Women’s basketball junior guard Courtney Jaco wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for morning practice, after which she attends classes for the majority of the day, before finally getting the chance to eat, study and sleep. Last season, Jaco appeared in all 30 basketball games, while earning Pac-12 All-Academic Honorable Mention last season.
For Jaco and the rest of the roughly 550 student-athletes at USC, juggling academics with practice, traveling around the country and competing in intercollegiate sports is just part of daily life. Over time, this wear and tear on the mind and body can lead to stress. Student-athletes face many of the same mental health risk factors as their non-athlete peers, but can also be exposed to an additional set of risk factors such as time demands and performance pressures, according to the NCAA.
USC, though, has made it a priority to assist its student-athletes in managing these pressures. In his August 2015 report, Athletic Director Pat Haden said one of his guiding principles for the Athletics Department is to continue helping students find the balance in their lives among the challenges of academics, competitions and the social life of a college student.
Former USC baseball preferred walk-on player and junior C.J. Angle was part of the team during the fall of both his freshman and sophomore year, but was cut before the start of the season both times, due to injuries.
According to Angle, almost every athlete at USC comes from a high school where he or she was the best player on the team and most likely the leader on the team. The athletes are then made to transition to a Division I environment where they are surrounded by athletes with the same, or even higher, skill set.
“The fact that I didn’t have a secure spot on the team is what really stressed me out,” Angle said. “I would worry about doing my best to impress the coaches every time I stepped on the field instead of playing the game I love and doing the best I could no matter what happened.”
Being a student-athlete can have its advantages, however, when it comes to establishing a fixed routine to follow daily.
“To be honest, I felt that because my life was so structured with a set schedule, I was able to adequately get my work done without being too stressed,” Angle said. “I knew exactly when I needed to get work done, and it really helped my organizational skills.”
Angle now serves on the Undergraduate Student Government’s Wellness Affairs committee and advocates for the importance of student-athletes to remain stress-free, despite the hurdles that may come with athletics, such as injuries.
“Of course there were times when exhaustion kicked in and the stress of baseball itself was getting to me, but it’s something you just learn to deal with and get through,” Angle said.
At an institution with the academic rigor of USC, there can be a great deal of pressure for student-athletes to keep up in the classroom while managing equally high expectations on the field.
Freshman linebacker Cameron Smith, who enrolled at USC last spring, said he uses football as his primary motivator for doing well in the classroom.
“It’s important to be mentally tough and getting through it so I can play football,” Smith said. “You have to grind through it, and I love the grind.”
Based on higher GPAs and the academic progress from student-athletes, it seems like many are putting the student aspect of the phrase student-athlete first and foremost. In the spring 2015 semester, student-athletes’ average semester GPA increased to a 3.00, the highest it’s been since 2000, when the information was first recorded.
This improvement can be attributed to the many different resources offered by USC’s Student-Athlete Academic Services Program. This program includes providing student-athletes additional services such as tutors in order to assist them in fulfilling their full academic potential.
Last spring, the football team notched its highest semester GPA (2.71) and cumulative GPA (2.52) ever. The team’s most recent academic progress rate (2013-2014), which was released by the NCAA last spring, also rose seven points to 948, though it remains below the national average of 956.
“Balancing football and academics is simple for me,” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Antwaun Woods. “I’ve been here for five years now, so I don’t have a big academic load, but I’m glad because this year, with everything we’ve been going through, I couldn’t imagine how the other guys have been doing it.”
A few players said that striking the balance between football and school can be much tougher in the fall with the team holding practice daily and also having to travel to away games, which can force players to miss a significant amount of class time.
Sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is considered “superman” on the football field, leading the Pac-12 Conference in receiving with over 1,100 yards this season. But Smith-Schuster said balancing that on-field success with his coursework hasn’t always been easy.
“It has been really tough,” Smith-Schuster, a human biology major, said. “The classes that I scheduled are some pretty tough classes. But, I did it last year and I thought it was harder as a freshman coming here and not knowing what major I was going to be and how my football career was going to turn out.”
In October 2014, the Pac-12 also implemented landmark reforms to increase athletic scholarships to include the full cost of attendance, guarantee four-year athletic scholarships and increase medical coverage for student-athletes.
Varsity student-athletes, however, aren’t the only ones on campus who have to deal with the dilemma of balancing sports and school. The Recreational Club Council at USC oversees 57 club sports and is composed of more than 2,500 student-athletes. Many of them share the same dilemmas as Division I student-athletes but with fewer perks.
These perks can range from the financial security of athletic scholarships to meals to tutors and a central facility to study in the John McKay Center.
Since USC doesn’t have a Division I men’s soccer team, Ian Anderson, a sophomore majoring in business administration, plays on the men’s club soccer team at USC and said playing a sport has benefits for stress and time management. Studies conducted by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have shown that exercise, such as participating in competitive athletics, can relieve stress, reduce depression and improve cognitive function.
“It isn’t too stressful because the exercise I get from practice relieves stress, and I use practice as a break from study sessions,” Anderson said. “To me it’s ultimately beneficial for school work.”
John Walsh contributed to this report.