Finding the Balance between Student and Athlete at Elite Schools

By Sparks Editorial Staff | October 1, 2015

by Nate Rooks

As a former rower, coach, and recruiter at Stanford University, one of the top recruit questions I received was, “how do rowers balance school and rowing… and maybe have a life too?”

From my time experiencing success on the water and in the classroom, I’ve found there are three main components that make a successful student-athlete:

  1. Institutional support
  2. Team culture
  3. Personal accountability

Institutional Support

Finding a college that aligns with your academic and athletic goals is the first step. School is a lot easier to manage when you care about what you’re studying, so you’ll want to research and make sure the school allows you to pursue your interests to your fullest.

Be sure the school values rowing the same way you do. Some schools see athletics as purely extracurricular and aren’t interested in making accommodations for student-athletes. At Stanford, athletics are a key part of the school identity and the time restrictions placed on student-athletes play a big part in class scheduling. Professors are often huge fans of athletics and enthusiastically support the necessary travel through rescheduled or coach-proctored assignments and tests.

Many schools have a hub for student-athlete support and it should be your top priority to find out what resources are available to you. At Stanford it’s called the Athlete Academic Resource Center (AARC). At the AARC, advisors who were all varsity athletes at top schools help student-athletes with everything from class and major selection to arranging tutors to long-term career development. Having a single advisor throughout your years in school can be extremely helpful, especially when they’ve lived the student-athlete life themselves. If academics are important to you, finding out what support and resources are available should be a top priority.

Team Culture

Team culture can have a huge impact on your academic life, which in turn holds major implications on your life after college. If the other people on your team don’t care about their classes, it’s going to be hard to get support when you have a late night working on an engineering project or want some study buddies for your biology midterm. Conversely, upperclassmen teammates who are passionate about their studies can inspire you to challenge yourself. They can also serve as great mentors and tutors. My older teammates helped me discover and prepare for the Human Biology core at Stanford, an intense, year-long double class. Once I decided to go down that path, having several teammates in the course made weekly study groups fun.

The coaches often set the tone for what’s expected and what’s even possible in the balance of school and rowing. Ideally, coaches will see the complementary nature of academic and athletic success and do their best to support you. As a coach at Stanford, this meant encouraging interaction between our student-athletes and their advisors, getting them off the water in time for class, and arranging our entire program in a way that supported our rowers pursuing any area of study they chose. This holistic focus encouraged more than two-thirds of our team to pursue engineering and science degrees, and helped our team achieve the highest GPA of any large team at Stanford the same year we won our first Pac-12 Rowing Championship (2014).

While being recruited, it’s important to include this in your conversation with coaches. Are there any majors you can’t do while rowing? I know pre-med is just not an option for athletes at some schools. Be sure to ask those questions.

Personal Accountability

Compared to high school, days in college can feel amorphous. You might have three classes one day, occupying all of your time between two practices, or you might have no classes on a certain day, leaving time for office hours, studying, and napping.

Taking responsibility for your time is at the heart of finding balance in the student-athlete life. In high school, coming home from practice and a long day of school to eat dinner and get homework done has the benefit of being routine and is reinforced by your parents.

In college, looking ahead and committing to get reading done before lunch or finish a problem set before seeing friends at night is the kind of personal accountability necessary to be a real student-athlete. No one is going to go to office hours or meet with an advisor for you, and personally, I wish I’d used the AARC more as a student-athlete! Looking back, I carved out time to study, write, and do problem sets, but there were times when college required more than just my own scheduling. I needed outside help but didn’t take initiative to seek it out. It’s one of my biggest regrets from college, especially when it was so readily available. Resources are only as strong as what you make of them, which can be both daunting and empowering.

All of the components above will have long-lasting implications on your academic choices, rowing career, and general happiness. It’s worth taking time to think critically about what matters to you and asking coaches for candid explanations of what resources their school and team provides to support the student-athletes. From there, it’s up to you to find the balance and pursue what you’re passionate about!

Nate Rooks was a four year letter winner and team captain for the Stanford Men’s Rowing Team. He was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Stanford women for seven years. Nate rowed internationally in the United States U-23 eight at the 2006 and 2007 World Championships in Belgium and Scotland, respectively.