The Toll of Competing at the Collegiate Athletic Level

The college athletic experience is quite the journey, but developing disciplined habits for success and realizing what you're getting into is key to your enjoyment of your sport. So, is it for you?

By Carter Thompson — November 22, 2022

The Toll of Competing at the Collegiate Athletic Level

For many high school athletes, the goal at the end of their athletic career and possibly everything they're working towards is to compete at the next level in college. Their parents, peers, and coaches may push this goal on them. The pressure to make it to this level is so intense that these high school athletes don't even consider if competing at the next level is something they can handle, let alone want to do.

When transitioning to the collegiate level, everything from high school—skill, recognition, successes, failures, pressure, stress, relationships, coaching, and your physical and mental health—is intensified, for better or worse. The toll it takes on athletes is tremendous and can leave one wondering if 'trusting the process' is worth it. I'll explain some of the stressors that college athletes like me must endure while competing at the collegiate level.

Competition Pressures

The first obvious stressor comes from the pressures of competition. Many magnitudes of advice, praise, and pressure from family, friends, and fellow athletes and coaches can leave one feeling a stomach-churning, almost paralyzing weight. Controlling your breathing and focusing on what's inside your circle of control is a great way to exhale some of these pressures as you recenter yourself and refocus your energies.

However, as with most athletes, their greatest critic is themselves. I've seen many athletes have commendable performances way above the capacity of almost everyone else, but they can't get over the fact that they placed fourth or made that one mistake. As dysfunctional as this may seem, it's what it takes to compete at the top level. One must be proud of their accomplishments to avoid burnout, but one must never remain satisfied with their performance. Not everyone can survive and thrive on this mindset. You will go far in collegiate athletics if you're proud but never satisfied. Take all your pressures and stressors, and instead of running from them, breathe through them and channel them towards a laser focus on what you must do come competition time.

Lack of Life Balance

Younger athletes may also not realize before their collegiate athletic experience that their life won't be balanced. The goal is to live as close to a balanced life as possible. The intensity of your practice and competition schedule will leave you feeling far from balanced as far as your health is concerned.

This includes everything from calorie intake and energy levels to feeling sleep-deprived or exhausted in classes, struggling with mental and emotional health, and much more. Athletes struggle with not only the physical demands of their sport and maintaining a high enough calorie intake daily to sustain their output level but also to sleep and rest enough. I quickly realized that there are no days off during your sports season.

Your coach might give you Sunday's off to rest (as they should), but almost everyone spends it snagging a few more hours of sleep than usual before catching up on all of their homework as they look back at missing assignments or ahead to the busy upcoming week. Also, when I say that most of my fellow college athletes get "a few more hours of sleep than usual," I mean they're getting 7-9 hours of sleep instead of the usual 4-6 hours that they go on throughout the week. This is no exaggeration. Time demands on student-athletes are insane, leaving quality sleep and rest an elusive weekend luxury. This is why you must take inventory of your current place and trajectory to see if competing at the collegiate level is truly for you.

Mental Health Matters

Assessing your current mental health is also vitally important because you must recognize that whatever you feel will likely be multiplied in a collegiate season. If you have any addictions or feelings of depression or anxiety, it'll likely only worsen in season. Athletes are usually too hard on themselves, which can harm mental health.

Fortunately, some collegiate programs recognize this, and my college calls mental health struggles "The Hidden Opponent" because athletes feel like they can't talk about this aspect of what might be the toughest opponent some athletes face in their sports career. Recognizing this, talking it out, and not bottling it up inside but working through it is the best way athletes can truly compete at the highest level. At this point in your career, you already know your sport very well, and it's now many small, little things that you must battle with every day to squeeze out a 1% performance increase. Being a college athlete is a lifestyle and not one for everyone.

Benefits: Yes, They Exist!

However, daunting I have made this lifestyle seem, there are still many benefits and positives that I will briefly outline that make college athletics truly worth it. You will create some fond memories and live some of your best years in this period of your life. You will also cultivate lifelong friendships and relationships that will carry you and connect you beyond your sport(s) of interest.

Valuable experience is gained through your many successes and failures that will train your mindset, making you highly valuable for future job prospects or graduate/doctoral programs. Living in the moment with mindfulness by controlling your breathing and not dwelling on the past or future (both out of your control and proven to make you less content) will help you enjoy the process and experience every moment to its fullest.

It's All Worth It

Nobody says it would be easy, but many say it was worth it. If it's true fulfillment and contentment that you seek in your sport, then you will never find it. Finding security in who you are and Whose you are is something you must develop within yourself. If you're in your sport for the joy and challenge it gives you and the amazing people and moments you'll have along the way, then you can 100% enjoy your time competing at the collegiate level. The college athletic experience is quite the journey, but developing disciplined habits for success and realizing what you're getting into is key to your enjoyment of your sport. So, is it for you?

Carter Thompson

Carter Thompson

Carter is currently seeking his undergraduate degree in Exercise Science under the Pre-Physical Therapy Program at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He will go on to complete his Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree at an accredited university with the end goal of applying industry-leading recovery treatments as a Physical Therapist for either Division I or professional athletic teams.
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