Being a College Athlete is Not What You Expect
By: Kacee Leigh, MS, EP-C, CHC
College athletes spend 20+ hours per week focused on intense athletic training to compete in Conference Championships, NCAA Championships, and excel in other athletic-related accolades. At times, this comes with a “by any means necessary” mentality, meaning that your life (school, friends, mental health, etc.) must be done on your time and not brought into practice or competitions. This breeds loneliness, isolation, and long-term mental health issues in the athletes that leave this lifestyle.
College athletics teaches you discipline, hard work, and how to be goal-oriented. However, it does not teach you how to care for yourself and know what you most need. More and more has been published about the verbal and emotional abuses within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the rules that allow it to continue to happen. The style that NCAA uses to control and incentivize athletes has even been compared to military-style tactics.
When you go through the NCAA you learn skills that nowhere else can teach you. Now as an adult, having a schedule and routine is the most important piece of success. The structure allows freedom of creativity and activity that is necessary to have a full life. It took time to heal and be able to look back and appreciate the things it taught me.
It taught me the ultimate power of food. Food is the fuel that gives us life, makes our body feel good, and gives our brainpower. Integrating healthy foods into our life with a structured eating schedule can give energy that cannot be compared. If you don’t know what that is, then ask. Find someone who knows and is an expert in nutrition and food and ask them.
I started working with a nutritionist and health coach at nineteen. She taught me about foods that fuel, cooking, and meal prepping. She is the ultimate influence that led me not only to improve my life but how to become the guide in other’s lives. Because she was able to make those impacts in my life, I am now able to make those impacts in other’s lives.
Leaving the NCAA changes everything. When you are a college athlete you have a coach, a strength coach, a nutritionist, a psychologist, and an athletic trainer. You have a team of people focused on your success. When you leave, you are just you, no team, no facility, and most importantly no driven goals. Yes, life changes and you develop new goals, but the physical controls that powered your life, your identity is gone. No matter what your time in the NCAA was like, whether you had a great coach who cared or experience verbal and emotional abuse by a coach protected by universities and NCAA rules, the most alone a college athlete will feel is when they walk away.
Studies have shown that former athletes have a decreased chance of being a lifelong exerciser and experiencing joy in physical activity. It emphasizes the importance of having a fitness coach or nutrition coach who has expectations of you and helps push you to rise to challenges. With these figures in your life, accountability is easier and you spend less time wondering what the right answer is. Anyone struggling in the realm of consistency or knowledge in either nutrition or fitness can benefit from this lesson.
The last lesson the NCAA taught me was the importance of prioritizing yourself because nobody knows what you need better than yourself. When you know what you need you to have to communicate and sometimes fight for it. In the NCAA, mental health days and taking time off does not exist. Time to yourself is a luxury and to control your own schedule is non-existent. Speaking up for the things you need and holding your ground is critical. During my freshman year, we lost our coach and it was months before a new coach was hired. A new coach was hired the week before our first meet of the season in 2015. The weekend before he started, I hopped on a flight home to clear my mind of frustration. It was not approved by the university or athletics, but it was what I needed.
Fighting for yourself does not always have to feel as assertive, but it does take heart and prioritization of yourself to recognize what you most need in your life. That is something we can all learn. We think we have to put everyone else ahead of ourselves. However, we can only best serve others when we are taken care of first. This may include time away or building in routines and structure to life. Whatever you need to feel your own cup fill.
I find that food and fitness fit best into this category. Food is our fuel and determines a lot of what our body is. Fitness is the other side of that coin. It allows our brain to think better and be more creative. It also increases and regulates our energy, both during the day and helping us better sleep at night. It does not matter if you go for a walk or set a new goal of being a powerlifter. Exercise and fitness change the way we think and improve our level of ability. Finding a type of fitness, you enjoy is even more important. Exercise is not a punishment to drudge through and regret. Finding the style of exercise can invigorate you makes you look forward to that time and the excitement in participating. Don’t know where to start? Ask an experienced and certified coach to get started in the right direction.
It took a long time to come to terms with what it meant to be in the NCAA and how it affected me to leave. Looking back and seeing the positive experiences thinking of what I learned and how it impacted my life in an effective way so that I can guide others to their highest potential. It adds a level of gratitude to the challenges we face and work through in life. Though they may be uncomfortable, and you may struggle at times, the growth and life you lead on the other side make life worth living.
Kacee Leigh has lived in fitness my entire life. From youth sports to being a Division I NCAA Diver, She is driven by her passion for healthy living, fitness, nutrition, and mindset. Leigh has focused her life on helping women find their own passions in fitness, have the energy to rule the world, and building the life they have always dreamed of.
She has worked with clients who are learning how to workout at home, find the right eating plan in the kitchen, get a great night’s sleep, lose weight and be completely present in their life even around crazy schedules. She has studied and worked with clients for years and now she is here to help you!