What It Takes to be a University Athlete


Photo by Carmen Rodriguez NSP, Flickr

Photo by Carmen Rodriguez NSP, Flickr

This weekend marked the end of the Sochi Olympics. Athletes around the world will return to their training regiments in anticipation of the next competition. Many of these competitive athletes are young students. Athletes must start young, as it takes years of training to reach their peak level of skilled fitness. How does the average young athlete balance schoolwork with their athletics? In honour of the Canadian gold medal hockey wins, I interviewed several Varsity athletes from the University of Toronto to investigate the balance between professional athletics and schoolwork.

Two things were mentioned by all athletes interviewed: time management. If you want to invest the time to be a professional anything while remaining a full-time student, organization and planning are key. This especially applies to student athletes, as their bodies are an entirely different syllabus to manage. Training, nutrition, and rest are equal to studying for a midterm. This means micromanaging study sessions, social life, and everything in between.


Elizabeth Benn is on the Varsity Blues fastpitch team (a version of softball with a windmill pitching style), studying philosophy, English, and French. During fastpitch season she practices for 20 hours a week – not including travel time, administrative work, fundraising, and meetings. Benn has missed class for her sport, but says different practice time slots allow for leeway. She plans her weekly schedule in advance every Sunday, although,

It’s common to fall behind and have to miss out on things that ‘normal’ students get to do.

As a student athlete, she recommends taking a lighter course load and courses with reduced workloads.


David Urness, a Varsity Blues rower and Nordic skiier studying engineering, also time manages by planning his semesters far in advance. He says,

This gives me the chance to plan strategies to survive the stressful times.

In times of high pressure, Urness micromanages.

If I’m really pressed for time, I’ll schedule my days hour by hour.

Heather and Sophie

If a normal student finds themselves overwhelmed by schoolwork, they can stay up late to cram. A Varsity athlete cannot afford to lose sleep and experience drowsiness at their next practice or competition. Varsity Blues figure skater Heather McHugh, who studies political science, says,

It’s hard getting up for 6:00am on Friday mornings if you’ve been out late the night before.

Negotiating with professors is also a necessary nuisance. Sometimes a championship can coincide with a midterm, and a professor’s understanding is imperative for the student athlete to participate and achieve the necessary grades. Although most professors are accommodating – McHugh has never conflicted with a professor – some can be difficult. She says,

Last year a girl almost missed the [figure skating] championship because a professor was resisting letting her reschedule a midterm.

Sophie Ryder, a Varsity figure skater studying social sciences, says,

I have personally been lucky that all my professors have been super understanding, but I have heard stories of the Dean being involved.

Tips for Athletes, from Athletes

Sometimes students must appeal to the next level of authority to accommodate their athletics. To avoid this, Benn recommends showing professors your commitment to the class and that you are capable of maintaining your workload.

I try to do little things to show that I am still doing my work for their classes, like handing in sheets with notes from the past week’s readings; that way they’ll know that I’m still doing my work and do care about the class.

Along with other U of T athletes, Urness cites attitude as key. Overbooked student athletes must find play in their work. The support and attitude of fellow teammates is vital. As Urness says,

Attitudes are contagious: sure, Debbie Downer can ruin practice if you’re not careful, but a smile can also make it.

A team’s temperament can affect an athlete’s ability to cope on and off-field. Team spirit is essential, since, as McHugh says,

Unless you’re in residence, I find that the team is your social life.

Ryder says that despite the stress,

I personally do it because I love the sport. At the end of the day as long as you’re happy with your decisions and life, that’s all that matters.

Urness says,

I’m proud to represent the University of Toronto as a rower and a Nordic Skiier, and being a student athlete is the best decision I made after choosing to attend U of T.

The U of T Varsity Blues experiences tell us that being a student athlete takes more than one kind of discipline. Not only physical and academic, but logistical: the ability to formulate a schedule and follow through. Of course, students make mistakes. Life cannot be fully planned for. Schoolwork and sports are a balance that only passion can steady and Olympic resolve can maintain.

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