“Level-Up” Your Academic Game as a Student-Athlete

Applying sport preparation and training strategies to academics…developing an “athletic-academic mindset” for all-around college success

Soccer ball

As a two-time National Champion and Academic All-American, Final Four MVP, and two-time Hall of Fame Inductee for women’s soccer at Ithaca College, I am forever grateful for the discipline I developed as a collegiate student-athlete. It has served me well personally and professionally. It is at the core of who I am today and the approach I take in my work at College Navigators.  And, trust me when I tell you, the discipline for both my college athletic and academic endeavors didn’t come naturally. High school academics came relatively easy to me, I wasn’t overly obsessed with my grades, and graduated in the top five percent of my class.  Therefore, I spent a lot of time in the recruiting process thinking about what it would take for me to contribute to my new team and be a successful collegiate athlete. I strictly adhered to a summer training program and went to campus early for “pre-season.” Sound familiar? How much time have you spent thinking about what it will take for you to “make the jump” academically? Like many disciplined, hard-working, serious student-athletes, you have likely been really thoughtful about what you will need to do in order to “level-up”athletically in college and are therefore prepared to make adjustments and train more seriously. However, how much thought have you put into how you may need to modify your approach to academics and be as committed to “leveling-up” your academic game to truly be a successful student-athlete. Remember, less than 2% of college student-athletes go on to be professional athletes, so at minimum it is important that you optimize your academic opportunities and use college to prepare for a career outside of sport!

I have some good news for you! As a student-athlete you already know what you need to do to “level-up” academically…because you are doing it athletically! One of my realizations during my first year as a college student-athlete was that each thing I did to improve as an athlete and be a successful “on the field” had a direct analogy to my academics and to succeeding in the college classroom. In other words, I quickly realized that for most everything I did to try to improve athletically there was a parallel thing I could do to help me develop my academic skills and support my performance in my courses. Even though your brain is not a muscle, we can apply many of the same principles we use to build strength, reaction times, and endurance in our muscles to our brain. For example, just as I had to get back in shape prior to each soccer season, I had to get back in shape academically going into fall semester after not being in the classroom, studying, or taking exams for several months. I also realized that the more under control and confident I felt academically, the more engaged I was in practice and the better I performed during games and for my team. I discovered that approaching my athletic training and academic training similarly set me up for success in both. And, when I felt totally on top of my academics I could be 100% present in practice and in games, rather than worrying about how I was going to catch up on material or how I was not prepared for my upcoming exam. Like me, many student-athletes experience a strong correlation between how well they are doing academically and how well they perform athletically. When they are on top of their “academic business,” they are more likely to be performing up to their potential athletically.  Conversely, student-athletes who are “buried and overwhelmed” with their courses are usually distracted and under-performing athletically.

In order to level-up and be successful in college, I encourage you to develop an equal, keen work ethic and commitment for athletics and academics.  I challenge you to develop a discipline that I like to call the “athletic-academic mindset.” This means having discipline and putting forth consistent, earnest effort in both your athletic and academic endeavors.  It means that just like you know it’s important to “do the little things” to get that edge athletically and to be able to dig deep when things get tough as an athlete, that you commit to doing the same in your academic pursuits. Committing to academics to the same degree that you commit to your sport will not interfere with success on the field; in fact, more times than not, developing a strong “athletic-academic discipline mindset” enhances the quality of athletic performance. You make your own luck. You make it in training. (Simone Biles)

Here are 10 ways you can translate you athletic preparation and training strategies to your academics and starting developing an “athletic-academic discipline mindset:”

  1. Be present.  

Would you skip a training session or listen to your AirPods all practice and ask to meet with the coach later or ask a teammate to “catch you up” on what you missed?  Of course not! So don’t skip or “tune out” during your classes. There is no substitution for being present (physically and mentally) as either an athlete or as a student. Don’t rely on others to tell you what they think went on in class or what information they think is important for you to know. Also, just as you learn what a coach is looking for you and others to do (and how they want you to perform) by their explanations, what they demand, and how they communicate in practice; you will learn what an instructor thinks is important (or how they want you to be able to explain something) by what they cover and emphasize in class. You need to hear it, process it, and interpret it for yourself. Because how you do those things is different from anyone else! Your best friend may already know something an instructor is talking about and therefore doesn’t include it in their notes.  What if you have no clue and rely on their notes? Just as you need to understand your coach’s expectations for you on the field, court, track or pool and be able to meet them, so do you need to understand what your instructors expect from you for each of your courses. Usually the important information shared in class shows up again somewhere (like on an exam!). Class = practice…be there and be present!!! Success isn’t owned, it’s leased. And rent is due every day.  (JJ Watt)

  1. Participate…be an active learner.  

Do you sit on the bench and watch practice thinking that you will learn just as well as if you were engaged in drills and scrimmages? No! So…don’t sit passively in the back of class, half asleep, working on other assignments, or with headphones on. Get involved, participate, ask questions, contribute…ask for clarification. It is one thing to watch a teammate demonstrate a certain stroke, move, or skill; it is another for you to try it yourself. Don’t just listen to your instructor or classmates explain course concepts, try explaining it yourself or adding your interpretation or analysis when appropriate. Start small…just as you don’t have to be the best on the team in everything or lead the team in statistics to make meaningful contributions to the team; you don’t have to be an expert on a subject or be exactly “right” to make a positive contribution and demonstrate effort in class. Remember, we learn the most when we make mistakes!  Demonstration of involvement, investment, and commitment is important, just like your coach notices, so will your instructors. Every day is a new day, and ultimately, I have to figure out what works each day. (Nathan Chen)

  1. Learn a little bit every day. 

Do you pull an “all-nighter” before a game to learn and practice everything you need to know in order to perform well the next day?  No. Depending on your sport, you prepare for an opponent or competition days in advance. Sometimes you work on developing new skills that apply to every competition, other times you are working on putting things together or on strategy.  You can take the same approach for your classes and for your academic opponent, the exams! Just like you practice every (or most every) day, spend some time every day on each of your courses. Sure, you can work six hours on Monday night for a math homework due Tuesday…or you can work 1.5 hours each day, starting Thursday or Friday, its the same amount of time but you will be surprised at how you will usually finish the work with a better understanding of it all and it will be much less stressful. For every course, look at the syllabus and develop a long term strategy in accordance with your exam schedule (just like your coach develops a strategy for your season). When will you work on weekly assignments, go to office hours, review old exams preceding tests (like you watch game film of an opponent prior to a game). Dedicate time to reviewing what you already know and then focus the majority of your time EVERY DAY, particularly in the days preceding exams on working to understand the information that you haven’t learned or are having trouble understanding-just as you spend extra time on those difficult skills, plays, or timing of your sprint in your sport. One percent every day, small changes over time lead to big results. (Kobe Bryant)

  1. Develop a relatively steady work rate.  

Do days of practice go by when you don’t do anything related to fitness or strength training and then all of a sudden you spend three consecutive days of practice doing nothing but fitness or weights? No! In every practice you do something to improve your fitness and strength along with skill building and strategy work.  While there may be times during the season or year when the focus is slightly more or less on fitness or strength training, it is never all or nothing. Apply this thinking to each of your courses.  Building your “academic fitness” is similar to building your physical fitness; it is the result of a cumulative effort. Take the peaks and valleys out of your academic effort and avoid cramming throughout the semester.  Make sure that every day you are working on something for each course.  And make sure each week you are putting relatively similar effort and time into all of your courses. Yes, there will be weeks when you will need to focus on a particular course because of an exam, paper, or project; but don’t let any of the others sit idle for the entire week. Try to put forth relatively consistent effort throughout the semester by choosing from the many activities for each class (reading, processing lecture notes, doing Quizlets, doing homework, studying for quizzes or exams) and eliminate the peaks and valleys each week; strive for a relatively consistent horizontal line of effort in all courses, all semester.  Again, think of the various components of your training and just as you dedicate time and energy to them every week, try to do the same for each of your courses in a variety of ways. To be a consistent winner means preparing not just one day, one month or even one year-but for a lifetime. (Bill Rodgers)

  1. Practice like you play. 

How often do you hear your coach encourage you to “Go at game speed!”? Why do coaches scrimmage and create “small sided” games,“game like” situations, or create distractions in the pool or at the track? They do these things to put you in competitive situations before the “real deal.” They try to simulate the speed at which you need to perform and the pressure that you might feel to help make sure you can integrate the skills you have learned in practice and execute them in a competitive situation. You must create academic “scrimmages” to make sure that you understand your course material well enough to fully demonstrate it in a stressful situation, including under time constraints, and without access to material (i.e., during an exam). Performing a skill during a drill in practice is usually easier than executing that skill during competition when you are under pressure and things are moving more quickly. The same is true in academics…so, create simulations. Take an old exam under time constraints, work with a tutor who can quiz you, work problems without Googling, YouTubing, or looking at your materials once you feel like you “get it,” study in a small group (make sure you are participating by explaining concepts to others as well as asking about things you need assistance on), request a study session with the professor. Those that fail to prepare are preparing to fail. (John Wooden)

  1. Ask for help.  

Do you ask a coach for help if you are having trouble understanding what play to run or how to execute a certain defense, skill, or physical maneuver? Of course! You may even ask to come early or stay late for practice to get some one-on-one assistance from the coach. If you don’t understand something in a course or need support, ask!!  If you are not comfortable asking in front of the whole class, ask the instructor privately or visit during office hours for either the instructor or the TA. A little heads up, professor’s office hours tend to be very underutilized! Most instructors really appreciate when students visit them during office hours.  And it’s fine to simply say “I am having trouble understanding…” Most of them are well-equipped to support a student regardless of how strong or weak their mastery of the material is at a given point in time. Also engaging with your instructors and asking questions demonstrates interest, commitment, and an eagerness to learn. And, you may find that not only will your question be answered, but the instructor will go “above and beyond” and ask you about whether or not there are other concepts that they can assist you with, or give you some insights as to how they may test your understanding of the concept about which you had a question.  Finally, they may even share what they expect you to know about it through an upcoming test or assignment or provide study tips or tip you off about other concepts that they feel are important. Just as you often learn additional things during a one-on-one with a coach, you may very well have the same experience with your instructors.  And, most importantly you will have your question answered! Be honest about how you approach failure. Don’t just be critical of yourself, because that can be self-serving. Approach it honestly, assess your performance, and assess the areas where you have fallen short. Correct them and move on. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t hold on to it. (Megan Rapinoe) 

  1. Do the “extra” things.  

How much time, in addition to team practice, do you spend in order to be the best you can be in your sport?  A lot; you lift weights, study film, have individual skills sessions, work on speed and agility, meet with the coaches, go on extra runs, adjust your diet, and watch other teams compete, etc.  Do the “extra” things when it comes to your academics.  Attend office hours, meet with the professor, work with a tutor, and read, read, read (quick read before class, more in depth reading after class). Re-write or study your notes, work problems, form study groups, take practice tests, attend review sessions, etc. Look at MIT Opencourseware, Khan academy or YouTube for explanations or concepts you don’t understand. Again, remember as a student-athlete you already know what it means to “do the little things,” and you have a lot of experience in taking the initiative to do them, otherwise you would not be a collegiate athlete.  Challenge yourself to level-up your academic game and identify some little things that you can do to make an impact on your academics and just like in your sport, commit to doing them. The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra. (Jimmy Johnson)

  1. Learn to apply concepts.

Does memorizing a “move” or set play mean that you can execute that skill or play during a game situation? Nope! More often than not, you first learn a new skill, stroke, or play in isolation. Then, you likely try it with some pressure or in combination with another aspect of your sport. Finally, your coach is likely to put you in a situation where you can utilize that new skill, stroke, or play in a scrimmage or simulated competition. Then, after enough practice and situational awareness, it almost becomes second nature to know when to use it and to be able to execute it in a competition. In other words, you know when and how to apply it or “do it.” Similarly, it is important in college courses to do more than “memorize” information. In most courses, you must master the information so that you are able to recognize and understand the information in different contexts, be able to analyze or compare and contrast it, or apply it. Often the difference between students in college coursework is their varying abilities to understand the information well enough to demonstrate mastery by applying it in a test situation.  You surely know teammates who are great at drills, who can do things well in isolation or who “look great” in terms of form during practice but something happens to them in a competitive situation; they struggle to do what you have just seen them to in practice or perhaps they pick the wrong thing to do considering the situation. Just as you need to be able to choose the right skill and execute it in a competitive athletic situation at the right time, as a student you need to know the information, be able to recall it and apply it in the proper situation during exams. Again, the best way for doing this is to do the same thing that you’d do for your sport…simulate a stressful situation (i.e., an exam) and practice recalling the information and demonstrating your mastery by applying it in a variety of situations. Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong. (Alex Morgan)

  1. Remember, techniques and strategy are equally important. Like in all sports there are both technical and tactical aspects to academics. You must excel at both in order to be successful in college. As an athlete you build your skills and improve your strategic approach through a variety of activities. For example, soccer players learn new techniques for ball control, passing, dribbling, shooting, and defending. They learn how to perform these techniques correctly through a series of steps, drills, film, feedback sessions with coaches and lots of repetition and practice.  Once athletes learn new techniques in isolation and are able to do them correctly in isolation, they integrate them into their overall play through more advanced drills and simulations for competitions. Players also learn strategy in their sport. For example knowing their role, having positional awareness on the field, possessing the ability to make good decisions and utilizing certain skills during competition are critical. To be a successful college student you also must develop academic techniques and strategy, as well.  Learning techniques for note taking, reading (for both efficiency and comprehension), time management, and taking various types of tests (e.g., multiple choice, true/false, essay, open book, etc.) are important. Just like in your sport it is important to practice these academic skills and integrate them into your overall approach. In addition, developing a strategic approach to each of your courses and to your overall semester is critical. Successful students not only enhance their academic skills during college but they also elevate academic strategy.  Students must master their ability to prioritize (for individual courses, across all courses and with respect to all their demands), self-assess their progress academically as well as overall well-being, problem-solve, and access resources when support would be helpful. Just as you need to learn skills and strategy in sport, make sure that you are investing in both the technical and strategic aspects of your academic game. A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be. (Wayne Gretsky)
  1. Focus on the keys to a positive performance.  

The keys to a positive individual performance in any sport are mastering both the technical and tactical skills, being familiar with your opponent, having confidence in your ability, and being able to relax during competition. These are the same keys to having success in your college courses.  Practicing hard, repetition, seeking support, and doing the “little things” will help you develop the skills and strategy necessary to level-up your approach to college academics. Putting forth consistent effort, creating opportunities to practice and demonstrate your mastery, integration and application of knowledge, and creating “game- like” (simulate an exam) situation will help you gain familiarity. As you practice and perform successfully in practice situations, things will feel more familiar and comfortable and you will gain confidence. The more confident you are, the easier it will be for you to relax when you are asked to perform under stress (an exam or presentation).  Believe in yourself. Even if you don’t, pretend that you do…at some point, you will. (Venus Williams)

The formula for achieving success in the college classroom is no secret. Even though you may not initially think of it, it mirrors what may come more naturally to you or what you already do for your athletic pursuits. While there certainly are individual differences, and you may find adjusting some of the above analogies helpful, it is important to remember that discipline, effort, and commitment are not only the cornerstones of  being a successful collegiate athlete but also to developing an “academic-athletic mindset.” Student- athletes who approach their academics similarly to how they approach their sport will be more likely to achieve success in the academic environment…and success in the classroom often elevates athletic performance as well. So give it a try, commit to leveling-up your academic game and adopt an “athletic-academic mindset.” 

Please let me know what you experience and share other ways you can apply what you do to succeed as an athlete to your academics in order to become the best student-athlete possible. If you are interested in learning to leverage your strengths as an athlete to improve your all around success as a student-athlete, please be in touch with me at College Navigators.


Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC.

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