Being a student-athlete during Winter Study:On the importance of fostering a balance between academics and athletics

Alexandra Pear

At the College, it is common to have to balance your time between academics and athletics. In fact, student-athletes comprise nearly 40 percent of the student body. Being in season during Winter Study complicates this *notion* of a student-athlete.  During Winter Study, students are required only to take a single class pass/fail. Thus, instead of the normal dynamic where coaches are sympathetic to prioritizing school and sports equally, coaches see no reason why athletes shouldn’t immerse themselves fully in their sport during Winter Study. It is common for athletes who are in season during Winter Study to have many consecutive days with morning and evening practices, often totaling over four hours a day. On top of this significant commitment to practice, athletes are competing either home or away nearly every weekend of Winter Study, so their weekends are entirely devoted to their sport as well. With all of this time being invested into a single sport, the emphasis on being a student at the College seems to take a back seat for the entire month of January. 

For me, this isn’t just an observation. I experienced firsthand what it was like to be in season during Winter Study as a first-year on the squash team. During all of my first semester, my coach absolutely understood that I needed a work-life balance and that it was unreasonable for him to expect us to devote more than two hours a day to squash. However, when it came time to choosing Winter Study courses, multiple members of my team warned me not to sign up for classes that were too early or too demanding because I was going to be tired from all of our practicing. That seemed like such a paradoxical objective: I chose Williams because I value challenging myself in the classroom. Thus, to take a lighter Winter Study load because of our demanding squash schedule was at odds with my values. It wasn’t just on the squash team where I heard of instances in which coaches expected the Winter Study period to be about athletics and not academics. My friends on other teams asked their coaches if they could do a slightly lighter practice some days so that they could work on their research paper. One coach was not impressed with the student-athlete’s priorities. Instead of being sympathetic, the coach reminded them that their classes were only pass/fail and that their priority should be to compete well. It was clear that the emphasis was on athletics, not academics, during the month of January. 

The heavy emphasis on athletics for in-season athletes was not just academically hindering but socially hindering as well. Many of my friends were having a lot of fun during Winter Study. They constantly had free time and were able to ski, have picnics and go out pretty much every night. This created yet another problem with the notion of being a student-athlete for me. Just because you’re in season doesn’t mean that your sport should occupy all of your time. A huge part of being an athlete is befriending teammates, but there were multiple days, and even weeks, when the only people I was with were my teammates. I felt stunted socially, I felt limited academically and I felt constantly exhausted because of all our hard training. But it was an impossible problem to try and explain to my other friends who weren’t in season. The time commitment was hard to describe because no other student-athlete, other than those who are in season during Winter Study, is expected to prioritize their sport over every other aspect of their Williams career.

When Winter Study ended, I was a bit sad because I wasn’t sure I was mentally prepared for real classes to start, but I also took a deep sigh of relief. No longer would squash be my sole identity on campus. No longer would my entire day consist of squash and squash-related activities. For the first time in a month, my schedule could regain some semblance of balance and I could work hard in something that wasn’t just squash. It felt good to know that I was more than just an athlete. Being an in-season athlete during Winter Study felt like a very limiting period where my coaches and my school had decided that my biggest role on campus was to be an athlete. I think the term “student-athlete” is a very important one and that studies and athletics should always be prioritized equally, or athletics should take the back seat. Coaches should continue to be cognizant throughout Winter Study that even though their students are only taking one pass/fail class, they are still students with academic and social lives and that their life is far more than just the sport that they play. 

Alexandra Pear ’22 is from Philadelphia, Pa.