapy or ice baths, weight training, team dinners and meetings, and national travel (with time zone changes!). I need a nap just thinking about it.

At the same time, student-athletes are often physically and socially in much better shape, pay better attention to nutrition and sleep, and carry with them a sense of belonging and team spirit that goes a long way towards supporting great academic work. And daily immersion in sweaty endorphins can dilute the stress hormones that saturate most students.

The struggle for balance is perpetual, so the first step is to normalize that for your daughter.

Let her know she’s not doing anything wrong as she continuously abandons at least one important priority in service of a competing important priority. A lot of ambitious students feel stressed by the practical decisions of letting things go and being “behind” with the intention of catching up later. But if they can let go of the stress, usually fueled by anxiety that they’re not doing it right if they’re not doing it all right on schedule, they’ll get more done and feel better about it.

In fact it’s even better to look at an entire semester as a flexible set of deadlines with a single finish line. Some things within that semester may need to be delayed while others take precedence. But as long as she reaches the finish line with most of the work[1] complete, she's good.

Next, help her look at efficiencies.

There are a number of efficiencies that I always recommend to student-athletes, so it would be worthwhile to encourage your daughter to examine her methods and see where she might be spending more time than she needs to on academics.

  1. Homework: Especially in high school, when homework is assigned without necessarily being equally useful to all students, she should be encouraged to assess where her learning is as opposed to whether the assignments are complete.
  2. Note-taking: In addition, many students take too many notes from their reading, so she might benefit from evaluating whether her notes are full-length transcriptions or breadcrumbs. Along with that, most students don’t revisit their notes until it’s time for a test or a paper, at which point they’ve forgotten much of what they read and have to spend a lot of time re-learning. It’s more efficient to revisit notes, and consolidate/synthesize, every day or so.
  3. Planning: For all students (athletic or not) having a solid plan that makes the best use of time is essential. Planning helps them set priorities and stay organized. Most of all, it enables them to reduce the stress of feeling like they’re carrying all of their assignments and deadlines everywhere they go. They can put it in a planner and forget about it until the time the planner says to work on it.

There may be a deeper question here that you can leave room for if you begin to sense that she is moving forward with her sport with less joy and more sense of obligation. If the net result of playing soccer is one of satisfaction and replenishment, it will remain a positive part of her experience. The visceral delight in playing well can balance a frustrating assignment. But if that balance begins to tip — either the challenges of academics or soccer begin to predominate the satisfaction of either one — it’s time to talk about where to cut back. It helps to approach academics and athletics agnostically, that is without a pre-judgment as to which one has greater value to your daughter.

If you lean towards prioritizing academics but she’s all about soccer, you will be in conflict. If you lean towards soccer but she's focused on academics, you will be in conflict. Not leaning either way will help her navigate her decisions knowing you support her no matter what.


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[1] An incredibly wise man who was the dean of a prominent law school and also the former president of a major university once told me that his expectation of good work is completing 80%. The other 20% comes in time.

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Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching Group, which offers academic, life, parenting and career coaching. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at
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