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Playing sports at the college level is a dream for many high school athletes.

And if you qualify for a team at a school that’s a good fit for you academically, why wouldn’t you play, right? While there is plenty of value in playing collegiate sports, there are other considerations an aspiring college athlete should factor into their decision. If you’re asking yourself the “to play or not to play” question, feedback from former student athletes could help you make the right choice. Here, students share the benefits and the challenges of playing sports in college.

I have bonds from basketball I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Jasmine Jones

Gaining an Instant Community

Playing a sport gives you a community as soon as you step on campus — your team. This can be a helpful foothold as you transition to an unfamiliar environment and that initial community can last throughout your four years. Jon Pearlman, a Harvard University graduate and co-founder of the health-focused digital platform Mission Lean, played tennis in college and says, “I built incredible friendships [through tennis], not just because we spent so much time together in practice and competition, but because we were engaged in a mutual goal.”

For Jasmine Jones, a basketball player who graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the connection to her teammates was instant, and lasted well beyond her four years. Even before finalizing her commitment to St. Mary’s, she’d connected with a member of the team during the recruitment process. “As soon as I got to campus,” Jones recounts, “[she] became one of my closest friends — like a big sister to me in so many ways.” To this day, Jones says, “I have bonds from basketball I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Learning How to Balance With Academics

The time commitment required by a sport can create issues when it comes to academics. A daily or near-daily roster of practices, workouts, meetings, games and travel puts pressure on student athletes in terms of their academic schedule and course load and can even dictate what major they pursue. Jones recalls feeling as if some of her professors thought less of her whenever she had to miss class or reschedule an exam while traveling with her team for away games. 

For Pearlman, though, his demanding sports schedule actually forced him to be more focused and organized with his academics. Because so much of his time was spent on tennis, he had to map out his academic work weeks and sometimes even months in advance. “I never would have been as diligent, engaged and prepared if I hadn’t had sports in my life,” he says.

Tapping into an Extended Network 

The instant community you find through sports can extend beyond your immediate teammates. When Jamie Stefani, a former softball player at Delaware Valley University, “woke up one day and decided I wanted to be a coach,” her sports community wasted no time helping her pursue that goal. The school’s athletic director set up several meetings for Stefani with the school’s Center for Student Professional Development and the Athletic Director, who helped her find internships. Other coaches on campus were also eager to meet with her and share their experiences and contacts. “I talked with anyone who had ‘coach’ in their title to learn more about their role. Hearing how much they loved their work helped confirm that coaching softball would be the right path for me,” she says.

Pearlman found the benefit of an extended network after graduation when he met a high-profile health personality at a Harvard Varsity Club event. “Knowing that I had been a Harvard athlete, he took an interest in me and my business,” Pearlman explains. “He offered advice that brought our branding strategy and outreach to the next level.”

“Being a college athlete is incredible for your professional network because you have a second level of connection with somebody who went to your school,” Pearlman says. “You also have the ability to network with other athlete alumni from your school, who will take a greater interest in you and may offer more useful assistance with your career.”

Setting Limits on Extracurriculars

Committing to college athletics means going all in on one thing — your sport — which can mean sacrificing the opportunity to explore other aspects of campus life. “It was sometimes difficult to know my classmates had the free time to do other things that I couldn’t,” Jones says. She wasn’t able to attend certain study groups, participate in Greek life or join clubs on campus. Jones also had the occasional 4 a.m. wake-up call for early morning practices, which definitely put a damper on her evening social activities.

Building a Better Résumé

Playing a college sport, Pearlman says, “forces you to stay disciplined in school and stay on top of your work, because you want to be fully present in practice and competition.” These intangible skills will come in handy after graduation, when it’s time to launch your career. Hiring managers often look for participation in activities that foster leadership, teamwork, perseverance and confidence, and sports are known for cultivating those attributes. 

Playing a sport can add value to your life both during and after college, but you need to be mindful of the challenges that come along with college athletics. If you’re considering opting into the world of college sports, the right decision starts with doing your research by talking to current and former members of the team and clarifying your college priorities.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2018.

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