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Student Before Athlete: Why Your Sports-Minded Child Needs Academics

I love sports.  I love everything about them.  I love the competition, the spirit of immersing myself in a game, and the community of athletes, coaches, and spectators coming together in an exhilarating and exciting event.  My husband is the same way: He coaches all our kids’ sports, and not surprisingly, our kids have followed in our love of competition in activities too. 

You might be like us. If you are, then you also may be struggling, like we are, with the appropriate amount of emphasis to place on sports. I realized early in our parenting that we might be a bit much. I was reminded of this when my oldest child was in kindergarten, and I got a call from his teacher because he had gotten too riled up during a math flashcard game.  I witnessed that same enthusiasm at a school fundraiser when – during a minnow race – he cheered on his fish with a gusto that seemed, well, over the top for a fish race.

Those experiences did make me wonder if I was setting a good example of sportsmanship and competitiveness. After that phone call from school, my husband and I sat down together and questioned whether – during our family games of Throw Throw Burrito – we should tone it down a little.  But that idea seemed to take out all the fun.  

After all, positive passion and drive are good for us, right?  Passion gives us focus, it requires a work ethic, and it teaches us to push ourselves.  So how do we create a healthy balance of that energy?    

As a high school teacher, I find that many young student-athletes struggle with one balance in particular: sports and academics.  I often remind these athletes to approach academics with the same rigor they do in their activities.  Some do, of course, but for many, balancing the expectations of both is difficult.  Having a son committed to continuing his athletics after high school, I understand the challenge a parent has in convincing a child that being a student comes before being an athlete.  And I’ve learned a few things that can help instill this perspective.

Many high school students don’t realize that grades equate to money.  If your child plans on continuing a sport in college, many universities offer academic scholarships that can significantly decrease her tuition.  Schools frequently determine this monetary award by GPA – and even a few points in a GPA can make a $5,000 or more significant difference.  Considering school as a financial opportunity is a tangible way for your child to understand its long-term importance.

In addition, near the end of high school, your child may apply for outside scholarships.  These scholarship applications seek many experiences outside of athletic honors: GPA, academic awards, volunteerism, work experience, etc.  Knowing that a scholarship committee seeks a whole-person candidate is an excellent reason to work on classwork.  Your child is essentially building a resume for these applications, and sports are just one category on that resume.

And if your child is serious about playing a sport in college, they should know that their future coach will demand specific grades.  Establishing good work habits now will make those expectations easier in a year or two. College coaches also commonly assign required study hours for their athletes.  Building one’s study stamina in high school will help this collegiate transition.  In addition, it’s crucial for your child to learn material now that they will need to do well in their college courses.  

But you know all that. What if your child truly is unmotivated to invest in anything that occurs before 3:00 on school days?  What if their future plan is built around the activity they are so devoted to now?  In this case, it might help to define a parallel life plan. This is a way of framing a future athletic plan that includes a future career plan too.  As your child continues to work hard in sports, a parallel plan also asks them to visualize their job interests. Then, they can reach both goals simultaneously. A parallel plan does not dismiss their love of sports but asks for an equal focus on academics.

This is difficult when a child’s identity is built solely on their athletics.  They work hard in this area of their lives as they invest hours of hard work and commitment to their sport. It makes perfect sense that their identity is wrapped around this passion they’ve poured their time and effort into for much of their life.  

Yet your athlete is much more than the sport he or she plays. Let them know you know that.  Remind them of all the qualities they have outside of being an athlete. Tell them about their potential in other areas of their lives, including being an achiever in school.  There is a risk, of course, involved in athletic identity. What will happen when the opportunities for the sport begin to change as your child gets older?  Will they have a firm foundation of who they are outside of it? Talking to your child about the many opportunities life offers may help them imagine a world beyond their current priorities and passions.  

Because, at the end of the day, the cleats are hung up, the sticks are tucked away, and the jerseys are thrown in the wash.  It is self-discipline, leadership, and friendships that endure. And no matter how much I admire my own child for her commitment and willpower, I admire her more for her character and integrity.  And that’s what we love about sports in the first place, right? It can bring out the best in us.  Let’s try together to help our children see that their best includes their ability to strive in other areas of their lives too, and that includes their academics.  Our kids can enjoy and embrace their love of sports, but they can also develop many other strengths and skills outside of their athletics.  If I can do this with my kid, you can do it too.  See you at the field!    

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