Life of a College Athlete
My name is Patrick Poblete and I’m the starting goalkeeper for the #10 ranked University of New Mexico. In my experience as a college athlete, I’ve learned that life for most of us can be broken down into two categories: Time spent on the field, and time spent off of it. These two categories carry many different challenges and responsibilities that, if not handled correctly, can bring an abrupt end to a college athlete’s career.
This article examines these two categories, to provide insight into what life is like for most college and university level athletes in the United States.
Monday: During most of the season, Monday is the day after the second game of the weekend, so our coaches use it as a dynamic recovery day. Most all of our practices are before noon, so the morning after the game, it’s time to wake up and get back to work. The field players who played high minutes (at least 120 of 180 minutes of two games) throughout the weekend will use the day the morning session to try to get their legs back while still staying active and sharp. This usually entails going on a twenty minute jog around the training complex, followed by a light technical session with simple passing and receiving drills.
After jogging, the high minute players will go down to the weight room for a light weight lifting session as well as a stretching and foam roller session with our strength coach. These players will conclude their day in the athletic training room; they get in the ice bath for at least ten minutes and then meet with the massage therapist if they have lingering soreness in their muscles. The low minute players, as well as those who did not play and the redshirt players, will have a cardio-based session with the coaches. While almost all of the work in these sessions will be done on the ball, they will be quite intense as they are meant to replicate a game fitness in order to keep players sharp and fit in case of an injury to one of the higher minute players. The goalkeepers will do a light handling and crossing session, and then join the low minute players for a scrimmage to conclude the practice. This group of players will then head to the weight room for a lift, stretch and roller session then conclude their day in the training room.
Tuesday: The second day after the last game of the weekend is usually an off day. The NCAA mandates that we are given a day off, however most of the guys will still come in to do some sort of work. This usually entails riding the bike for 20 minutes in the training room, as well as stretching, getting on a foam roller and taking an ice bath. Doing this little bit of extra work may not seem like much, but it is often vital in order to speed along the recovery process after a long weekend.
Wednesday: Midweek has arrived and it’s time for the first team training session of the week. This session will last about three and a half hours from the time you arrive at the locker room to the time you leave, so it is very important to get some calories in before getting to training. I tend to go for a piece of wheat bread with peanut butter and one of the Gatorade recovery shakes that the training room provides for us. For me, a bit of sugar to get you going, and a mix of protein and carbs to keep you going is the perfect morning blend, but everyone is different. One of my roommates can hold down two eggs and bacon, while the other one will only go in for a half of a cup of oatmeal. Once we have eaten, we head down to the locker room and arrive about 35 minutes before the scheduled start time. Most players arrive around then, as it gives you plenty of time to change and then walk down the hall to the training room and prepare your body for training. Most guys will stretch and foam roll, and some will give themselves massages with warming cream (we have a local product called Sombra, which is similar to IcyHot). Those who need taping have to be in the training room a half hour before the scheduled start time, so that the athletic trainer has time to get to everyone.
From the training room, we usually head back down the hall to our meeting rooms. During the meeting, the head coach will go over specifics for the rest of the week and then tell the team about the practice that day. One of the assistant coaches will then show film for either our games or professional games on the theme of the practice. As pressing is a big part of our play, we will often watch film of Barcelona when they are NOT on the ball. After the meeting room we will head up to the field. A practice usually lasts about two hours and consists of various parts. We begin with a dynamic warm-up and stretch, followed by speed and agility work led by either our strength and conditioning coach or one of the assistant coaches. After speed, the team will split up and the coaches will begin doing team drills that focus on the things that they feel we need to improve on for the week. Generally, this has to do with pressing or ball retention. At this point, the goalkeepers break off and begin training with the goalkeeper coach. They rejoin the team later for some sort of game to goal, and the part of the session in which we work with the ball ends when the team breaks up to do positionally functional activities. The center-backs and center-mids will go with one assistant and work on ball movement and retention, while the goalkeepers and attacking players will do finishing activities. Fullbacks will rotate between the two groups depending on whether the finishing activities include crossing. The practice will end with a bit of core work, and then it’s down to the weight room for a lift and stretch.
Thursday: On the day before the game, we will shift our practice to the evening to better simulate the conditions that we will play in the following day. This practice also begins in the meeting room, with a comprehensive scouting report. The scouting report is a comprehensive full page document that details our opposition’s formation, tendencies while in possession, defensive shape, and attacking and defensive set pieces. This document also contains keys to the game for us offensively and defensively, as well as a list of the oppositions starting lineup and key bench players with a short description of their playing style. Each section of the scouting report is accompanied by video clips from our opponent’s last few games, so by the time we leave the meeting room we generally feel that we already know our opposition. I like to spend particular attention on the attacking players that the scout highlights; I feel that it is important to know the tendencies, and which foot the players that are trying to score on me like to use. After the scouting report it’s up to the game field for a walkthrough. After a short warm-up and technical session, we will play a scrimmage from 18 to 18, with the projected starters on one team playing in our formation and the subs and redshirts playing in the formation and style of our next opponent. This scrimmage helps us adapt to the playing style of our opponent before the game has even started, and is tremendously beneficial for the team as a whole. The practice concludes with the coaches walking through set pieces on the field; we will set up as the other team does off of corner kicks and the coaches will point out the areas we can exploit. The night ends down in the training room with a long stretch and ice baths for everyone.
Friday: Game day is finally here! Friday games are almost always in the evening, so the day will start off with a morning walk-through on the game field. We will go on a five minute jog, and then knock the ball around the field for ten minutes. Then it’s down to the weight room for a long stretch and foam roller session with our strength and conditioning coach. After we leave the weight room, we are free to go about our business until the afternoon pregame, at a local restaurant that is one of our main sponsors. We then return to the locker room about an hour and a half before the scheduled kick off. We have about a half hour to do whatever we need to prepare for the game. Most guys will shower then listen to music while getting ready in the locker room. For those who are a little more relaxed before the game, the training room is a popular hangout; banter is flying back and forth between anyone who isn’t wearing headphones.
An hour before the game, we head into the meeting room for a brief review of the scouting report and then it’s up to the field. We get ready in our indoor facility across from the game field, and then head to the field to warm up. We generally spend about 35 minutes on the field before going back to the indoor to get our jerseys. Then it’s back to the field for the announcement of the announcement of the starting lineup and let the game begin! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a thrill it is to play in front of our wonderful fans on a Friday night. We are in the top five in the country in attendance, and it is such a rush to play in front of 2500+ under the lights. After what is almost always a victory (we have lost two home games in the three years that I have been on the team), its back to the indoor. High minute guys will go for a light jog, typically a couple of laps around the field, and a stretch, while the low and no minute layers will do some higher intensity work on their own. The team will convene once our head coach is done giving interviews and pizza will be delivered as a post-game calorie source. Once our coach is done talking, we head back down to the training room where a team of massage therapists are waiting to help the guys who played high minutes recover for the next game of the weekend.
Saturday: On the morning after the first game, the team will once again be split into two groups: high minute players and low or no minute players. The low or no minute guys will come about 45 minutes before the high minute guys and take part in a high intensity training session. This session is not very hard on the legs, but is designed to keep the low minute players sharp, as they often play a much bigger role in the second game of the weekend. The high minute players will go through a similar routine to what they do on Mondays: a light jog followed by technical, stretching and a dip into the ice bath. Once both groups are done with their activities, we convene in the meeting room for a scouting report of the next opponents. After the scout, we have the rest of the day to ourselves. We are encouraged to “switch off” and spend a little time away from soccer, so that we are completely focused come the next day.
Sunday: It’s time for the second game of the weekend, and this one is much harder for several reasons. Firstly, you have to deal with fatigue; many of the top players on the team played most if not all of a 90 minute match less than 48 hours ago. Secondly, Sunday games are almost always in the afternoon due to travel considerations for the opposition. In my experience, this leads to hotter weather, smaller crowds and sometimes lower levels of motivation. Our coaches attempt to counter this by getting us going early, and keeping us around the team nearly the entire day until the game is over. Sunday’s schedule is very similar to Friday’s, but with less time in between each activity. The morning starts with a review of the scout and a jog and walkthrough on the field. After the field session, it’s off to breakfast and then back to the locker room for pregame. After a repeat of the rituals and good luck charms on display just two days ago, it’s back up to the field for a second game and hopefully a second win. Two wins, however, is no reason to rest on our laurels, because the cycle is about to begin again.
This intensive schedule is just a part of life for a college soccer player; another big part takes place away from the practice fields, weight room and screaming fans in a place that not many people think about: the classroom. Academic work is highly stressed within our program, and the results speak for themselves. The University of New Mexico Men’s Soccer team has been awarded the NCAA Team Academic Award nine times in ten years. In order to receive this honor, the team hold a grade point average of at least 3.30 as well as be ranked in top 25 nationally in that category. Needless to say, the pressure is on us to excel both on and off the field. This brings a level of commitment that not even professional athletes have to deal with. I have learned that being a successful student-athlete requires excellent class attendance, diligent note-taking and hours of homework and reading.
With such demands on your time, it becomes obvious that sacrifices must be made, and the easiest thing to cut out of your schedule is social activities. As a young college student, it is very hard to watch your friends go out and cruise the local bars or enjoy $2 beer pitchers at the bowling alley on college night. As popular figures on campus, we are often more than tempted to join our classmates, and this is where a majority of college athletes who do not make it to graduation fail. As much as we are tempted with the college life, the price of success is often an early night at home. However, college athletes are not perfect and we do slip up sometimes.
I have done it myself, and let me tell you, there is nothing worse than waking up the Friday of a game against a conference rival and knowing that there is a test that you aren’t prepared for just a few hours before the pregame meal. It occupies your thoughts and stresses you out at a time when your sole focus should be on the game. In times like these, having a great support structure helps.
I probably would not be able to be a successful college athlete without support from my parents, girlfriend and teammates. My parents have supported me since I first picked up the game as a five year old doing Summer Skills sessions with my local club. At times they were the only ones who believe in me, and now that I have come one step closer to my dreams, but more than one step away from home, they support me in whatever way they can. They are always one phone call away, and have always kept my chin up on the bad days as well as kept my head out of the clouds after some of the great nights.
My girlfriend is also a great pillar of support. She plays for the women’s team at the university so she understands the daily demands of the student-athlete just as well as I do. She is an amazing woman, great at keeping things in perspective and always ready to lend a helping hand if I need it. I tend to find most athletes will gravitate towards other athletes when looking for relationships; it is much easier to date someone who understands the constraints on a student-athlete’s time.
Finally, having a locker room full of teammates who are working every day towards the same goal as you fosters a sense of family unlike anything which I have ever seen before in sports. With the amount of time you spend around them, your teammates become your brothers and you slowly learn that you can trust them with almost anything. These three pillars of support have helped me succeed as a college athlete both inside the classroom as well as on the field.