First off, congratulations! You’ve made it this far. Your son or daughter has undoubtedly overcome many challenges, put in an enormous amount of hard work and accomplished successes you’ll remember the rest of your life. Now they are off to college to play competitive sports. That’s a big deal and something to be proud of. Also, in many ways, the real challenge is just beginning.
My name is Joe Puentes, Psy.D., I’m a Clinical and Sport Psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area. I’ve been working with NCAA student athletes for 10+ years. I consider it an incredible honor to work with young adults at this dynamic and important time in their lives. I was once a college athlete myself, and as I often tell people, I would do about anything to go back in time and know what I know now and be able to apply it back then. I would have performed better, saved myself a lot of suffering and ultimately had more fun competing. Now that’s my passion, to share the knowledge and expertise from the field of Sport Psychology and my work with athletes over a decade so that they can benefit. My commitment is to student athletes’ well-being first and foremost and my experience proves that peak performance flows from there.
In the following brief guide, I share the 7 essential do’s and don’ts for preparing your young adult for the collegiate level. I pull from my expertise as well as that of parents who have been there, collegiate coaches, trainers and even my colleague who is a pediatrician and former college athlete. By the end of the guide, you’ll move from apprehensive, nervous and even panicked about sending your child off to college to more informed, prepared and confident in supporting them in this next stage.
7 Essential Do’s and Don’ts to Prepare You Student Athlete for College
1. Do give your student athlete the space to talk about the upcoming transition to college. Let them know you’re there to talk about anything, the fears, the excitement, the uncertainty, and the adventure. They don’t always teach this in locker rooms, but the research indicates emotional expression with trusted and caring people is healthy and improves student athlete resilience.
- Don’t try to fix all of their problems, take on their worries, or go into lecture mode. That is the parenting reflex but of course, is the surest way to turn away your young adult. The strategy is to stay supportive, positive and confident in their abilities to navigate the upcoming challenges while reassuring them you’ll be there for them along the way.
2. Do know the resources and go to places for support on campus. One easy way to support your student athlete in their success is to know what’s available and how to access it. Where do they go for health issues, academic support, tutoring, roommate concerns, and mental health care? They may not need it all, but as it comes up, you’ll know how to help identify and get them connected. As young adults, that piece is often overwhelming. Once they’re connected, then they can take it from there.
- Don’t assume you know what is there and not there as a resource. Different campuses have different resources. For example, if you know your student athlete will need a pharmacy or mental health care, it can really set them up for success to know if that is available on campus and to get them connected early.
3. Do help them identify and build their support camp. Having a strong support team in place and utilizing it appropriately is a predictor of student athlete success academically and athletically. You can think of it as a competitive edge, to have identified a range of people who are there to help them succeed, such as their coach, assistant coach, athletic trainer, strength and conditioning coach, therapist or Sport Psychology staff, academic counselor, tutor, previous coach/mentor, team captain, trusted roommate or friend and of course you as parent!
- Don’t pretend they can tough it out or just rely on the coach or you as the parent for support. Most professional athletes have a support camp because they recognize it as a must to endure the tough training schedule, manage the pressure and overcome the challenges. It's important to realize one of the most difficult things for first year student athletes is that they have left their high school team of support that helped them achieve so much success behind. Identifying and connecting with a new one on campus is essential.
4. Do proactively take care of any medical or mental health concerns. The learning curve is pretty steep for student athletes the first semester. Helping them arrive in as best of health as they can, sets them up for success. If you’re concerned but they aren’t, talk directly to them but don’t force them. Letting them know you care and are willing to support them in taking care of their health increases the likelihood they will reach out when they are ready.
- Don’t assume they can just handle medical and mental health issues easily while on campus. Managing the practice schedule, study hours, a new college course load and social time is plenty to demand their attention. Eventually, they will get adjusted and become experts at managing it all but why not set them up for success right from the start?
5. Do support them being active in their other passions, hobbies and talents outside of sports over the summer. I know it might sound counter-intuitive as you would imagine you would want to them to have laser focus and commitment to improving in their sport. The truth is though, being well rounded, drawing from multiple sources of self-worth, and staying connected to the things that rejuvenate them helps prevent burnout and gives them a reserve of good stuff to tap into when times get hard. Myles Garrett, number one pick in the 2017 NFL draft shared he writes poetry between practices during training camp to help him keep perspective and relaxed.
- Don’t talk only about sports when you talk with your student athlete. It is such a big deal to them, to you and definitely takes up most of their time but as mentioned above, they are more resilient when they can see themselves as more than their performance, their ranking, their position on the depth chart. Trust me, they get plenty of reminders about that but there are few places they can be recognized for the other parts of them. Parents play a key role here as you loved them before sports and will long after.
6. Do know the keys to be a successful student while being an athlete. Research points to simple strategies like arriving to class on time, not leaving early, sitting next to the high performing students, sitting toward the front of the class, keeping your phone put away, making at least one thoughtful comment or question per class, utilizing your professors office hours and informing them of when you will miss class due to your sport as related to better scores on tests, papers and final grades.
- Don’t assume poor academic performance has to do with laziness or poor effort. Some athletes may need help with time management or study skills, have learning challenges that did not show up in high school, or not understand the expectations of college professors. Especially for students that are the first in their family to go to college, learning how to navigate the academic environment and gaining academic skills can empower them to succeed in their coursework rather that struggle with beliefs that they are not capable or smart enough.
7. Do know when to support your student athlete in seeking mental health care if they are struggling in that first year. Many universities have counseling centers that offer short term counseling or therapy. Some athletic departments have Sport Psychology staff that can be a resource. If there is not a good fit on campus or the student athlete is interested in more open ended ongoing therapy, you can support them in finding an off campus provider. Again, getting connected can be overwhelming and having parental support can be the key difference in successfully getting started. Once they are connected, then they can take it from there.
- Don’t wait until the mental health concern becomes a crisis to show you care and offer to support getting them connected to a professional. Counseling is confidential and is a low risk potentially high reward endeavor. Sport Psychologists, in particular, can offer the student athlete the opportunity to engage in counseling and learn mental skills to perform at their best. I’m biased, but I think that can be an invaluable investment in their lives. They work way too hard to have a mental health concern that could be resolved with counseling get in the way of their success.
I hope this brief guide helped give you some clear do’s and don’ts to set your student athlete up for success at the next level! Many parents I encounter are not only interested in the basics but are looking to learn more in-depth about how to be the best parent they can be during this important and sometimes challenging time in their student athlete’s life. Others are drawn to better understand the psychology of sport and get into mental strategies and skills to promote peak performance.
If you’re interested in this next level of knowledge and support, check out the range of services offered at www.performancepsychologycenter.com. My goal is to help as many student athletes and their supporters as I can. Thank you!