Understanding the divergence between athletic and academic performance

Posted on June 27, 2016

(Last Updated On: June 27, 2016)

I wrote a series called Rethinking youth fitness. One of the parts was When you’re getting good at sports, you’re not getting good at something else. We’re going to expound on that in a different way. I largely ignored research in the series. I want to take a look at one study to hammer this home some more.

A study came out right after I published that series looking at the effect of physical and academic stress on illness and injury in division I college football players.

The authors looked at the amount of injuries which happen to football players during:

  • Preseason camp- so high physical stress but no academic stress (class isn’t in session yet)
  • High academic stress periods- like mid-terms and finals weeks
  • Low academic stress periods- no testing going on, but class is in session

Before talking about the results, most don’t know what preseason camp is like for football. Jim Wendler, a noted person in the lifting community, played division I ball at Arizona years ago. His advice for training for football was do not train for the games; train for camp. However violent a game is, preseason camp is worse.

Demonstrably worse.

Every damn day of camp is like a game. It’s when guys are fighting for their job. It’s when you’re practicing twice in the same day, totaling hours and hours of hitting one another. It’s when injuries are the most likely to occur. An itinerary in camp, you are literally handed one, goes from 7am to 10pm. It’s miserable.

So not surprisingly, compared to low academic stress periods, the study found preseason camp had a whopping four times higher injury rate. In low academic stress the injury rate was 6.2 times per week, so during camp it would be about 24 injuries per week. For a roster of 101 guys! Overall, 60 of the players were injured in camp.

-> By the way, “Injuries that did not cause a restriction to practice, although may have caused pain and hampered performance, were not listed.” Meaning we’re underestimating here.

Most surprising though, was if looking at the guys who are actually playing during the season, their injury rate during high academic stress periods was as high as their injury rate during camp!

This is extraordinary considering how much division I football players care about class like a cat cares about humans. It’s possible if they’re trying to stay eligible, that their grades are struggling that badly, then they have to care, where then stress goes up. The scenario is likely different for each guy. Some get into their junior year and realize “Alright, I’m not making the NFL. I better do this school nonsense now.” Regardless, we can see mental stress can significantly influence physical stress.

Think about the demographic though. These are ~20 year old division I football players. These are the best athletes our society has to offer. Their workday is essentially the two or three classes they either barely go to, or sleep through. If they are awake, while they can be interesting fields, comparatively speaking, communications / sociology / business administration (very common athlete majors) aren’t your most taxing majors. It’s not like these guys are pre med or engineers. Even so, their body has trouble handling the overall amount of stress.

-> A few guys I played with were engineering majors. Between football and class, we’re talking regular ~14 hour days.

Now let’s think about some of the brightest our society has to offer. Division I football players would be a group who taxes their body, and the human body, as much, if not more, than any other. Medical students would be a group who taxes their mind, and the human brain, as much, if not more, than any other. Bolding mine-

“Glaser, Kiecolt-Glaser, and colleagues have conducted many studies that have examined the relationship among medical students and their findings have generally indicated that students experience a higher level of perceived stress and decreased cellular immune responses during exam periods. These studies indicate that during exam periods, students are more susceptible to illness and their wounds heal more slowly.”

Again, it doesn’t matter. As physically or mentally gifted as it gets, and your body still struggles with the stress. To where if you tax one, the mind or the body, the other suffers.

And to get good at something, whether that be primarily a physical or mental endeavor, you are going to have to significantly tax the body or the mind. Which means the other is going to suffer performance wise.

Sure, you can attempt to pull it off. You can try to be a great athlete and as good of a student as someone who isn’t an athlete. You can do it. You can just also increase your risk of injury four times relative to someone not doing that.

-> Really, we’re not even talking performance here. We’re just talking workload. This paper doesn’t describe academic performance, it merely describes the act of trying to be a division I athlete and regular college student.

This is why the notion of student-athlete needs to die. Let people like division I football players be called what they are- professional football players. Or we need to significantly alter the demands of the student-athlete. Because as of now it is unethical to expect them to endure the same academic stress as regular students.

The NCAA is increasing the rate of injury with this mentality. Of course, what the hell do they care. It’s not like they pay for health insurance after you fuck your body up in college and have issues the next 60 years of your life. They used you, they spit you out, they’re on to the next 18 year old who they will put up the facade of being a great athlete while also a stand up citizen and good student. Imperfection cannot be tolerated. If we instead be honest, then we know imperfection comes with being human. That humans have limits. Being a division I student-athlete surpasses the limits of the human body.

-> One potential solution: make athlete scholarships like military service. You “serve” your university; once complete you then go to college.

As a parent, you are increasing the rate of injury of your child by mirroring a NCAA mindset. And or, you are decreasing the ability of your child in the classroom. No, the fact your kid could be the aberration, being captain of the team and all conference while also pulling a B+ GPA, does not mean they’re not suffering. We have to consider their GPA could possibly be an A-. Or the GPA could be a C and they could be all state. Or they could just not get injured or sick as often.

-> This is more true the crazier, more overbearing of a parent. There is a line which gets crossed which only stresses the kid out more. The more you stress them out, the more likely they are to get injured. It’s been found the risk of injury is proportional to life stress. Many who have worked with young athletes will note the best ones often have the most relaxed parents. Unlikely a coincidence.

Parenting gets controversial, but I don’t think anyone argues some main points of parenting are to provide safety and prepare your child for life. If you obsess over a sport then safety is compromised, because the kid has to experience the same minimum of academic stress as their peers. With this information you can at least hopefully now say, “alright, let’s make this exam week an easier week sport wise.” That can at least help. (Something coaches should be doing too!)

As a personal trainer, you are increasing the rate of injury by taking your clients who just had a rough day or week of work, and beating them into the ground. You are taking away from their ability to work by thinking you need to pummel them into the ground in order to get a decent workout in.

This does not mean you can’t play sports or workout, and study or have a demanding job. Physical activity can increase mental performance. What we’re examining here is there is a certain threshold of these things where there is only so much energy. After a certain point, probably around the beginning of varsity high school sports, as that’s when things start getting truly competitive and the amount of force the body can produce becomes taxing (you don’t strain a hamstring as an 8 year old), to get good enough at these things requires compromise in the other. You’re not going to be as good of a basketball player playing pick up a few times a week and feeling refreshed after shooting around, as someone who plays five or six days a week and practices as if their life depended on it.

Conversely, the person practicing five or six days a week for hours and hours cannot be as good at math / writing / science / whatever as the person practicing those things like they practice basketball. (But, the person playing pick up a few times a week can be a better student than the person who does zero physical activity.)

It is not a coincidence the best athletes are good at basically nothing else but their sport. Nor is it a coincidence “geeks” usually stink at sports. Nor is it that I, as a personal trainer, have noticed over and over again, clients who train before going to their stressful job have better workouts than if they train after leaving work.

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