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How to Get The Most Out of Student-Athlete Experience

by Khaled Holmes, Talegate

I was fortunate to play 4 years in the NFL and go as far as the AFC Championship game (yes, it was Deflategate, no the air in the balls had nothing to do with getting our ass kicked). Before my time in the league, I attended USC and was a part of an extremely tumultuous time at the storied program. In spite of the disproportionate sanctions, I truly valued my time as a Trojan, both on and off the field. I was able to meet many people that have become friends for life and to grow as an athlete, student and person in general. During my 4 ½ years there I was a team captain, 3-year starter, 1st Team All Pac-12 (Academic and Athletic), Undergraduate Double Major and I earned my Master’s Degree. These are some things I learned to maximize my time in college.

(Note: things like “work hard” and “do extra” are hopefully obvious and go without saying)

1. Recognize the potential career path your sport can provide

For me, as a football player, I always recognized how short of a career football usually offers players. Of course there are great examples of athletes playing much longer than the average and continuing to perform at the highest level. But, for the most part, athletes that make it to the professional level do not stay there for many, many years. And regardless of the length of the career, it always ends with the vast majority of the athlete’s working life ahead of him or her. That is not to say that many athletes are not financially able to retire in the traditional sense when their playing days are done – many earn enough money to not HAVE to work ever again, however, I do not know many that choose to stop working permanently.

With this in mind, I always tried to prepare myself for life after football. That does not mean I always knew what I wanted to do career-wise, but rather meant that I actively tried to put myself in a good position for when I did know what I wanted to do. I don’t want it to seem like getting good grades is the only way to accomplish this. As a matter of fact, I do not think college is meant for everyone, and certainly not “success” in college. However, as the system is currently structured, it is a necessary component of an athlete’s journey to the highest level, SO you might as well make the most of it.

2. Learning “how to learn” in a college environment


I am of the opinion that the greatest skill you learn in college, regardless of what you study, is “how to learn”. I think this is true for most fields of study. I also think it is incredibly pertinent to becoming the best athlete you can become. Once you master this skill, with effort you can become an expert in something you are truly passionate about. Part of this is recognizing that there is ALWAYS more to learn about any given subject. The other part comes in implementing what you have learned in a way that is productive for you. I think this is something helpful to all college students, but athletes need to hone in on this especially because there is so much more on their plate.

3. Lean on the advantages of being a student athlete


Being a student athlete is not easy and succeeding as one is even harder. Yet, there are certainly some advantages that come with the territory. One is being able to have first pick of classes – it is a truly great advantage. This allows student athletes to craft their schedule around their practice and training times. More importantly, this gives athletes first crack at classes that other students want to get in for years sometimes. This is a great way to start to learn about what you might want to study and potentially do after football.

Another potential advantage is using opportunities you have to meet prominent alumni of your school and establishing relationships with them. More often than not, alumni have an appreciation for current student athletes who show an interest in their field of work and love spending time with them, when appropriate. While avoiding the minefield of NCAA infractions can be difficult, it is still possible to develop amazing friendships with mentors and potential future peers. IMO these relationships should never be looked at like business opportunities but rather as opportunities to enrich yourself by learning from successful people in varied fields.

4. Minimize the disadvantages being an athlete creates


I can write an entire book discussing the difficulties that student athletes have to overcome to be successful at both aspects of their existence. I will just focus on a couple very briefly. The above listed advantage of being able to have first dibs at classes exists only because of the immense disadvantage of having to work around your athletic schedule. Often times, athletes are not even allowed to go into their first choice of study because the demands or class requirements directly conflict with their sport’s requirements. This should be exhibit A when folks try to claim that the NCAA attempts to create an environment conducive to learning first.

The time demands of being a high performer on the field are immense. Film study, training, meetings and practice add up to more than a full time job, yet you still have to perform in the classroom. It’s not fair, I get it, but you can make these issues positive for you in the long run. Or at least mitigate their negative effect.

For both of these points, the best way to use them in your favor, is to develop and continually improve your work ethic. That sounds obvious and obtuse, but constantly trying to improve your framework with which you approach your school/sport life is the only way to excel at both, and the best way to get the most out of your investment. The results of this look different for everyone – for me, i ended creating a system where I knew what needed to be done to succeed at each, and prioritized accordingly. This leads directly to the next point…

5. Effective Time Prioritization is Key


Part of college is the social aspect. Having fun, meeting new people and exploring the extra-curricular passions you have. This is impossible to do, while also meeting the standards as a student athlete, unless you effectively prioritize and manage your day, week and semester. The only way to enjoy the “fun” parts of college life is to ensure that you have met and exceeded the requirements set forth by the necessary aspects. Once you understand this, you will be able to experience more than the average student because of the opportunities afforded you as a student-athlete. This goes hand in hand with 2-4 on this list, and is the one of the most powerful takeaways from life as a student athlete.

6. Find something you truly enjoy learning about


When it comes to the academic component, this is where I truly believe athletes can really grow. I mentioned before that school is not for everyone, and I don’t say to slight those that are not a prototypical student. I actually think it is a great opportunity for those student athletes to attempt to find something they are passionate about. When I was at USC I absolutely fell in love with the study of Classics, and subsequently specific classes in the Communication school. This made my willingness to put forth the effort to succeed in those studies much easier.

This really engenders a sense of empowerment for you as a student athlete. When you find a passion outside of your sport, it makes you realize that what you can learn and what you can WANT to learn is much greater than you anticipated.

7. Go outside of the locker room to find friends


This is one of the most important aspects of your life as a student athlete. Your school is full of future leaders in different business, arts and philanthropic fields. You never know who you are going to meet on campus and you never know what they will be doing in 5, 10 or 15 years. More importantly, you have the opportunity to build lifelong friendships irrespective of any potential business opportunity. Life is all about the relationships you have and how you create and foster them. While you will most likely have a built-in set of friends from your team, it is always great to have a diverse group of people you call friends. This leads to the best personal growth for you as a student athlete, and will help set you on course for a successful life on and off the field.

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Khaled Holmes
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Khaled Holmes

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