How do I help my student balance school and sports?

Many first-time college parents aren’t convinced that academics and athletics can be combined. But for most students, “sports” can mean many different things, and integrating sports into college life is almost always a good move. (Note: this article is not directed to parents of NCAA Division I athletes, who have very specific academic requirements and support systems.)

Schools large and small will testify that involvement in campus activities, including sports, helps students make friends, feel like part of the community, relieve stress and stay healthy. By this point in the school year, your student may have played for a varsity or club team, or be working out regularly at the campus recreation center. My son, who is a freshman, joined the track team and it really helped ease his transition into college life.

On the other hand, maybe your son or daughter isn’t venturing outside much because with harder coursework than in high school and possibly a part-time job in the dining hall, he or she is feeling overwhelmed. Possibly, he’s still getting over the disappointment of not making a team in the fall, or assumes that his sports career is over since he’s a Division III athlete at a Division I university. But he really misses the time he used to spend with his high school team. How can you advise him?

Start by finding out what athletic and recreational options are available at his school. Different kinds of teams require different commitments, so depending on how things are going for him academically, you might steer him in one direction or another. Here are what the choices might look like, and some suggestions for guiding the conversation:

  • Varsity intercollegiate sports. At a Division III school, your son can try out for a team even if he wasn’t recruited. Academics come first at Division III schools, but the level of play will still be high. A varsity team requires a significant time commitment, with daily practices (and occasional double sessions) plus full-day and sometimes overnight trips to away games.
    “Where’s the track meet this weekend? Will you be able to study for the physics test on the bus?”
    “Since baseball season started, it sounds like you’re feeling crunched between classes and the dining hall job. Do you want to talk about your finances and whether it would be a good idea to cut back at work for a while?”
  • Club sports. This is the next level of intensity. Club sports are typically student run and financed, so in addition to serious exercise and fun they offer students a chance to work on organization, leadership, and fundraising skills. Club sports can be intercollegiate and as competitive as varsity teams; time requirements and the length of the season will vary.
    “I know you miss being on a team. Have you thought about trying out for ultimate frisbee?”
    “Wow — a spring break trip to the Bahamas with the Sailing Club. How will you pay for that?”
  • Intramurals. This is the most relaxed team sport option on most campuses. Intramural teams are often open to faculty and staff as well as students, and practices may only be twice a week. Here’s a chance to return to a sport just for fun, or try something completely new.
    “You’ve been sounding stressed, and I know you’re bummed about putting on the Freshman Fifteen. What do you think about ice broomball or innertube water polo?” (Real intramural sports at Colorado College!)
  • Fitness and recreation centers. Most schools have recreational facilities that are available free to full-time students. They may offer fitness and skills classes at a small or no additional charge and/or hold “open gym” hours for basketball, tennis, swimming, golf, etc.
    “Did you know there’s a climbing wall in the college gym, and free drop-in yoga?”
  • Outdoor clubs. If your son’s school is located near woods, hills, or water, there is sure to be an outdoor club. A modest annual membership fee will entitle him to reduced prices on excursions and equipment rentals. This is an easy way to get outside and also be social.
    “I’m sorry you can’t come home for the long weekend because the plane ticket is too expensive but I see the Outdoor Club is sponsoring a backpacking trip — you can even rent a tent and gear. Would you consider doing that?”

Being on a team has always helped my son stay on top of his homework. It forces him to be organized; sometimes having less free time actually enables students to accomplish more. He loves to sleep in, but he did report that last semester he was often up before sunrise because of early morning pre-season track workouts. I can only hope he got to class on time those days…and didn’t go back to bed!

Diane Schwemm is a fiction and non-fiction writer who lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado. She grew up in New England, and went to Amherst College and the University of Chicago. With three teenaged sons, one of whom is a college freshman, the subject of parenting college-aged and college-bound children is very close to her heart.