Succeeding Academically as an Athlete
Succeeding Academically as an Athlete
Aleks Pank /

You made the team, you may have received an athletic scholarship, and you’re about to begin your first year of college. How do you balance your athletics and your academics? This question doesn’t just apply to NCAA student-athletes but also to students dedicated to their club teams or who participate in intramural sports. Time management is key to your success, but there are a few other things to consider too, like not allowing yourself to get swallowed up by the game so much that you forget that you’re actually in college to learn. This section will address these points.

Time Management

As of 2015, Division I student-athletes spent an average of 35.75 hours on athletics and 36.5 hours on academics each week during the season. The same study reports that Division II student-athletes spent 33 hours on athletics and 37.5 hours on academics each week, and Division III student-athletes averaged 29.5 hours on athletics and 40 hours on academics every week. This adds up to a minimum of 69.5 hours each week spent on a combination of athletics and academics, which is well over the number of hours that a full-time employee puts in on a weekly basis. College students may also work part-time; the same NCAA study found that student-athletes who worked generally put in at least 8 hours per week and that 16% of DI athletes, 27% of DII athletes, and 42% of DIII athletes had a job. Additionally, students may want to participate in other extracurricular activities or socialize during their time off, not to mention that they also need to eat.

Time management, then, is key to succeeding as a student-athlete, especially since student-athletes are expected to maintain a minimum GPA and complete a minimum number of credits each year to stay eligible for competition and in good academic standing. The easiest way to manage your time is to create a weekly (or monthly) calendar. Plan it out to the hour, if necessary. First, block off all of the times that you have to be in class. Then, do the same for practice and games. What time remains is the time that you will have to complete homework assignments, prepare for exams, eat meals, socialize, and participate in other extracurricular activities. If you work or regularly attend a tutoring session, put it on the calendar. It may help to color code your activities (for instance, you could use red for practice and games, green for coursework, and so on).

It can be disheartening to watch your free time dwindle into nothing. Of the 168 hours in a week, a minimum of 69 are spent on sports and academics. Because at least 49 should be spent on sleep, there are just 50 hours left to complete everything else that needs to be done each week. It’s definitely a balancing act. If you feel like you are falling behind in any aspect of your college career, talk to an academic counselor, your coach, or your professors. They will be able to offer advice on how to handle your situation.


You are in college primarily to receive an education. Your athletic prowess may have helped you get an athletic scholarship, which in turn helps you afford college, but athletics are not your primary focus. It can be hard, though, to find a good balance between academics and athletics, particularly when coaches ask so much in terms of practices, games, travel, and conditioning. While the NCAA mandates that student-athletes should be spending no more than 20 hours each week on practices and games, this is clearly not the case. Between “unofficial” practices and conditioning, physical therapy, and game review (none of which count toward the 20-hour limit), your time is stretched thin. How are you supposed to squeeze in academics around all of that?

What is the athlete stereotype?

Culturally, there is a stereotype of the college athlete: big and dumb but excellent at sports. The general public and non-student-athletes expect student-athletes to fail their classes or to get by with the lowest GPA possible to retain eligibility and stay off academic probation. These stereotypes are never true; student-athletes are capable, just like other students. If their grades do suffer, it is often because their teams value athletics over academics.

Why does the stereotype of the dumb athlete exist?

In general, student-athletes do take easier courses and receive worse grades than nonathletes at all types of academic institutions. It may simply be because they feel pressure to spend their time on athletics over academics. As of January 2015, 20 collegiate institutions were being investigated for academic fraud by the NCAA. They are suspected of having allowed students who were not academically eligible to compete, provided nonpermissible assistance, created nonexistent classes for athletes to register for and receive good grades in, etc. Stories like these drive home the point that coaches and teams don’t always take an athlete’s education seriously. While it may not necessarily be the student’s fault, it’s the students who suffer the most from this mindset.

How can I break the stereotype?

If the media, your coaches, your teammates, and other students all perpetuate the belief that academics are not important to athletes, you might pretend not to care, just to fit into the stereotype. An informal study by Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA shows that this is exactly the case: These stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Student-athletes actually care a lot about academics, but they think that other athletes care less, and therefore, they pretend to care less to fit in. The #studentbeforeathlete campaign on Twitter is one location where student-athletes can share their academic priorities and fit in with a group of like-minded individuals. Continuing to challenge the stereotypes and focus on academics, in addition to sports, may lead to positive changes in the future.

Do I have to choose a specific major?

The truth is that athletes have just as much choice about their academic futures as anyone else, even though they’re splitting their time between academics and athletics. Any major offered by their colleges is an option, provided the student can complete and pass all of the required prerequisites and upper-level courses on time.

Which major is easiest to complete so that I can focus on sports?

Your coaches or teammates may encourage you to study something that’s easy for you so that you have more time to practice or condition. Choosing a major like general studies or interdepartmental studies is not the wisest option for someone who isn’t planning on sticking with sports in the future. Instead, elect to complete a tangible degree that leads to a tangible job. Don’t get sucked into a degree in which you have no interest simply because everyone else on the team is doing it or it requires less time than any other degree. The sad truth is that few collegiate athletes will become professional athletes; you need to get an education that will prepare you for the real world and a lasting career.

What if my plan is to play professional sports after college?

Only a fraction of students who play sports in college are going to go on to be draft eligible, and only a fraction of those are going to go on to be professional athletes. Of the 34,980 NCAA baseball players in 2016–2017, only 7,773 (22.2%) were draft eligible. Of those eligible, only 1,215 (3.4% of the total number of players) were draft picks, and only 735 (2.1%) were ultimately drafted. Even if you think that you can make it, it is always wise to have a backup plan. For this reason, student-athletes should be making conscious choices about their courses and majors and putting academics first. It is much easier to find a job if you’ve taken courses that provide the right sort of training than if you’ve majored in general studies and don’t have a passion for anything.

For those who love the sport too much to give it up completely after graduation, choosing a major or future career that involves athletics in some way is an option. Talk to an academic advisor if you hope to go into sports medicine, athletic training, exercise science, physical therapy, media and communications, or sports-related teaching, law, journalism, or psychology.

How do I make sure I graduate on time?

As with all students, but particularly with student-athletes, time management is going to be the driving force behind college success. One of the best ways to figure out the balance between athletics and academics is to make a four- (or five-) year plan. Calculate how many credit hours are needed for graduation and how many you are required to take (and pass) each year to remain eligible to play. Then, get into the details. Different majors have different requirements, and classes are not always offered each semester. Make sure that you will be able to take all of the courses you need to fulfill your major during your time at school. Don’t put off taking a prerequisite course, since it will affect your ability to register for required classes in the future. It may help to put it all in writing; draw up a master calendar of your time at college, divide it into semesters (or trimesters or quarters), and look up your degree requirements. Using information from your professors, your academic advisor, and the registrar, you can begin to plan out your entire academic career.

What academic resources are at my disposal?

You came to college to be a student first and an athlete second. Your college will offer a number of academic resources for the time you are in college. You may be able to find a free tutor, visit a writing center, or join a study group. Once you’ve graduated, reach out to the NCAA; the organization helps former athletes network and find jobs. The After the Game Career Center exists for student-athletes to post their résumés and search for open positions. Your college will also be able to help you with your career. The campus career center has staff who will be able to help you write a résumé, practice interviewing, and network with alumni. They’ll also have job listings for you to read over and will be able to help you apply.

Page last updated: 02/2019