How do MIT student-athletes deal with stress?

Athletes agree that playing sports helps them budget time and put things in perspective

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Mitchell H. Kates ’13
Tami Forrester—The Tech
5463 athletes
Jane W. He ’15
Tami Forrester—The Tech
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Jonathan K. Tebes ’14
Tami Forrester—The Tech

Resolute dedication, judicious time management, and hardy discipline are just a few of the qualities important to MIT student-athletes as they strive to get the most out of both academics and sports. The academic rigor of a school like MIT poses a significant challenge for athletes here as they strive to succeed while keeping stress levels low and maintaining optimal physical and mental health. They invest a considerable amount of time on school coursework and team practices alone. On top of these commitments, many student-athletes do even more, engaging in clubs and extracurricular activities. There is no question that this lifestyle is susceptible to conflicts and requires prioritization and prudent decision-making.

To gather insight on these important issues, The Tech asked MIT student-athletes about the challenges of balancing their academic and athletic lives. These responses feature a variety of experiences on the interplay between sports, academics, and stress at MIT.

Men’s Soccer: Jonathan K. Tebes ’14

The Tech: How does your involvement with soccer impact your academic life?

Jonathan Tebes: MIT soccer definitely complicates my academic life. Sometimes we have games that conflict with lectures, and this puts me behind in some of my classes. However, participating in a varsity sport at MIT has also forced me to improve how I budget my time. Because of soccer, I have become much more flexible with how I approach schoolwork — I can do it anywhere, including the bus ride back from a game and I have become more efficient in completing tasks. This personal improvement in time management skills has enabled me take on more classes per semester and increase the activities I am involved with outside the classroom.

TT: Do you notice a difference in your stress level and overall happiness during your sports season as compared to the off-season?

JT: Yes. Surprisingly, I tend to be happier during the season than during the off-season. For the past two years, I have experienced a decline in mood right after the soccer season ends. The loss of the locker-room camaraderie and a reduction in athletic activity contribute to this decline in mood and outlook. This change in mood also manifests itself in my academic pursuits. Over my first two years at MIT, my grades have been better in the fall semester than in the spring semester, I think in large part because spring is the off-season for soccer.

Men’s Basketball: Mitchell H. Kates ’13

TT: Do you feel that MIT basketball increases or decreases your stress level?

MK: I would say that there are times when it does both. Being on the team, I can’t let work back up and simply pull an all-nighter because it would severely impact my performance. This does require a little more stress to get everything done on time, including academics, athletics, and job search. On the other hand, I think basketball can be a great way to release stress. Without basketball, I think I may put too much emphasis on just the academic piece of MIT. When things are not going great in the classroom, I can look at the positives of basketball to keep my life on an even keel, and vice-versa. In fact, I think athletics and academics are great complements to one another at MIT.

TT: Have there been times when you’ve had to prioritize basketball over classes?

MK: Yes. Last year in the NCAA tournament we had to travel from Thursday to Sunday and we missed quite a bit of class each week. Some teachers were much more accommodating than others about handing in missed work (especially work due while we were traveling). This year I am in a class which meets Tuesday and Thursday evenings. This class brings in exceptional speakers and it was a class I wanted to take before I graduate. The professor was very accommodating about missing a couple classes due to games, letting me work with him to make up the classes I would miss. It is great to see some professors understand the natural conflicts that arise, and work with athletes so they don’t have to sacrifice anything academically to play sports.

Men’s Track and Field: Justin L. Bullock ’14

TT: How does your involvement with track impact your academic life?

JB: My involvement with track significantly helps my academic life. I am a procrastinator by nature, and oftentimes, the only reason why I get things done ahead of time is because I want to get enough sleep to be able to train and compete at a high level. Coach Taylor has a sleep rule that says that we must get four hours of sleep in one night, ten in two nights and 18 in three or we are not allowed to practice. I think that the therapeutic benefits of exercise along with the sleep requirement really improve my academic performance.

TT: How do you balance your sports and academic commitments?

JB: I have been doing sports as long as I can remember, so I do not understand what life is like without sports. So for me, balancing sports and academic commitments is not optional, it is something that I have to do. Because I really enjoy classes and running, I never feel that one conflicts with the other, they kind of go hand in hand.

Squash: Sung Won Cho ’15

TT: Do you feel that squash increases or decreases your stress level?

SC: Squash definitely decreases my stress level, which is why I continue to play. Whether it’s from a low test grade (or two … or three … ) or just a bad day, playing squash helps to relieve the frustration. Sometimes, the stress from daily life carries over to my squash practice and I get frustrated on the court, but when that happens, I have great teammates who talk to me and encourage me. I always look forward to squash because I usually feel better after practice than before. While playing number one on the team can be a little stressful at times when I face opponents of much higher caliber, it’s still the most interesting part of my school life.

TT: How do you balance your sports and academic commitments?

SC: I often have squash practice either right before an evening exam or the day before an exam and sometimes, I consider not going to practice so I can study a bit more. Almost every time, I choose to go to practice because I feel that two hours of stimulating, physical activity will be more useful than two more hours of cramming. The most difficulty I have with balancing academic and athletic commitments comes from my UROP schedule. The nature of my research dictates that I have a regular schedule with large time blocks at a time in order to minimize waste of expensive reagents and to keep cell cultures alive. With games on weekends, that has been a little difficult lately, such that I had to run to my lab in between my Saturday games without getting much rest. Other than that though, I try to make it to practice whenever I can and play on weekends when I have some free time because I feel that physical activity helps me a lot in managing stress and staying healthy.

Men’s soccer: Cameron McCord ’13

TT: How does your involvement with soccer impact your academic life?

CM: Being a student-athlete has been extremely rewarding during my time here at MIT. I love playing soccer and I can’t imagine enjoying my MIT experience nearly as much without it. Balancing both a sport and academics requires a lot of things: great time management skills, good foresight, organization, less sleep, and other things that make for any successful college student. The most important quality, though, is just an insatiable love for both. MIT students are extremely passionate about their areas of interest. For all of us here one of those areas of interest is academics but for a lot of us it is also sports. That is why MIT produces such great student-athletes.

TT: Have there been times when you’ve had to prioritize soccer over classes?

CM: I think most MIT student-athletes would agree that academics takes precedence over sports a majority of the time. Sports and academics are often seemingly pulling me in different directions. It helps to have coaches and professors that understand what you are up against. Just this past season the MIT Men’s Soccer team won the NEWMAC championship for the first time in history and qualified for the NCAA tournament. Our first round game was in Oneonta, NY, and we had to miss all day of classes on the Friday before the game. I had to miss important participation-based classes and finish work for the week early. I’m here at MIT because of it’s academic opportunities, but when I have the opportunity to make history here in soccer I can focus on my sport alone without even a second thought.

Women’s Cross Country: Dacie J. Manion ’15

TT: How does your involvement with cross country impact your academic life?

DM: My involvement with MIT track and cross country has shaped my MIT experience. Many of my best p-set and general study buddies are teammates, and on a daily basis my teammates help me survive the semester. Whether referring me to resources at MIT, helping me decide which classes to take, or just listening to me vent about an awful exam, the team is a support network I couldn’t do without.

Running also keeps me healthier, which in turn helps me perform academically. I definitely make more time for sleep and eat more healthily because I know I need to be ready for practices, workouts, and races. I also take care of colds and other sickness much more immediately so they don’t put me in a hole for the season. Finally, taking the time to go outside and be active every day is very important to me, and committing to track and cross country means that time is built into my schedule.

TT: Do you notice a difference in your stress level and overall happiness during your sports season as compared to the off-season?

DM: I start feeling a little lost and lonely when I’m not going to practice at 5 p.m. every evening and interacting with the coaches and athletes. I definitely find myself less happy and motivated during the off-season as well as more likely to stress out about small issues. In-season, I might arrive at practice totally stressed and upset, but by the end of practice, after running off some steam and talking with other people, I feel human again. If I don’t have that break in my day, I can get a little overwhelmed and burnt out. Running and competing keep my mind busy and help me regain perspective.

Swimming and Diving: Jane W. He ’15

TT: How does your involvement with MIT Swimming & Diving impact your academic life?

JH: For me, swimming at MIT serves as a “safe haven” from all the academic work. When I step onto deck, my academic-related stressors and worries fade away as I turn my focus over to working hard in the pool and having fun with my teammates. It also helps me manage my time and stay on top of all of my work.

TT: Do you feel that MIT Swimming & Diving increases or decreases your stress level?

JH: Doing a sport definitely decreases my overall stress level. When I go to practice, I am able to clear my mind that’s cluttered with all the things I need to get done, and I leave feeling refreshed and ready to retackle tasks that were challenging me earlier.

Women’s Basketball: Kirstyn Hein ’15

TT: Do you feel that MIT Basketball increases or decreases your stress level?

KH: Basketball increases my stress level, but at the same time it’s AMAZING to … not have a choice but to take a 2.5-hour study break every single day. While you’re on the court, you forget how much work you have to do, and it’s amazing. Then you get off the court and remember and feel completely screwed, but you’re all in it together, which is extremely comforting and bonding and awesome.

TT: Do you notice a difference in your stress level and overall happiness during your sports season as compared to the off-season?

KH: When I’m playing well, my happiness level is much higher during the season (although, as mentioned above, so is my stress level). When I’m not playing well, everything all-around sucks, low happiness and high stress and the general feeling of unworth and fail that can emanate around this campus.

Women’s Tennis: Candace Wu ’13

TT: How does your involvement with MIT Tennis impact your academic life?

CW: Knowing that I have to commit about 15 hours each week to athletics actually enhances my productivity in academics. When I’m not at practice or at a match I know that I have to utilize my time more efficiently in studying for my classes. Also, I’ve found that exercising clears my mind and helps me focus better.

TT: Do you notice a difference in your stress level and overall happiness during your sports season as compared to the off-season?

CW: While competing can be stressful at times, I enjoy spending time with my teammates. Playing a sport takes my mind off academic obligations and in that sense, it decreases my stress levels. On the other hand, when I have a difficult academic week, athletic commitments require a lot of time and I do sometimes feel overwhelmed when I don’t have time to focus on my class work.