By Ryan Nivakoff
Let’s face it: most student-athletes don’t go pro. Even if you blew the field away in high school, you shouldn’t count on your college athletic career to pave the way for a stint in the big leagues.
To be sure, you may well make the cut. But you’d be wise to have a Plan B, too — to plan for a day when you’ll need to use the lessons you learned in class, not on the field.
1. Set a Class Schedule You Can Actually Make
A mind is a terrible thing to waste. So is the opportunity to get a first-rate education. Even if your athletic talents have earned you a free ride (or close to it) through college, you’d be foolish not to make the most of the academic resources at your fingertips.
“Plan your class schedule accordingly, scheduling as many modules as practically possible at times you know won’t conflict with your athletic obligations.”
— Ryan Nivakoff
If your athletics schedule is too unpredictable to support a manageable credit load, consider supplementing in-person coursework with online classes and distance learning. Most schools allow residential students to take classes online, and some professors are happy to tailor workarounds when schedules demand.
2. Choose a Major or Concentration You Really Enjoy
You shouldn’t dread the “scholar” aspect of your athlete-scholar status. Choose a major, minor, and/or concentration in which you’re actually interested — and that you can see forming the basis for a career that lasts long after your competitive sports career ends.
3. Set One-, Five-, and Ten-Year Goals
Know where you want to be, and when. The summer before your freshman year, take a day to set near-, medium- and long-term goals for yourself. If you already know you’re not going to go pro, your five- and ten-year goals will likely be career- or growth-oriented: a stint in the Peace Corps, perhaps, or an associate attorney position at a white-shoe law firm. (Hey, why not aim high?) There’s no wrong answer here — the point is to imagine life around and after your athletic career ends.
4. Get Three Square Meals
Before saying their goodbyes, your parents no doubt admonished you to eat well in college, and you probably rolled your eyes. You’ve got more important things to worry about than getting three square meals a day, right?
Eh, not many. You’ll need lots of calories to keep pace in competition, and you’re less likely to suffer a serious injury if you’re healthy. Don’t let a ramen-and-chips diet jeopardize your playing career.
5. Make Your Priorities Clear to Your Coaches and Professors
Student-athletes must manage two constituencies between which there’s rarely love lost: their coaches and professors.
Fair or not, you have to step up and take control here, because you can’t count on either side willingly ceding ground to the other. You’ll need to think hard on your priorities — in short, whether you’d rather be your absolute best on the playing field or in the classroom — and communicate this clearly.
Make no mistake: you can excel in both arenas, but you won’t reach your peak in either if you fail to set clear boundaries.
Winning Isn’t Everything
Whatever else you learn during your career as a scholar-athlete, remember that winning isn’t everything — even when it feels as if everything is at stake. It sounds corny, but years from now, you’re likely to be defined less by what you achieved on the field or court and more by the relationships and memories you made along the way.
You’ve got one chance to get it right. Here’s to making the most of it.
Ryan Nivakoff, a successful entrepreneur and an alumnus of Columbia University, where he played Division I football and baseball. He currently lives in New York, where he enjoys playing golf, spending time with his family, and following college sports.