Advice for a Freshman Athlete

My freshman year of college came to an end back in 2009. I spent that summer reflecting on my experiences and developing a list of 25 lessons and reminders for future freshmen. With a few extra years of reflection under my belt, I’ve revised and condensed the list in order to help freshmen approach year one with a healthy perspective.

Advice #1 Avoid making comparisons to High School

If you have the opportunity to be a collegiate athlete, it’s safe to assume that you’ve had a successful high school career. Naturally, we all want to replicate success. At a young age, it is difficult to understand that we need to develop different strategies in order to keep moving forward. The things that worked in high school will not necessarily be the things that work in college. We have to be willing to take risks and try new techniques. The temptation will be to compare training, coaching, and team dynamics with our previous experiences.

Training

Training programs must evolve as we mature. Instead of picking out all the differences between high school practice and college practice, try buying into the new program with every ounce of your energy. Commit to investing 100% in every component of every practice session. Ask questions to help you learn about the value of each drill. Be ready and willing to try new things.

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We require a period of adaptation before we see the results of training. In high school, growth spurts and maturation allow us to see improvements no matter what stage of training we are in. We are learning and constantly improving technique during our early career. By the time we reach college, growth has slowed and technique is typically already solid. For the first time ever, we may need to practice patience before witnesses the fruits of our labor.

It can be tough to remain committed to our new collegiate training routine when we aren’t seeing immediate results. Trust me, the body needs time to catch up physically. My greatest piece of advice is to trust the process. Do not let comparison lead to the development of doubt in your new program.

Coaching

No two people are the same. It is not fair to expect that our collegiate coach will fill the shoes of our high school coach. The situation is very different. Coming out of high school, you’ve had four years to build a relationship with your coach. Relationships take time to develop. It may take a few seasons before you can develop a similar relationship with your collegiate coach.

Again, if you are a collegiate athlete, you probably were one of the top players on your high school team. You may have received a lot of attention from your coach. College coaches have a team full of high school stars and need to split their energy between them all.

College, in general, requires independence. Your collegiate coach will expect you to be responsible for yourself. This may make your new coach seem less prepared or less willing to help. In reality, they are just demanding more accountability from their athletes. This is healthy. Embrace the opportunity to figure things out for yourself.

Finally, the coaching style will differ between these two people. One may appear more energetic and passionate. It doesn’t mean that the other is less invested. One may appear sterner. It doesn’t mean they are less approachable. Just realize that appearance doesn’t always give the full picture.

Teammates

Your high school team likely consisted of a bunch of your best friends. Every practice was a chance to hang-out. When you get to college, it will not initially feel this way. Give the relationships time to develop. A single person can change the team culture, so don’t be afraid to initiate some out-of-practice team bonding opportunities.

Avoid making early judgments about the team. You can wish that you were back on your high school team, but remember, they all had to move on too. Make new friends!

Advice #2 Be patient about progress

Immediate success is so reinforcing, but it isn’t a realistic expectation anymore. Tangible improvements take time. In fact, you may even need to take a step backward before advancing forward. If you lose confidence in yourself or the program during this time, it will most certainly impair you physically as well.

Physical Adaptation

As previously stated, comparing high school and collegiate training is dangerous. For the same reasons, impatience can lead to doubt. Each body needs different amounts of time to adjust. The weight room may be a big contributor. Ultimately, your body will benefit from an appropriate lifting plan, but the fatigue may hinder your training for a period of time. Just keep giving the best you can give on each new day.

The intensity of your training will also impact your performance. You are now competing against athletes of similar caliber on a daily basis. People recover and adapt differently from these intensity shifts. Give your body enough time to do what it needs to without losing faith in your abilities.

New Stressors

Training isn’t the only change going on. Being on your own for the first time inevitably presents new stressors. Since stress is cumulative, expect your performance progression to be slowed by these situational stressors. It’s hard to believe that your homework can impair your speed, but it’s true. Don’t worry, as you adapt to college living, the stress will lessen.

The more patience you can have, the more likely you are to avoid psychological impairments. Trust that the process takes time and your body has the ability to perform better than ever.

Advice # 3 Take recovery seriously

In the high school days, I could get away with anything without getting injured. Warm-ups and cool-downs didn’t seem very important because I felt pretty good most of the time. I only thought about an ice bath after big meet heptathlons. Stretching and rolling existed, but they didn’t seem essential. We are tempted to think ‘I’ve never been injured before, so why start these things now?’.

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Thankfully, warm-ups and cool-downs were already a habit for me, but I’ve seen may collegiate athletes skimp on these practice components. Just because you “feel good” doesn’t mean your body is prepared to perform in the manner you are asking it too. You may be loose and limber already, but the warm-up prepares us neurologically. If you are too exhausted for the cool-down, you’re more likely to set yourself up for soreness, fatigue, and potential injury in the days to follow.

As you age, these components become even more critical. Don’t wait until you have an injury to begin taking recovery seriously.

If your collegiate program offers massage therapy and chiropractic care, take advantage of it! It may be time-consuming, but proper alignment will improve performance and help prevent injury. Regular massage has also been shown to enhance training effects.

Finally, although they may be no fun, consider stretching, rolling, and water-therapy to be part of your training. You wouldn’t skip your last repetition, so don’t skip out on recovery either. It may not feel like it’s doing anything, but it is preparing you for the next day’s practice session. Why show up to practice at 80% if you could have shown up at 100%?

Advice # 4 There is no need to show-off in practice

Work hard, but work smart. I had a difficult time grasping the balance between hard work and smart work. Many people had complimented me on my work ethic, so I believed that my ability to outwork others was the main component to my success.

Practicing for practice

When you get to college, there is a good chance that your coach has a very specific training plan. The purpose of training is to prepare you for competition. It’s the game/meet that actually matters.

Some athletes have this idea that they need to do extra work in order to perform well in practice. They practice for practice. That’s not really the point. You are allowed to struggle during practice. That is what makes you better. Don’t do more work so that practices are easier. That takes away from your coach’s plan.

Racing the watch

Especially in racing sports, your coach will often provide the times for each practice repetition. The training session has a particular purpose and if you ignore the specifics, there is a good chance you will alter that purpose.

For example, if a repetition is set for 80% max speed and you decide to go 90% max speed, there is a good chance you will develop lactate early in the session. If the purpose of the practice is endurance or recovery, you’ve diminished the effects and have probably taken away from the next day’s workout too.

It’s a great thing that you are a competitor, but save it for the game/meet. Run the times that you are given. Report back to the coach. Your feedback will help them adjust the ranges for future practices.

Racing your teammates

Who doesn’t want to be the best on the team? Unfortunately, racing your teammates is a good way to exhaust yourself and become annoying. If your teammates are slacking, go ahead and beat them. Just don’t outrun the times assigned by your coach.

Again, because of our competitive nature, we often want to be a stride in front of our teammates. Remember that teammates are meant to push each other and lift each other up. One stride difference does not mean you had a better workout. It doesn’t impress anyone, but in fact, it becomes very annoying.

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Always do what you are supposed to do. If the coach says “go 100%”, then sure, race your heart out and leave them in the dust. But if the coach says “everyone run at 30-second pace”, then don’t be the person crossing the line in 27 seconds each time. Take turns leading.

This may get a little trickier in non-racing sports. The goal is to follow the instructions of the coach. If you are running suicides, don’t slow down for the sake of your teammates. It’s your job to push them. My suggestion is to avoid going outside the given boundaries for the sake of proving yourself. You don’t want to be a practice-star and a meet-dud.

Advice # 5 Learn to manage time and energy

College comes with a lot more freedom. You are required to manage all responsibilities on your own. You will not have the same structure and due-dates, so you must take initiative to schedule things appropriately. For more specifics on time-management, please visit the former blog entitled Balancing Academics and Athletics in college.

Schoolwork

Procrastinating in college can have very different consequences than procrastinating in high school. Both create stress. However, high school work is typically broken up into smaller pieces. College work, on the other hand, usually comes in the form of long-term projects. A college professor will not micromanage your productivity. There may be no checks in place to determine if you are spacing out work appropriately.

If you procrastinate in college, the work will become overwhelming. A high school procrastinator may have a few days of work to catch up on, but a college procrastinator may have a few months of work to make up. This is incredibly stressful and leads to unhealthy habits like all-nighters. You will comprehend less and your athletic performance will be compromised.

Do yourself a favor and stay on top of your work. It requires discipline. You will have to do assignments when you don’t feel like it. In the grand scheme of things, it is far more effective.

Social Time

Balance is a critical component of well-being. It’s important to spend time with friends and get away from school work and athletic work. Unfortunately, many athletes take this freedom too far for too long.

It was a big deal to go to a party in high school. When you get to college, you will most likely have an opportunity to party on 4 of the 7 weekdays. Do not take advantage of this! Partying has consequences.

For one, most partying involves alcohol consumption. These are not the calories you want fueling your body. Second, partying means loss of sleep. Sleep is essential for recovery. Finally, it takes a lot of energy to party. Is this really how you want to spend your energy?

Choose wisely. You don’t need to forgo every party, but you do need to be selective. Keep your priorities in line. School and athletics should always come before partying. If you are attending parties every weekend, you need to reevaluate your decisions.

Advice # 6 Be intentional in the dining hall

Each college is a bit different. There are different dining plans to choose from. My suggestion is to eat intentionally.

What does it mean to eat intentionally? Food can mean many things to people. For some it’s social and for others it’s pleasure. For an athlete, food should be looked at as fuel. There are times and places for it to be social and pleasurable, but viewing food as a fuel-source should ideally become a habit.

Some dining halls are buffet-style. In our younger years, we could eat non-stop and never gain weight. This is typically not the case for a college-aged person anymore. Try using a single plate to get your necessary protein, fat, and carbs. Once you are finished, evaluate your hunger level. On some days, you may need to go back for more. On other days, you will be content at that.

On the flip-side, don’t use your freedom to restrict food either. The nutritionist assigned to your sport can help more specifically but always try to include a solid protein source at each meal. Don’t skimp on the fats or carbs either. All three components have essential roles in maintaining health.

In Summary

You will learn plenty of new things throughout freshman year. The pieces of advice mentioned above were either essential components to managing my freshman year or mistakes that I made while navigating the transition.

Upon completion of your freshman year, it is a good idea to generate your own list. Every year to follow is an opportunity to grow and improve.

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