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Preparing High School Student-Athletes for College: Important Role of Parents

Lay Foundation in High School for Academic Success in College


By Dr. Robert Nathanson and Arthur Kimmel


Parents of college-bound student-athletes often ask, "How can I best help my child prepare for the academic demands of college?" Whether or not your youngster is planning to compete athletically at the next level, or has been an A or C student, the question is significant.

To help answer that question, we have compiled the following "To-Do" list for parents. These suggestions come from our more than 30 years of teaching and mentoring student-athletes and are drawn from the ideas and strategies of academically successful student-athletes from around the country whose insights were at the core of the research for our recently-published book, The College Athlete's Guide to Academic Success: Tips from Peers and Profs. We offer these suggestions and quotations of student-athletes from our book to help you provide guidance to your youngster now, while he is still in high school, because now is the time for him to establish good habits, attitudes, and skills, so that when freshman year arrives, he'll hit the ground running and his academic transition to college will be smoother.

Help them realize they've already got what it takes!

Student-athletes possess a host of personal characteristics, traits, and values that have helped them thrive athletically, including discipline, commitment, focus, high energy, work ethic, ability to handle pressure, and resilience ... the list goes on and on. Yet, as students, they often don't realize that these same attributes are transferable to the academic playing field.

As ESPN Academic All-American soccer player and Long Island University valedictorian, David Ledet, says, "School should actually be easier for a student-athlete because we are so well-versed in being disciplined and, just like class, each sport is goal-oriented."

For parents this means:

  • Calling your child's attention to the attributes that have helped her excel in her sport ("Hey Jess, great focus-way to get it done!").
  • Reminding her, when she is studying for an exam or writing a paper, to put those attributes to good use ("Proud of you, Sue; you've got that great ability to focus! I love seeing you so disciplined in getting that paper done!").
  • Helping him recognize those valuable characteristics in himself, value them, and carry them over to his current high school classroom, future college classroom, and throughout life after college.

Encourage a positive academic mindset

Does your teen think of him/herself as a student-athlete or athlete-student? To succeed academically at any school level, it's critical that family and friends encourage and support a youngster in:

  • Valuing academic goals just as much as athletic ones. Unfortunately, that's often not the case. Think about it: What do most people ask about, especially during the sports season: the grade your son received on a recent term paper, or the number of goals he scored in last weekend's lacrosse game? What determines how your teen is viewed by her teammates? The amount of time she spends hitting the books in the library or the number of minutes she played in yesterday's big soccer game? Do teachers and classmates consider your youngster to be a capable, interested, and involved student, or just a "jock"? And when she thinks about attending college, is she thinking about majoring in biology or lacrosse? Becoming an English Lit major, or a soccer player?
  • Developing an identity beyond that of being an athlete. Just as he takes pride in an athletic accomplishment, he shouldn't be shy about letting others know about achieving an academic "personal best." Help your child to feel really good about working hard in his studies.
  • Working equally hard as student and athlete. As the saying goes, "No pass, no play." Merely achieving passing grades in order to maintain athletic eligibility shouldn't be good enough. When an athlete does the minimum to simply get by in practice or during competition, what happens? They sit! Brandeis University scholar-athlete and basketball player, Audra Lissell, suggests: "Don't take it for granted that you are an athlete and settle for barely passing grades, or surviving on academic probation. You wouldn't want to fail on the court, track, or field, so why do so in the classroom?"

Help develop time management strategies and skills

In the words of University of Massachusetts scholar-athlete and swim team captain, Becky Hunnewell, and echoed by just about all of the student-athletes we've spoken with, "Time management is the most difficult part of being a student-athlete."

The ability to manage time and juggle all the academic and social demands of college life is a major challenge for every college student. But student-athletes have far more on their plate than most non-athletes in high school, and when they reach college the plate becomes even fuller, with more intense conditioning and practices, a longer season with more competitions, increased travel away from campus, and other demands.

That is why it is so important, while your child is still in high school, to occasionally remind him about the importance of taking increased responsibility for waking up, scheduling his day, getting to practice, and devoting sufficient time and energy to his studies, but still leave time for chores, employment, and social life.

Staying organized is critical:

  • Suggest active use of a planner, pocket organizer, PDA, or simple 3x5 index cards and daily "to do" lists to independently manage her time and activities.
  • Help her to appreciate that it's ok to say "no" once in awhile to avoid getting overextended by saying, "I'm sorry, but I just can't ...." Once your youngster is away at school without you around to be chef, maid, taskmaster or cop, the 24 hours of his day will take on a very new meaning. They (and you) would be wise to start getting used to those changes sooner, rather than later.

Encourage healthy habits

Developing habits of healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and taking responsibility for their own well-being while in high school will pay dividends once your teen transitions to college:

  • Sleep. Encourage development of a consistent sleep routine with 7-8 hours a night. As Judith Owens, M.D., past chair of the Pediatric Section for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, is quoted as saying in Brooke de Lench's book, Home Team Advantage, "Parents spend so much time and money optimizing their children's success yet the one thing they are not doing is making sure their kids get enough sleep," Researchers at Brown University found that teenagers need about nine hours of sleep a night but most are only getting about seven. They also found that the amount of sleep affected a teen's grades: those who get the most tend to get the best grades; those who get the least tend to get the worst. "The greatest challenge for parents is the balance between homework, sports, music and sleep - don't overprogram your kids so that they give up their much needed sleep." advises Dr. Owens;
  • Diet. Help your child learn to eat a nutrient-dense diet rather than relying on vitamins or nutritional supplements. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's food guidance system provides healthy food choices; and
  • Overall physical and mental health. Teach your child to respect his body, see a health professional when injured, and not return too soon from injury. Physical injuries and emotional stress are inevitable for competitive athletes, and healing takes time. No athlete wants to appear weak or let the team down by being sidelined with an injury, and as a result, too many (especially boys) hide their injuries, tough it out and play hurt, or come back from an injury too soon. The same goes for managing stress. It is normal for adolescents and young adults to become overly worried about academic, social or other personal issues. But student-athletes tend to avoid talking about their problems and concerns, and typically try to "suck it up" rather than being seen as weak. Helping your youngster to seek out appropriate resources-including family members-and enabling him to see the value of asking others for help will have carry-over value once he is out on his own.

Make the most of NCAA resources

Since the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) governs most college and university athletics, it's wise for you, your youngster, his or her high school guidance counselor, athletic director, and high school and travel team coaches to be on the same page about eligibility requirements and the application process.

The NCAA Eligibility Center offers prospective student-athletes and their parents a myriad of essential information and resources, useful phone numbers, and website links, including a 24-page downloadable "Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete" and a "What Do I Need to Do?" list broken down by grade levels, 9 through 12. Whether or not your child is a highly-recruited star athlete, we encourage you to become familiar with the application process and all of the academic and other requirements as they relate to your child's particular circumstances so that you can proactively support his efforts and provide him the necessary guidance and information. Unfortunately, you can't sit back and assume that everything will be taken care of by others.

We wish you all the best on the wonderful journey with your child from high school to college!

Bob Nathanson and Arthur Kimmel are professors of education and sociology, respectively, at Long Island University (Brooklyn Campus) and the authors of The College Athlete's Guide to Academic Success: Tips from Peers and Profs (Pearson Prentice Hall 2008).

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