Balancing academics and athletics

King's student and varsity basketball player Eric McDonald hits the library for a study session.

Entering university is a tough transition for anyone. The workload increases, there's a new campus to get used to and many students are living on their own for the first time. Add to that a heavy commitment to a varsity team, and you've got a recipe for one hell of a difficult first year. 

Depending on the sport, many of Western university's varsity teams come with daily responsibilities — such is the price of belonging to one of the country's top collegiate athletic programs. For some of the most high-profile Mustangs teams, it's more than just practice. The commitments include working out, video sessions and physio treatment. 

How are athletes supposed to find time for academics? First years usually get absorbed by their sport before they even attend a class — most tryouts start at the end of August.

Recently, though, the university has caught on to this problem. Both Western Athletics and the Student Success Centre offer resources aimed at helping student-athletes be, well, students. Last year, around 50 upper-years participated in the Student-Athlete Academic Mentorship Program. Each of them paired with rookie athletes to help smooth their transition to university.

The SAAMP program can certainly help freshmen with balancing their commitments. Seeking the advice from fellow athletes can go a long way to figuring out how best to adapt to a new lifestyle. Older students — even just teammates — can offer advice on how best to handle it all, whether it's using the university's official resources or just better time management strategies and study habits. 

Likewise, the Mustangs Athlete Student Council is there to support varsity athletes, offering support to students through learning skills workshops around exam time, and encouraging freshmen to join the mentorship program. The council runs a number of social events throughout the year, like their annual dodgeball tournament, which can help new students feel more comfortable in the early stages of their university career.

Coaches, too, know how tough the first year can be. Most of them would tell you that academics are at least equally, if not more, important than sports, and they encourage their players to work hard in the classroom. Football coach Greg Marshall has repeatedly mentioned the value he places on recruiting well-rounded, academically-successful players.

In general, Western actually has a lot of programs to keep first year students on track. There's the Writing Skills Centre, Psychological Services, and a ton of academic workshops that can help with figuring out how to adjust to the university life. 

To survive first year as a varsity athlete, students need to know going in that it's going to be difficult. If you're coming to Western and joining a team, it's important to know what you can do if you're struggling with the transition. Go to class, and be sure to ask for help when you need it — the university's academic support resources are designed to be used. 

Western has one of the most successful intercollegiate athletic programs in the country, and many athletes come here primarily for their sport. Still, they are students, and keeping up to scratch in terms of academics is equally important. Having to stay on top of your course load while also trying to play a sport at a high level is a daunting new challenge for most students. Thankfully, there are upper-years who have already been through it, and a whole host of university resources designed to help. 


Charlie is a third year student in Media, Information and Technoculture, and is a second year sports editor for Volume 111 of the Gazette. Follow him on Twitter @charliejclarke or contact him at

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