Back To School 1
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By Lisa Baldino, Contributing Writer

Football fields, soccer fields, gym floors, swimming pools, lacrosse fields, tennis courts and the track – all are classrooms of life lessons. Students who report to these locations are learning more than the rules of the game. They’re learning skills like sportsmanship, competition, respect and teamwork that will benefit them in their adult lives.

John Davis, coordinator of athletics for the Howard County Public School System, says that because athletes have standards to meet, they learn how to conduct themselves with grace and dignity, and they learn how to be good citizens. “They balance academics, athletics and home life. They reach out to others in the community,” he says, explaining that teams in Howard County undertake fundraisers for various causes and volunteer their time helping people in need, such as those affected by floods in Ellicott City.

Time and again, studies have shown that student athletes benefit in life from the lessons taught in sports. Qualities like determination, time management and competitiveness that made them successful athletes are the same qualities that can also make them successful in business. In fact, the NCAA’s After the Game Task Force tackles this phenomenon headon.

According to a recent Marketwatch article covering Ryan Gilliam’s keynote speech at the 2017 Student-Athlete Leadership Forumin Baltimore, the former football player advised athletes to “attack your career the way you attack playing sports,” and “compete in business the same way you did in your sport.”

School officials at public and private institutions emphasize academics first and athletics second. Davis says, “Howard County Schools are education-based and student-centered.”

Colleague Michael Sye, athletic director for the Baltimore County School District, says participating in sports prepares students for life’s biggest lessons. “They learn sportsmanship – student athletes are highly visible. Their behaviors represent not only themselves, but their parents and their community,” he says. “It builds character.

It’s not always about winning. We win, but we play a significant role in shaping the character of these student-athletes.”

Sye recommends letting your elementary and middle school children try all types of sports. While it depends on the student, many can be successful at multiple sports. “Trying other sports is important,” he says. “You never know what your true talent is until you try it.”

Keith Rawlings, owner of The Arena Club and The Sports Factory in Harford County and former head football coach at John Carroll High School in Bel Air, urges parents to start their children in athletics early. “Kids mature through sports,” he says.“They develop a stronger mental attitude. They learn life lessons. It teaches teamwork. You’ll use that in business. It teaches commitment and dedication. You’ll use that throughout life.”

Rawlings says athletic competition in high school and college is very difficult. Students experience the rush of success and the plummeting of failure. “For this you have to be mentally strong,” Rawlings notes. “You have to realize you’re going to fail. It’s how you handle it that counts. If you worry about that mistake on the last play, you won’t do well on the next one. You have to perform.”

“Academics and being a student is the No. 1 priority. Then being an athlete is No. 2,” Baltimore’s Sye comments. “These are extremely difficult to balance, but our coaches do a great job in keeping on top of academics, like study halls, directly at the school.”

Davis says that athletes should choose the sport or sports they will focus on prior to high school. “The sports landscape has changed so much. Students used to be able to start a sport in ninth grade and develop it through high school, but now with club sports, most have a good idea what they are truly good at before they get to high school.”

Rawlings says, “John Carroll takes pride in that as many students as possible are playing sports. College sports are tough because athletes need to be prepared for the setbacks. It should be difficult when they go to college. The percentage of athletes who make it is small. The competition is fierce, and they have to keep their grades up.”

The odds of a high school athlete playing NCAA Division I sports in college are low. According to, an online resource for athletic scholarship statistics, just about seven percent of students who played on school-sponsored varsity, JV or freshman teams went on to play in college (one in 14). Less than two percent played at Division I schools (one in 54). Davis emphasizes,“Parents should make sure students focus on academics first. There are a lot more academic scholarships out there than athletic. Athletics may get you into a school, but academics will get you the money.”

If your child does choose to pursue college athletics, the first point of contact should be the coach and the athletic director, Sye says. “Know your NCAA eligibility requirements. You have to understand the process,” he advises. “Use all of your resources: the coach, administration, AD, parents and teachers. It’s a process, but once it’s all done, it’s rewarding. It’s also stressful, because you are doing college visits at the same time to see class sizes, academics and if the school is a good fit.”

Kelly Farmer, vice president of admissions at Stevenson University, says athletes who are recruited start by talking to the college coaches, to get an assessment of their talent and capabilities. “The coaches let admissions know if they are recruiting an applicant, and it becomes like an internal letter of reference for the candidate,” Farmer says.

Finally, student athletes need to guard against injury. Rawlings explains that many injuries are from overuse of a body part and pushing the limits of the athlete. “When field hockey players play five games in one day or baseball players play seven games in a row, muscles get overused and fatigue sets in. That’s how common knee and wrist injuries occur,” he says. Rawlings’ newest venture, The Sports Factory, prepares student athletes of all ages for their sport through strength training. The group also relies on referrals from physical therapists, including the on-site Agape Physical Therapy, whose therapists will recommend patients and programs that will help with injury recovery and prevention.

No matter what the sport, Davis urges student athletes to prepare their bodies for playing by training throughout the year using supervised, customized weight lifting and aerobic exercises. “Injuries happen because athletes are focusing on playing the sport, rather than preparing for it.”

The message is simple: Prepare for your sport and it will prepare you. •