The transition from high-school sports to collegiate athletics is fun and exciting!
It can also be stressful. On top of creating a new chapter of your life, meeting new friends, and starting classes, student-athletes are expected to train and perform at their best. Without the proper tools, it can be overwhelming.
It can be particularly difficult for incoming first-year student-athletes to feel as though they have a voice. When things get tough, it can seem impossible to ask for help out of fear, embarrassment, or because you simply don’t know who to turn to.
Luckily, we at VIS have your back! We spoke with VIS League athlete Emily Durgin, former UConn track and field star turned pro-runner, to learn more about how she used her voice to navigate the highs and lows of being a collegiate student athlete:
As a collegiate athlete, managing the academic and athletic work-load is extremely challenging. How did you navigate this when you felt you needed support?
Durgin admitted that it took her a few years to truly find the courage and confidence she has at present to advocate for herself.
Her first-year of college at UConn was extremely challenging: a heavy academic workload, early track practices, and lots of travel. Durgin revealed that “[her] grades suffered… a lot. Not because [she] was partying or anything like that but [she] could not quite figure out how to manage having enough energy to do well at practice and in the classroom.”
Durgin’s experience is not uncommon. College academics and athletics are both extremely demanding. Professors and coaches both expect you to make coursework and practice a priority.
Durgin suggested that first-year athletes take advantage of their professor’s office hours, explaining that, “If you can personally get to know your professors and go to their office hours… they are going to be on your side.”
Additionally, Durgin touched on the pressure athletes feel to select a major that is conducive to being on a varsity team. In other words, choosing majors that are “easy” for travel. At the end of the day, Durgin urged athletes to pursue the major that they are passionate about. While some athletes fear facing consequences for opting for a more demanding major, if that major is what excites you Durgin says, “Still go and do it! Don’t pick your major just based on what your coach is saying is going to be easy for travel.”
When you were faced with challenges at practice or in races (mental and or physical) how did you address them with your coach?
While academic challenges are extremely common, they are by no means the only type of obstacles that first-year student-athletes struggle with.
The pressure to perform and earn your position on the team is particularly stressful. Dealing with injury, performance slumps, imposter syndrome, etc. can be mentally and physically taxing.
Durgin explained that being a member of a team makes dealing with these stressors even more difficult to navigate because “once one athlete starts underperforming, others will follow suit.” She advised that when you start to feel yourself struggling, communicate with your coach. They are there to help you become the best version of yourself and open, honest, communication will only help you reach your goals quicker.
Durgin mentioned that when she was struggling with the mental side of sport, she sought out help from a sport psychologist. Using the resources that your institution has available or seeking outside support from a professional in the field of sport psychology/mental health can be invaluable to your overall well-being and your athletic performance. Getting support and working through your internal battles is not something to shy away from!
Aside from encouraging athletes to advocate for themselves when things get difficult mentally, Durgin addressed the challenges of speaking out when physical demands become problematic.
Durgin explained, “At the end of the day, you know your own body better than your coach. For the most part, they tend to appreciate communication.” As athletes, we know when our body is being pushed towards positive development versus when it is being pushed over the limit towards injury. It is best to be honest with your coach about how you are feeling physically, before more serious problems develop.
When you had athletic and academic conflicts how were you able to find a balance and a solution?
Without hesitation, Durgin advised that we focus on “building relationships with [our] teammates…without those relationships it would’ve been really tough for [her] to fight through that first year.”
She goes on to explain that the women in leadership roles on collegiate teams are there to support the younger athletes. They have already experienced life as a first-year student-athlete and can provide their teammates with advice, support, and encouragement. Team captains can act as a liaison between you and your coach if need be.
Aside from leaning on the upperclassmen when you find yourself struggling to find balance, Durgin also encouraged athletes to seek a compromise with their coach. For example, Durgin explained if there is a week in which you are particularly overloaded with classwork, ask to adjust your practice schedule. Durgin acknowledged that while it is not a permanent solution, it might alleviate some of the pressure of that week!
How did you navigate any internal competition with your teammates?
Collegiate sports are intense for a variety of reasons: higher level of competition, more demanding practices, conflicting time commitments, and the constant fight for your spot on the field/court/track, etc.
Not only do you have to prove that you are competitive against opponents from other schools, but you also have to earn your spot within your own team. This can be mentally draining because now your teammates are your friends and your competition. A variety of questions might begin to weigh on you when navigating this new terrain: if I am honest about having an academic conflict will the coach bench me; if I am transparent about feeling overwhelmed, will that result in my teammate being selected for the travel spot over me?
These internal battles can prevent us from feeling confident in advocating for ourselves out of the fear of facing negative consequences for doing so.
Durgin acknowledged the challenges of this situation and explained that even in her professional career she faces this dilemma regularly. As Durgin detailed, her teammates push her to be her best during practice, but when it comes to the Olympics, there are only three spots and she is going to make sure she gets one of them.
In other words, at the end of the day, her teammates are her competition. Durgin explained that, “It’s very common to be competitive with your teammates… and [she doesn’t] necessarily think that’s a bad thing.”
According to Durgin, it is important to be competitive because that is a demonstration of your passion and desire to improve yourself, but it’s equally important to be able to celebrate your teammate’s achievements. Their success does not equal your failure. Learning how to use your competitive nature to propel yourself forward rather than inhibit your growth will aid in your overall success.
Summing it up!
As a first-year college student-athlete, finding your voice can be quite difficult - this is perfectly normal!
Speaking up and advocating for yourself is a source of STRENGTH, not weakness. By communicating regularly with your professors, coaches, and team about your needs will help them to help you reach your goals.