Athletics as a Benefit or Detriment to Academic Performance

A common concern surrounding the community of student-athletes is whether or not the incredible time commitment warranted by athletics serves as a benefit or detriment to academic performance. Many varsity athletes at Swarthmore, given the rigorous academic standards, are well aware that they are students first and varsity athletes second, as the term “student-athlete” suggests. All Garnet athletes have encountered the predicament of balancing team practice and school work. There is certainly merit to both sides of this debate, leaving many to seriously consider the prospect of participating  collegiate athletics.
        Some student-athletes, like Tom McGovern ’17, member of the Men’s Swim team, believe that athletic time commitment does improve academic performance.
       “I find that having a regimented routine actually helps me perform better academically,” says McGovern. “The structure of the athletic season forces me to exercise, regulate my diet, and get enough sleep, which are all harder to prioritize when I don’t have the immediate physical consequences staring me in the face during practice. Athletics certainly help my general performance in classes.”
        In season, most varsity athletes practice six days a week, creating the regimented routine McGovern talks about. A 2012 article of the Chicago Tribune titled “The Blessings of Routine” contends that “patterns of behavior, properly harnessed, help keep life on track.” The article features input from University of Southern California psychology professor Wendy Wood who states, “Habits help us get through the day with minimal stress and deliberation.”With a large portion of the day going to class and practice for student-athletes, time devoted to school work must be regularly carved out and fit into a student-athlete’s busy schedule.
        Further, time spent on school work must be extremely productive as it is limited by athletic commitments.
        “Having the responsibility to be on top of my work not only for myself but for my teammates helps me stay motivated and focused when I feel like slacking off,” says McGovern.
        Of course, for some student-athletes, there is seemingly not enough time in the day to balance sports and school, given the burdensome academic demands here at Swarthmore.
        Nicole Khorosh ‘20, member of the Women’s Tennis team adds,
        “As an athlete you learn to manage your time well. However, when school work really picks up, you don’t have any time left to manage.”
        Choosing between an assignment and practice is something many athletes face, certainly hindering their performance in the classroom. At the Division 1 level, student-athletes must often miss class to travel across the country for sporting events. Fortunately, this is a rarity at Swarthmore, an institution whose athletic coaches understand the priority of education. However, the sizeable time commitment to athletics, even at the Division 3 level, has numerous negative externalities.
       “My sleeping schedule becomes a factor I didn’t feel I had to watch when I wasn’t playing sports,” says Khorosh. “Not to mention the constant fatigue and soreness that you just have to get used to.”
       The NCAA’s website features an article on sleeping disorders from the Sports Science Institute by author Michael Grandner. In the article, Grander states “given the timing of practices, travel and competition, student-athletes are likely at high risk of sleep difficulties. In addition, extra time demands, including balancing athletics with academics, can reduce sleep opportunity.”
       In season, student-athletes are significantly more susceptible to sleep deprivation, which, given the importance of sleep,  can seriously interfere with academic success.
       “Sleep is not a passive state of rest, but an active state of rebuilding, repair, reorganization and regeneration,” says Grandner.
       That opportunity to repair and rebuild, is essential for student-athletes, not only for their success on the field, but more importantly, off it.
       All students at Swarthmore face a tremendous challenge when it comes to effectively managing their time. Student-athletes, in particular, face a unique challenge given the physically demanding nature of the substantial time commitment. Whether or not that time commitment serves as a benefit or detriment to their academic performance truly does vary from person to person. A regimented routine offers some students a regular opportunity to do schoolwork and be incredibly effective during such time. Additionally, the routine created by athletics can lead to a healthier lifestyle by regulating diet and sleep.
       Conversely, for many student-athletes, there simply is not enough time in the day, and balancing both requires cutting out sleep and hindering academic performance. Overall, student-athletes are students first. If athletics impedes with their success in the classroom, stepping back and re-evaluating the decision to play sports is a good choice.


  1. Thanks for the writeup! Sleep is important for mental and physical performance for everyone, and student athletes may feel the consequences of sleep loss more than others. Glad this is getting Swarthmore’s attention. I have to say — I moved to Arizona a year and a half ago. Before then, I lived right between Media and the Swarthmore campus. I miss the area (though not as much in the winter)!

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