What Student-athletes Should Know Before Entering College

Alicia Whittle was just named a Division I USTFCCCA All-Academic Individual as a track and field athlete at Kennesaw State University. She just finished a summer internship with us at Growing Leaders and is preparing for graduate school. In response, I asked her to write a short post on what she wished she had known before heading off to college.



I’ve been a student-athlete for almost 20 years and have loved every minute of it. My first sport was soccer, which I played for 13 years. It was my love. On top of that, I played basketball for 8 years, volleyball for 6 years, and one season of cross-country. It was when I entered the 8th grade that I became interested in track and field. Coaches, teachers, students, and other athletes saw something in me that I didn’t see yet. They saw untapped talent.

Although I went to a small private school, I joined an AAU (Athletic Amateur Union) track team to see how talented I really was. I’ve encountered many athletes who were superstars in high school but soon learned that it didn’t mean much. The moment I started running in the 8th grade, I never lost a single race at my private school. Did it prove I was really good? No. Joining an AAU team and competing all summer against the best kids in the nation proved to be priceless. I won and lost races multiple times, but I knew losing a race during the summer meant way more to me than being undefeated in my school races. I grew up quoting this phrase, especially before my competitions: “To be the best, you must beat the best.” I am sure you’ve heard this before. Even today, I still live by it.

If I Knew Then What I Know Now…

However, like any rising high school senior wanting to play collegiate sports, I realized there is a lot that’s NOT said about the transition from high school to college. Entering college as a student-athlete is different from other students. I quickly realized there were immediate demands of my time the moment I stepped onto the Kennesaw campus on August 15, 2011. It was like a wakeup call.

When I signed my NLI (National Letter of Intent) back in March 2011, I thought I was ready to become an NCAA Division I student-athlete. I was clearly not. Now, when I sit down with rising high school seniors who plan to be college student-athletes, I always relay the following reality checks:

1. Academics. We are students first, then athletes. Many coaches preach this but don’t always live by it. If your grades are not up to par, you will become ineligible. More importantly, the degree you earn will outlive your athletic career. Trust me.

  • Go to class and bring a notebook to write down your assignments.
  • Learn how to study… early!
  • Check your school email daily
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help from people (advisors) around you

2. Time Management. Our time is important and demanding. Figure out your routine the first semester. Treat time as more valuable than money. You snooze, you lose.

  • Choose when to workout, eat, go to class, study, socialize, sleep, and all else.
  • Remember why you are there. The issue is not prioritizing your schedule, but rather scheduling your priorities. Put the important items on the calendar first.
  • Stay focused. You either organize or you agonize.

3. Personal Branding. As a NCAA student-athlete, be aware of your actions in public and on social media (i.e. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.) You build your personal brand from the moment you start communicating. Think for yourself. Ask lots of questions. Keep the big picture in mind. And always remember:

  • You represent your university first
  • Your team second
  • Then yourself last

4. Sacrifices. So many student-athletes think that since they are now NCAA athletes, they can start acting a fool. Too many coaches have told me that once freshmen athletes show up on campus, they feel their work is over because they got the scholarship. This is backwards. Your work has just begun. The scholarship is a doorway in to (not an exit out of) work. Do not forget the sacrifices:

  • You have made
  • Your coach(es) make regularly
  • Your parent(s) made for you to become a NCAA student-athlete

5. Immortality. You have been given a great talent, but it can easily be taken away.

  • You may get injured — it’s part of the any sport
  • Concussions are real! Do not take them lightly.
  • Condition yourself mentally and spiritually, as well as physically

6. Career. You don’t have to have everything planned out in college, but one day, you will have to know how to manage your life… either as a professional athlete or more likely as an employee of a business. Think long term, not short term. Don’t simply anticipate this weekend — anticipate how your decisions will impact your life ten years from now:

  • Build a resume
  • Seek out interviews, beginning your first year
  • Network from freshman year onward

7. Socializing. Sometimes, the most impactful people around are not your teammates or coaching staff. Get outside your box. Make time for fun. Enjoy the process you’re in, not just the games or competitions. Capture moments and make memories on campus.

  • Make friends outside your team
  • Cultivate relationships with non-athletes
  • Meet professors who actually care for your well-being

8. Leadership. Anyone can be a leader in the classroom or on his or her team. It’s a choice YOU make, not necessarily one made by others. If you carry yourself well and live by values, you’ll be looked upon as a person of influence.

  • Figure out what leadership looks like to you
  • If you hone in on your leadership, it will impact everything else
  • Realize your values (life principles) and live by them
  • Invest in other people

What Student-athletes Should Know Before Entering College