Student or Athlete: What Takes Priority?

photo by Tyler Wong

Juggling academics and athletics is a challenge that the majority of Paly has to deal with on a daily basis, which can often lead to increased stress and declined performances in both fields. An athlete’s sole focus is to be the best at their sport, yet, on the opposite side of the spectrum, a student’s primary focus is to perform the best they can at school. Student-athletes learn to balance their two priorities. However, the balance cannot be perfectly even and will always tilt towards one or the other. The great question is: which takes priority? 

How good each student is and their goals for their respective sport play a big role in how different students prioritize academics and athletics. Athletes who are looking to be recruited for college have to make sure their grades stand out as well as have exceptional talent in their sport. Sometimes school work becomes an afterthought for athletes with professional aspirations. Social Studies teacher, Eric Bloom gives his perspective on this issue. 

“The idea is that you’re a student-athlete, you’re not an athlete-student,” Bloom said. 

After being a Paly teacher for over 20 years, Bloom has faced many student-athletes prioritizing their sport over his class.

“ [Many student athletes] can demonstrate the discipline for their sport but they can’t show that same sort of discipline for their classes,” Bloom said. 

Many student-athletes forget the “student” aspect of their title. Bloom has been emphasizing the importance of tying academics to sports. He expresses his opinion that getting coaches on the same page about the two will create not only a better relationship between teachers and coaches but it will create a cohesive path that leads to the same goal for the adolescents, the teacher, and the coach. 

“What I would love is for coaches to be like ‘Oh you cut Mr. Bloom’s class? You’re not starting,’” Bloom said, “Or if the student has a C or a D on a report, the idea of tying their athletics to their academics I think would be nice, to get that kind of support from the coaches.”

Paly students must be very disciplined to manage their time between academics and athletics. There are choices to be made whether to prioritize sports or school, a lot of this is dependent on if they want to be recruited for their sport or not. Lincoln Tutor, a Paly senior football player and track runner, has high hopes for his final year in high school athletics for himself and others. 

“Prioritizing school is more important because not everyone can go pro[fessional],” Tutor said. “For lots of us senior athletes, morning lifts and three-hour practices make it sometimes hard to balance out school with sports.” 

Many seniors are taking multiple AP classes and are getting ready for college applications. It can become overwhelming with the amount of work they are doing, but students must remember that being a student-athlete comes with a lot of responsibility. 

“Especially when you have multiple APs and college applications,” Tutor said. “Honestly, it does feel like sometimes that there isn’t enough time for school work, but you just have to stay up later for those days, it’s the commitment of being a student-athlete.”

It is not uncommon for sports to conflict with school. Good communication has been a recurring theme in gaining balance in one’s schedule.

“Teachers are usually very accommodating if you miss a test to play in a game, ask a teacher if you can take your test [at a different time] because of your sports, [most] of the time they would say yes,” Tutor said. “Just communicate with your teachers and coaches and come up with a solution. There are times when my college writing class conflicted with practice, but because I communicated with the coach or the teacher, everything turned out well.”

To further his academic studies, Tutor is looking to pursue an undergraduate degree, specifically in finance or economics and as far as continuing his athletic career, Tutor is not limiting his activity in the future to being recruited.

“I definitely will walk on the track or football team, if not recruited for college,” Tutor said.

Justin Gu, a senior at Paly, stopped playing basketball after suffering from career-altering injuries and wanting to have a greater focus on schoolwork. Before becoming a full-time student, Gu was fairly adept at balancing schoolwork and athletics. 

“It was definitely hard,” Gu said. “ I was really busy, especially during the basketball season, because there was practice for over 10 hours [per week] but then I had a lot of homework. My sophomore year wasn’t too bad in terms of school and extracurriculars. It was just having to realize what is important to me and getting my work done, not spending too much time just goofing around and things like that.”

During his sophomore year, Gu was still able to balance his time well. He would work on getting schoolwork done before and after practice. Many studies have shown that getting enough sleep has a dramatic effect on how efficiently a person can work. Justin Gu has personal experience with such results.

“I slept at around midnight every day,” Gu said. “I’d say that is definitely reasonable, especially during the basketball season. People just need to be able to stay focused in the time that they are working so that way, they are not dragging work on for too long.”

The decision to stop playing basketball was not an easy one. At the start of Gu’s junior year, he had knee surgery and was not ready to play for the team by the time basketball season rolled around. He explained that he was also very busy with school; after all, it was junior year, and he was taking four AP classes including many extracurriculars. Along with his multiple AP Classes, he was part of Silicon Valley Youth, an organization that teaches underprivileged kids many different skills. Along with his volunteer work and heavy school workload, he still found time to run his club. 

“My club is a sports analytics club because that’s what I’m really passionate about,” Gu said. “That is the way I still kept in touch with sports because I am still really passionate about sports. It allowed me to apply the things I’m passionate about, such as data analytics into something else I am passionate about –– sports.” 

Looking from the teachers’ perspective, Gu believes that teachers and coaches are usually pretty accommodating. He agrees that communication is key to having teachers and coaches on the same page. When he had requests to skip practice to focus on a test or a project, they have been understanding of his duties to his sport. Gu also has impressive aspirations for his future in academics.

“I’ve only had high goals for myself academically,” Gu said. “I want to go to a top college and pursue maybe a dual degree or something. Just kind of get ahead in college so that [it] can prepare me for work life at a faster pace.”

Paly junior, Alena Lotterer, dives competitively for the Stanford Club as well as for Paly. She is in the midst of the recruiting process, with a few schools showing interest already. 

“I just started the recruiting process in June and hope to have a school picked out by the end of junior year,” Lotterer said. “I’m taking recruiting trips right now and talking to a bunch of coaches which is super exciting.” 

At many schools, grades play a major role in the selection process for recruiting. Having below-average grades could mean the difference between a full ride and a partial scholarship.

“I think I balance [school and sports] equally; they’re the two most important things in my life that I prioritize in life above everything else,” Lotterer said. “It definitely gets a little difficult every now and then when I have to start sacrificing my sleep schedule or sometimes it takes a toll on my mental health, however, I’m continuously prioritizing those two things. When I’m at home my focus is towards my school work and when I’m diving my focus is towards diving.” 

Photo Curtesy of Ethan Harington

Being a dedicated athlete requires hard work and persistence. Besides being skilled at the sport, a great deal of support from coaches, teachers, parents, and friends is often a necessity. 

“I think the teachers are really accommodating just as long as you communicate in advance,” Lotterer said.

Asher Friedman, a Paly senior and varsity lacrosse player have some insight into the perspective of recruited athletes. Already committed to Oberlin College for lacrosse, Friedman has an interesting take on student-athletes. 

“I would say I prioritize [school and sports] differently,” Friedman said. “I know school is much more important but I need to stay happy so I need to play sports as well. I think because I have sacrificed most other extracurricular activities, I can’t spend all my time doing schoolwork, so my sports fit in perfectly.”

This balance Friedman has achieved is the culmination of years of dedication to his sport. Since the global pandemic, most school work has been moved online, which meant athletes could catch up on missed school work much easier than before. This allowed athletes to continue to play games, as well as keep up with schoolwork. 

“With that being said, they expect us to be doing our best to make it all work out without having to miss practices and especially games,” Friedman said. 

Being a recruited lacrosse athlete for Oberlin College, Friedman works above and beyond to maintain his academic and athletic success. 

“First off, I am a student before I am an athlete,” Friedman said. “With that being said I need to make sure I don’t get too stressed from school, which is why I need sports. To balance them, I try to be very productive with my time. It helps me a lot having a to-do list and knowing by when I would like to get each thing done.”

Just as Friedman does, many student-athletes use their sports as a way to clear their mind of much of the stress coming from school work. On the other hand, some also use sports as an excuse not to do schoolwork or show up to class. Long-time teacher and Paly Lacrosse coach, Mr. Shelton sees firsthand how athletes manage and balance their various responsibilities. 

“My experience, in general, is that student-athletes tend to either be very good students or to be vastly underperforming [academically],” Shelton said. “It’s hard as a teacher, and previous student-athlete myself, to see some students really succeed and others struggle. I think the overall situation is a product of students either using athletics to better organize and prioritize their time, which results in better academic performance or, they see athletics as an excuse to not complete work and miss class, which results in low academic performance. I know that some student-athletes view themselves as only good at sports, not at school. However, if they just applied the same level of attention, effort, and resilience to the classroom as they do the field, they’d find themselves succeeding in school.” 

As previously mentioned, Shelton was an athlete himself when he was in high school. At that point in his life, he often had a hard time maintaining his friendships outside of his team. However, looking back, he says adequate rest and recovery should be the most prioritized above all of it.

“I’m an extrovert through and through, so this was very tough for me, and I have had to develop a strong work ethic to keep myself focused on individual tasks so that I can enjoy socializing when I’m all done.,” Shelton said. “Student-athletes also need to acknowledge that they will not lead a ‘normal’ social life while in season. This doesn’t mean don’t have any fun ever during the season, but you need to be intentional about it and set aside a specific time when you know you can take some time for yourself. Lastly, you need to prioritize sleep over all else –– if you’re not rested, you won’t do well in school or in your games, and that will become a positive feedback loop quickly if not addressed; sleep, sleep, sleep!”

Many responsibilities rest on the shoulders of student-athletes. Being able to prioritize school and extracurricular activities is one of them.

“I have no issue with students missing class for games,” Shelton said. “Being a student-athlete is a choice and privilege, and they need to understand that they will have to work harder to make up work and teach themselves missed learning. Being a student-athlete is a privilege. It is not your teacher’s responsibility to catch you up because you had a game.”

Teachers have a unique look into the world of student-athletes, especially if they have the perspective as a coach. 

“I do think that student-athletes should be held to a higher standard of attendance and grades if they wish to miss class for athletics,” Shelton said.

Raenen Mathen a senior and varsity football player, sheds light on his experiences with his school and sports and how they have affected each other negatively.

“Practices after school lead to being tired and leaving only a few hours for homework and being tired could affect the quality of work,” Mathen said. “Being tired from practice the night before also makes classes hard and boring because you’re tired.”

photo by Tyler Wong

Senior and varsity volleyball player Evie Kramer touches on mental health in sports and her experience with it in particular.

“I think my mental health is a lot better when I’m in season, just having something [to do],” Kramer said. “Again, I’m almost always in season because club starts as soon as school ends, but I definitely get a lot of mental health release and it’s a big outlet for me to do something with my time.”

For Kramer, there has also been a positive correlation between her sports and her academics. She learned to balance her time between the two for a filled schedule. Keeping busy keeps her on track.

“I think that when I have one thing after another, I am more efficient,” Kramer said. “I don’t get distracted. I don’t procrastinate. I think sports are a huge area for me; [I] output a lot of my energy and it’s a way for me to recharge.”

Students and athletes, teachers and coaches alike have reiterated that having a plan, prioritizing, and being prepared is essential to setting yourself up for success whether you are an athlete or student, or both. But in the end, each student-athlete’s division of work will be different, not only because we are each different, but because we each make our own distinct choices. Ethan Harrington, a senior at Paly and Division I commit to Princeton University for swimming sums this notion up perfectly. 

“It’s really up to you –– it depends on how good you are at your sport, how good you want to be at school,” Harrington said. “Everyone has the same amount of time, it just depends on what you want to do with it.”