Standing on the sideline at a recent game, I took time to think back about the outstanding athletes I have had the chance to work with and their development as athletes. That weekend, I worked a speed camp for high school athletes. During the Q&A session with the participants and their parents, one of the questions stood out to me. A quiet, but very driven athletes stood up in the back of the group and asked, “What’s the main difference between where we are now and playing in college? What do we need to know to make the team?” She went on to say, “This is my dream. I am willing to do what it takes to make this come true.”

I have been fortunate to be asked to speak to many groups of athletes throughout my career. I have been honored to share whatever information I can with those in attendance at each event. You can see how this moment was worth taking a step back to gather my thoughts before just rambling on about traveling, teammates, competing at the highest level, etc. In this exact moment, the answer was simple; “Run. Lift. Practice. Stretch. Eat. Study. Sleep. And repeat.”

Freshman who step on campus their first day realize quickly that the college game is faster, more physical, and executed at a much higher skill level than they could have expected. Everyone is good in college. Everyone has accolades from their high school experience. What is going to separate you now that you are on campus? What is going to help your transition to the college game? What will help your team be successful from your first season and throughout your career?

RUN – College athletes work on their fitness three to four days a week minimum. If you are in high school and not on a consistent fitness program, you are cheating yourself and letting down your future teammates. At the Division I level, strength and conditioning coaches will have a summer program available for incoming freshman. After getting your paperwork completed to attend an institution, ask your respective sport coach for a conditioning manual. After receiving the manual, contact the upperclassmen on your team to better understand the expectations of that specific team.

LIFT – Included in this packet will also be strength training information. Ask to sit down and meet with the strength and conditioning coach to make sure you understand what each exercise looks like and how to properly progress through the workouts over the course of the summer. If you are participating regularly in a strength program in high school, have your high school strength coach or personal trainer reach out to your college strength coach to begin your preparation as soon as possible. Freshman can mentally be ready for the fitness requirements, but strength training is not easy. It takes mental toughness and a willingness to do the little things to prepare for your next step.

PRACTICE – From the collegiate level on, athletes are fit and strong. There just is no other option. In high school you can simply rely on athleticism and conditioning to get by. In college, a few mistakes or lack of mental focus will change the outcome of a game. At the next level, just one of either will dictate who is possibly a living legend or a “goat.” Practicing every aspect of your game over and over is a must. What you learn at practice is only the beginning of what is necessary when preparing for the next level. Pick up your stick, grab a ball, glove, shoes, or whatever the case may be and prepare yourself physically as well as mentally for any scenario. Practice at a tempo that simulates or exceeds the stress of a game. If practice is more challenging, then the stress associated with competing on game day will be easier to manage. This intensity will help you to be successful during competition because you have prepared the correct way. As the cliché goes, practice being comfortable when others would be uncomfortable.

STRETCH – Taking care of your body is a big change for athletes at the college level. Relying on an athletic trainer, sport nutritionist, sports psychologist, and strength and conditioning coach is something that young college athletes need to adjust to. Learning that there is much more to preparation than just jogging around a field and touching your toes for a little before practice. Warming up properly, getting stretched, treatment, pre-hab, and/or rehab need to be scheduled into your daily pre-practice routine. Post-practice is not just “going home” after the last whistle either. Ice baths, hydration weigh-ins, massage, and your ability to recover for the next practice or workout must begin as quickly as possible to give you an advantage.

EAT – Nutrition has been crammed into most athletes’ heads as they realize their potential to play for an institution of higher learning. The problem is that misconceptions and mistruths flood the fitness industry making it difficult to figure out what to believe. As a college athlete, what you put into your body says just as much about you as doing extra fitness, another rep in the weight room, completing rehab successfully, or participating in regular regeneration protocols. I am sure you heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I want to challenge that approach a bit. Educate yourself on the benefits of what you are putting in your body following practice, workout, or a game. “What?”, “When?”, and “How much?” are questions you should be asking the nutritionist that works with your program. Take time to research any supplement that anyone ever “recommends” that you put into your body. Don’t be gullible enough to believe that just because a celebrity, professional athlete, or friend is taking it that it is the right thing for you to do to achieve greatness. Do your research! You are now a student-athlete. Yes, a student-athlete. It is in that order on purpose. Never forget that and educate yourself more often than just when in the classroom.

STUDY – As you move from high school to college and beyond, how you approach the mental side of all aspects of your life will become more and more important. On day one of college, make sure you have a calendar or some way to keep yourself organized. Write down when assignments are due, games, travel dates, any other significant dates, and when you are going to work on each of these events/assignments so you do not become overwhelmed with all the things you need to do to remain eligible while also having fun at college. Scheduling time for academics, film work, group projects, social events, etc is an important step when transitioning to your new home away from home. Academics at the college level are demanding. The same goes for game preparation. Become comfortable with watching film on yourself. Evaluating athletes’ performances after each practice and game is common place at the Division I level. Learn to be open to constructive criticism, communicate your thoughts effectively so teammates know what you are seeing, and prepare by studying the oppositions tendencies week in and week out.

SLEEP – Athletes need 7-9 hours of sleep a night and even a nap during the day to help their body recover from the stress, both mental and physical, of the college environment. It takes discipline to get your studies completed and get to bed early enough to be well rested for the next day’s challenges. Far too often the freedom of being “on your own” is over whelming to rookies. Determine a “bed time” and a consistent “wake up” so your body can get on a consistent schedule. If you can determine your rehab or lifting times, earlier is better. Too many things will come up throughout the day that will only distract you if your workout is scheduled later. You generally have more energy in the morning because you have rested throughout the night. So your efforts will be greater and more consistent which will translate into a better relationship with your ATC and strength coach. These two individuals are more a part of your athletic experience than you may realize initially.