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Time Management Helps Teen Athletes Make the Grade

How To Help Your Child Maintain Grades While Participating In Sports

Andrew Harmic, 16, of Oviedo, Fla., goes to school each morning and faces his full-time academic commitment, but instead of heading home after school, he heads out to the field for two and a half to three hours of football practice – each and every school day when his sport is in season.

When the high school junior finally walks through the door at 5:30 p.m., his "work day" isn't over. Some nights, he's faced with homework from every class. Despite it all, Harmic's grades are top-rate, and he can't wait until game day.

How do some kids thrive under the pressure of sports and academics while other kids crumble? As a parent, can you help? These are just a few of the questions parents of teen athletes are asking, and the answers may surprise you.

Lessons on the Field

Scott Lancaster, the senior director of youth football development for the NFL and the author of Fair Play: How to Make Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kids (Prentice Hall Press, 2002), says that the most successful athletes establish a positive balance in their lives. And he's not just talking about professional athletes. "Time management is perhaps the most important skill set – not only for student athletes, but throughout one's entire personal and professional life," he says. "Student athletes have a tremendous advantage over other students in this regard in that they naturally acquire first-hand expertise in managing their time."

Harmic's mother, Mary, would have to agree. While she admits to worrying about Andrew's time commitment to his sport and the status of his academic obligations, she says she knows what he's capable of, and she just tries to concentrate on that. "I would step in if I saw things coming down," she says.

But what does it mean for a parent to "step in"? For Mary, stepping in involves asking Andrew from time to time, "How's that project going? Don't you have a paper due for this class?" and reminding him not to wait until the last minute.

Simply letting him know that she's watching his back seems to put them both at ease, but Mary admits things weren't always that easy. Her oldest son, a former baseball player at the college level, was an entirely different story. "His grades suffered, but he did enough to get by," she says. "We let him get away with too much. We gave him every chance to make baseball his life."

Lessons at Home

Whether your child is a good student and you want it to stay that way, or your child is showing signs of a downward spiral where academics are concerned, get out your coaches cap – academic coach, that is – because you can help. Just keep in mind that in the end, it's all up to the student athlete.

"It's the athlete's responsibility to make academics a priority," Lancaster says. "While a coach can provide guidance, it's ultimately the athlete who must learn to balance school and sports."

Lancaster's approach to academics is one that most student athletes will appreciate, because it draws from the very thing they love – sports. "Student athletes may approach study time in a manner similar to that of how their coach schedules their athletic training," he says. "Every day an athlete follows a regimented schedule to improve their skills and fitness. As a student, they must apply the same discipline."

Lancaster suggests that teens create a schedule for academics, and stick to it. "They should be realistic about the time – when and how much of it – they can dedicate to studies, and then make the commitment," he says. "Often a study schedule that is repeated the same time every day, similar to practice, will instill a good set of habits."

While your teen is setting up this schedule, it's important for him or her to learn to assess their academic weaknesses. "Good athletes allot more time to their weaknesses; the same principle should apply to coursework that is more difficult," Lancaster says.

And good athletes also listen to their coaches. Lancaster advocates for teens working with their teachers in the classroom in the same way they work with their coaches on the field. "Just as a coach does out on the field, teachers can effectively provide guidance in focusing on appropriate classroom materials, thereby maximizing valuable study time," he says.

Harmic knows this firsthand. He says some teachers are more lenient on him as a student athlete, but others are much harder. He's learned to pay close attention to and build these relationships. Rather than whine and throw his hands up in defeat over the tougher-than-normal teachers, he adopts an even greater work ethic in those classes. "I work harder to prove to them that I can do both, school and football," he says.

Lessons for Life

Let's face it, not every student has the internal academic barometer that Harmic has. While basic grade requirements for play will keep many teen athletes on the field, they won't push lackluster students onto the honor role.

"When you're getting by on the skin of your teeth, that's not good," says Mary Harmic. With 20/20 hindsight in her favor, Harmic would do things differently this time with her oldest son. She says she would have put a stronger emphasis on school and left her son with these words of wisdom: Sports aren't going to make you money.

That's a hard lesson for teen athletes to learn, especially when they are immersed in new stories about high school prodigies and multi-million dollar contracts. They are much less likely to read about college athletes with 4.0s and degrees in high-demand fields. While there isn't much media coverage about that, you and your teen athlete might be surprised to find out that high grade point averages and equally high career aspirations – off the field – are nothing new to upper-level athletes. The fact is that most athletes will never get paid a dime to play their sport of choice, and that's really OK.

"By taking advantage of all the valuable lessons learned naturally on the playing field and applying them to all aspects of life, student athletes can remain one step ahead," Lancaster says. "This is the true gift that sports gives back to every athlete – professional or amateur."

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