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If you're like the millions of young athletes with dreams of competing at the collegiate level, you've probably wondered if you really have what it takes to be successful in that world. It's a very valid question; it is well-known that being a college athlete is no small undertaking. As a former 4-year starter for a very successful college program, I have several key takeaways from my time as a college athlete that can help you thrive in a challenging world that only 7 percent of high school athletes reach.
This is perhaps the most often discussed ingredient in the recipe for success, but an extremely important one, nonetheless. From the early morning lifts, mid-day practices, and team meetings, to the full class load, part-time jobs, and social life, the balance can seem downright daunting to a prospective athlete. This is why time management and planning skills are absolutely essential. Things like social life will have to fall by the wayside at times, and there will be a lot of late nights catching up on homework and projects. Each day needs to be planned out at least one day in advance: say goodbye to spontaneity, especially during the season. Which brings me to my next point...
Notice, I didn't say "meals." While healthy meals are undoubtedly necessary to maximize your athletic performance, you'll worry a LOT more about your snacks than your meals during the season. Why? Because you will constantly be on the go, and snacks may be the only food you can manage to get into your body for several hours. Be sure to plan your snacks to fit in during those long stretches in which you can't get to a dining hall or your dorm/apartment to grab real food. Pack at least four or five snacks in your bag to ensure you have plenty to get you through the day.
And no, by "snacks," I don't mean Doritos, Kit Kats, or any of their sugary/salty/processed companions. As an athlete, healthy snacks are extremely important for energy and hydration. Fruits, yogurt, granola bars, hummus with veggies, and protein shakes/smoothies (I used to make a batch at night to last me a couple of days) are all great on-the-go healthy options to help keep you full and still be able to get where you need to go.
Your days will also be looooong, meaning your standard three meals just won't cut it at times. The meals you do manage to eat must also be planned ahead of time, as you'll need to take meat or other ingredients out early in the day so they're ready to go by the time you finally have a break to cook. Meal prepping is also a great tool, provided you have the ingredients (and patience) to cook a week's worth of properly portioned food. If you have a meal plan, the eating process is simplified, but you'll find it more difficult to get the proper nutrition you need as a high-performing athlete from dining halls.
I know, I know, it's related to nutrition, but it's worth noting separately because it is so often overlooked despite how vital it is to an athlete's performance and health. My advice here is pretty straightforward: drink water. Lots of it. All day. Every day. Your body and your mind will thank you for it when you're outside conditioning in 90 degree heat and you don't have to throw up, faint, or be the one that falls to the back of the pack.
And when I say hydration, I'm not talking about energy drinks, juice, or even sports drinks like Gatorade (most of the time). I mean water. Not only is it the most available source of hydration, it is also the purest. Sports drinks like Gatorade have their place in an athlete's diet, but it should not be consumed 'round the clock, and especially not when you aren't actively participating in vigorous exercise. I recommend carrying a reusable sip bottle with a built-in filter so that you can mindlessly sip water throughout the day and refill it from fountains, as necessary. You can find them on Amazon for around $25. It's the easiest way to stay hydrated with clean water without having to think too much about it.
Aside from the logistics like planning and nutrition, there are the mental challenges associated with college sports that prove to be insurmountable for many athletes with college dreams...
"Control the things that you can control" was a quote from one of my coaches that really resonated with me over the years and has come to be a mantra that I live my life by. For me, the easiest thing to control was my effort. In sports—and in life—there are things that will work against you that you simply can't control. It is the way it is. But controlling my effort by giving my all in everything I do contributed to making me both a better athlete and a better person. This element for success may seem like an obvious one, but you'd be very surprised to learn now many kids out there expect to be elite athletes with bare minimum effort. Never give anything less than 100 percent in any practices or workouts. Don't cut corners on reps, weight, speed, or intensity. You are only cheating yourself and in the end, you're cheating your team, as well. And let's not forget, coaches notice these things.
Pressure vs. Opportunity:
Many athletes find themselves overwhelmed by "pressure" situations and thus have trouble coming through in the clutch. To succeed at this level, you need to start to think of those situations as opportunities for success. The ball gets passed to you with four seconds on the clock? The mentality should be, "Yes! I get a chance to score the winning goal!" and not, "Oh my God. I can't miss this shot." In essence, you can't be afraid to fail, because failure is inevitable. The more you think about failure, the better the chance that you WILL fail. Think about all that could go right, rather than all that can go wrong.
And when you do fail—notice I said "when" and not "if"—understand that it happens, take it in stride, and use that to get better. Ask yourself, "What could I have done better/differently?" View yourself through a critical lens, but not so critical that you lose confidence in your abilities. No one likes to fail, and all athletes know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when it happens. Channel that feeling to fuel a fire within yourself; tell yourself, "I'm going to make sure I never feel this way again," and then back that up by going to work with a vengeance.
Coach is hard on you? Good. That means he/she truly cares about your growth. If your coach is telling you to do or change something... DO: Take it as an opportunity to get better. DON'T: View it as a personal attack, because it isn't. Understand where your coach is coming from and buy in to their process. Do what coach tells you to do, no questions asked, and do it 100 percent. Don't get me wrong, questions are encouraged in certain learning settings. But if coach tells you to sprint, don't ask "why?" Just do it. If no one points out something for you to work on, how can you possibly expect to get better? College is no joke. Coaches are HARD on you. At this stage of the game, you are an adult and they will treat you as such. You have to be mature enough to handle constructive criticism. If there's one idea you need to get through your head to be more coachable, it's this: There is ALWAYS room for improvement in ANY athlete, and you are no exception.
This is a big one—one that I feel isn't talked about enough. Take accountability for your actions. Get rid of the "woe is me" attitude, because it simply won't get you to your goals or make the team any better. Never, ever point fingers at others for something that went wrong for the team. You're a pitcher, and your teammate made an error behind you that snowballed into five unearned runs? It happens. No one is perfect. A game consists of a whole slew of plays that occurred before and after that error. So what could you have done differently?
At the same time, you have to hold yourself and your teammates to a high standard, and expect them to do the same for you. Don't let your teammates cut corners or give half-assed effort. Push each other to be better. BUT, don't go around calling people out if you don't go all out yourself. Don't be a hypocrite. Make sure you hold yourself accountable before you worry about others. The team will only grow stronger as a unit in this culture of accountability. Let's face it, the coach can't be the only one pushing the team; everyone has to be in it together.
TEAM First Mentality:
The key here is sacrifice. There is no one person that is bigger than the team, and that means that athletes have to sacrifice some time, money, social life, and playing time for the greater good of the team. Selfish players are cancerous to a team and ultimately end up unhappy as a result of things not going their way.
When it comes down to it, players don't want to sacrifice because they have not BOUGHT IN to the philosophy of the coaching staff. If coach isn't playing you, there is a reason. Whether you want to believe it or not, it has nothing to do with a personal vendetta. You may not agree with coach's reasoning, but that doesn't matter. It is up to you to take care of your own process, both physically and mentally, and control your destiny. That sounds pretty dramatic, but it's the truth. Coaches can spot a selfish player from a mile away; if you can't change your mentality from "me" to "we," chances are slim-to-none that you'll change your playing situation, no matter how much you bench or how your stats measure up to your teammates. A good coach recruits ATTITUDES, and will gladly take the player that bats .240 but picks up his/her teammates and hustles over the .400 hitter that points fingers and throws tantrums.
To succeed at this level, understand that it is your coach's job to put the TEAM first, and not you first.
My Final Words of Advice:
It is your job to be not only the best athlete you can be, but also the best teammate you can be. Make an effort to understand your teammates. What makes them happy? Sad? What emotional support (or lack thereof) do they need from you when they've failed? What is going on in their personal lives? Help your teammates if they are struggling, including the teammates that play your position. You will not only be making the team better, but you'll also form crucial bonds in the process. Team chemistry will always shine through and naturally help a team perform better. A team that performs better is a team that has more fun. When it comes down to it, didn't you take up the sport to have fun? It's a game; eat well, work hard, compete, put the team first, but most importantly, HAVE FUN!