Although the NCAA has coined the phrase “student-athlete” to denote the perfect balance between two opposing forces, school and sports, in reality this tight-rope in which college athletes walk is much more complex and tricky to keep in equilibrium than advertised. By hyping up the term “student-athlete,” the NCAA indirectly states that there is little to no time, room, or desire for anything other than these two words. Go to school. Go to practice. Take you exam. Take your at bats. It seems like a simple and well calculated formula. However, when the pieces are slowly pulled back and one is submersed inside the world of college athletics, the simple idiom “student-athlete” does not suffice to explain the true college baseball experience.
Coming off an easy going summer of playing pressure free baseball and sitting by the pool side with your friends, the first semester of college is like a tornado sweeping you off your feet and throwing you into a new and uncomfortable world, like Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” First comes living in a new home, away from your parents. Tossed out of your comfort zone, before you become a “student” or an “athlete,” you first have to become a young adult. When should you eat? When should you go to class? When should you go out with your newfound friends? It is all on you now. Getting acclimated to your new surroundings and meeting the roommates/teammates is the first order of business. Then unpack your bags, get your ID cards, and figure out where the dining hall is. Once this has been accomplished you can begin to truly become a student-athlete.
Unfortunately however, there is no blue print at NCAA.org that tells you how this ideal portrayal of a student-athlete shown in commercials should act or how the ex-swimmer/now turned chemist in the TV ad found his or her stride. Nor does the commercial mention how he or she faired at the beginning of the college process.
Having experienced the highs and lows of playing a college sport, I realize how easy it is to get trapped into the “Freshman Fall” and how for some they can never escape, either transferring or getting cut seemingly before they even have a chance to make a real impact on the program. Put simply, the “Freshman Fall” is just as it sounds; the first fall (autumn) semester when freshman fall (stumble) while acclimating to college life as a student-athlete. The “Freshman Fall” consumes most, even if the consequences are less serious as departing the University.
Trying to become this “student athlete” in a new and uncomfortable environment is not easy. Where is your class located? What time is practice? Should I really go out if I have an exam and hitting session with coach tomorrow? More often than not, the wrong decision is made. For most it is a simple learning process and by sophomore year you will walk around as an expert on how to balance the “Holy Trinity”; studies- athletics- social life. For others however, the “Freshman Fall” becomes too much to overcome.
It is difficult being on a new schedule as the fast paced life of class, baseball, and socializing can quickly tire you out. After a day of Economics 101 and Business Statistics, followed by “fall-ball,” the opportunity arises to go out afterwards for some fun. Although satisfying in the short term, this constant wear and tear can catch up to you after a while, and before you know it you are sleeping on the couch instead of being at class taking your quiz.
It is vital to get going on a strong and sturdy foundation. You will be amazed to see that even by the second week of classes teammates will start skipping classes, failing quizzes and missing assignments. Guys will become labeled as “academic risks” and get assigned to mandatory study hall and tutoring sessions. Meeting new friends, acclimating to life on your own in a new setting, and getting good grades is hard. Throwing a “full time” job into the mix as an athlete makes it that much more challenging and thus easier to screw up.
It is all too easy to fall. Most don’t fall all the way down so it doesn’t get discussed as it should. But every recruiting class has one or two that fall down hard the first fall and don’t get up. Although it is common, and at times fair, to joke that you are really an athlete-student and not a student-athlete, at the end of the day those that take the athlete-student approach are the ones that typically get tripped up first. Skipping classes, showing up to practice hung over, or simply just not focusing on the simple tasks that need to be completed everyday like getting ice for your ailing arm, will lead you astray. Acting and feeling like a superstar athlete-student makes a player behave like he is there to play baseball while in fact 99% of all college athletes are there to use athletics to get an education. It is a big difference in mindsets.
The goal for your first semester should be to get to the starting line, aka Opening Day, intact and comfortable with your team and surroundings. For most, adjusting to the faster paced game at the college level is enough to throw you into a whirlwind. Adding academic probation and social issues is a dangerous road to head down.
Sometimes it is not possible to avoid the “Freshman Fall.” Sometimes the concept of a student athlete is more than one is ready to handle. So when you do begin to struggle, when it becomes difficult to be a college student, a boyfriend, and a baseball player all at the same time, it is time to prioritize your day and build a structured schedule for yourself.
It takes time to get going and learn the system. It may be your science class, it may be hitting curveballs, it may be running out of funds from your checking account within the first three weeks of the semester. No matter, when the time does come when you stumble, know there are others out there struggling as well and that some of the most successful college stars fall on their face early. Rest assured that if you stay focused and believe that beyond the “Freshman Fall” is an Opening Day, a core set of friends, followed by a long baseball season, you will get through it.
Four years later as a graduating senior sitting in the visitor’s dugout during your final game ever I promise you will struggle to form a solid picture in your mind of the freshman who felt so far from home during the “Freshman Fall” all those years before. That person will be so long gone that the best you can do is close your eyes and see the fuzzy shadow of a kid stumbling into the dorms on move-in day with boxes full of folded clothes and IKEA furniture. The dark, lonely hours of the “Freshman Fall” will eventually pass and before you know it you will be grown up and matured, ready to leave school for the working world. Your college will have become your home, your teammates, your best friends. Upon graduation you will be the student-athlete that the NCAA Gods so graciously describe in-between televised NCAA basketball games when self-promoting themselves. However, you will also be so much more than that as your experiences fill in the large crevices within the generic “student-athlete” phrase.
Best of luck getting back up after your “Freshman Fall.” It is by far the 2nd most difficult part, only behind having to say goodbye to college, baseball, and your friends for the final time.