Before I became a college athlete, I was involved in any athletic activity you can think of—from T-ball to gymnastics, soccer to field hockey, dance class to track, I was always up and moving. I was fortunate enough to explore many different activities growing up, and eventually I found that field hockey was where I belonged. I picked up a stick in fifth grade and the rest is history.
As a proud University of Massachusetts Lowell field hockey alum, I endured the greatest and most rewarding four years as a college student-athlete. As gratifying an experience as it was, getting there wasn’t easy. And there are a few things I wish I knew prior to committing myself to the Division I lifestyle. If you’re considering bringing your athletic talents to the collegiate level, there are a few questions you should ask yourself during recruitment to help you navigate your decision process.
1. Which Division is right for me?
There are three different levels of competition for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA): Division I, Division II, and Division III. While all three levels give you the opportunity to pursue your athletic career, they all differ for various reasons.
Division I is the highest level of competition and the most demanding. Simply put: your sport is your life. Your time will revolve around training, practice, travel, and study—on the weekends and in the offseason. Students who want a high level of competition while easily balancing academics should consider Division II. The time commitment to the sport isn’t as intense, which allows you to explore other opportunities in the classroom and the college community. Division III offers a well-rounded college experience that intertwines athletics and academics even more. At Division III institutions, academics take the lead.
Figuring out which level you want to pursue is your first step. It will ultimately help you decide how committed you want to be in your sport, which will help you narrow down your list of potential colleges.
2. How committed do I want to be to my sport?
When the opportunity arose for me to continue my athletic career at the highest level of competition, I couldn’t say no. However, if there’s one thing I wish I knew before jumping into Division I, it’s that your sport becomes your life.
In season, we would have two games and four practices a week with one day off. This sometimes consisted of double sessions, training sessions, study hall, travel days (where we would have to miss class), and possibly finding time for physical therapy. This was in addition to going to class and maintaining my grades and a social life.
But it didn’t stop there. Once the season ended, we would have a week’s rest and the training would start up again. We would practice five days a week with tournaments on the weekends. Winter and summer vacations were a nice time to relax, but I had to keep my training up, and it was always in the back of my head.
This rigorous schedule wasn’t always easy to work with. When the classwork started piling up, the stress could be overbearing. Fortunately, my teammates were going through the same thing, and my coaches were there to lean on for support. My professors were also understanding of my commitment and worked with me for the classes I missed.
When you’re a student-athlete, you have to become an expert in time management and find a routine that works for you. Everything is manageable as long as you stay on top of your schedule. So when you’re asking yourself how committed you want to be to practicing, traveling, and training for your sport, think about how involved you want to be outside of it, and decide how much you want to take on.
3. Can I study abroad or hold a job?
This was almost a make-or-break question for me. I wanted to gain real-world experience and network myself, create and maintain connections that could help get me places in the future. I’ve always maintained a job and prided myself in hard work. In addition to that, I wanted to take advantage of study abroad opportunities. But I had to sacrifice studying abroad because of my demanding athletic schedule. I watched my friends have the experience of a lifetime when they studied around the world, and I was envious that they took advantage of the opportunity. When you’re debating between Divisions, keep an open mind to how much time you want to commit to your sport and how much time you want to leave open for extracurricular activities and other opportunities a college or university offers.
4. How far am I willing to look?
One of the most exciting opportunities of pursuing an athletic career in college is the opportunity to venture to parts of the country you haven’t been to before. According to the NCAA, there are 347 Division I, 309 Division II, and 442 Division III schools. With so many institutions that hold sports teams, the sky’s the limit.
When I was debating the level of competition I wanted to play, I kept my options open. I selected a few schools I could potentially see myself pursuing on all levels all over the East Coast then made my decision after a few visits. The best piece of advice I can give you is to not limit yourself. Get your name out there, even to the schools you think are a bit of a reach and the ones that you’re not too keen on. You don’t know what opportunities are out there until you take a leap of faith.
5. What if I’m not good enough?
This question crossed my mind many, many times, especially during my freshman year. If there’s one thing I could tell my younger self, it’s don’t ever doubt yourself.
You’re being recruited for a reason. The opportunity presented to you at any Division level is something to be proud of. You’ll learn and master the necessary skills to manage your time, maintain good grades, work and communicate as a team, and create friendships that will last a lifetime. Taking that next step is scary, but believing in yourself and your talent is a priority. Don’t forget that!
Related: The College Recruitment Game
More than a year has gone by since I played my last college field hockey game, and I can truly say the feeling is bittersweet. I cherish all the ups and downs: the long bus rides, the wins, the losses, the 5:30 am practices, and everything in between. With great commitment came great reward, and I’m thankful to have built a solid foundation of connections and a home away from home.
The recruiting process can be scary and nerve-wracking. With my experience and story, I hope you can take a breath of ease and know that with organization and dedication, you can reach your goals and dreams of becoming a college student-athlete.