The risks & rewards of being a varsity athlete

An in-depth look at the sacrifices of being a student athlete at Queen's

Student athletes at Queen’s face additional barriers beyond managing their athletic training schedules.

Being a varsity athlete at a Canadian university often comes with a lifestyle filled with sacrifice.  

For most, future prospects to pursue a professional athletic career are scarce. Most will go on to pursue careers or paths that lie outside of the sphere of professional sports, but the dedication for sport shown by student athletes isn’t to be underestimated. 

Despite knowing this, student athletes continue to put their bodies and lives on the line. Whether it’s in terms of their financial situation or mental health, athletes face hurdles that are often left unmentioned.

Looking at the potential financial insecurities a student athlete may collect through their undergrad, otherwise hectic schedules for student athletes shift from challenging to seemingly unsustainable.     

Albeit finding himself financially stable, men’s soccer captain Jacob Schroeter admitted a lot of varsity athletes have to find work so they can support themselves. 

With packed schedules — school, studying, practice and workouts — he can’t imagine where these students find the time. 

“There isn’t really, like, time to [work],” Schroeter said. “It’s nearly impossible to have a part-time job and be a student athlete.”

Despite Queen’s providing financial assistance for a selected groups of athletes, many rely on employment or support from their parents to make ends meet.

Within the province, the maximum amount of money given to an Ontario University Athletics (OUA)  student athlete through the athletic conference’s Athletic Financial Award (AFA) is $4,500. According to Statistics Canada in 2016, the average tuition fee for an undergraduate student in Ontario was $8,114 — highlighting the considerable gap between AFAs and domestic tuition rates.

AFAs are allocated based on a unit-per-team system by U Sports, the national organization that oversees university athletics in Canada. They don’t guarantee every student athlete the maximum amount an award can provide.   

U Sports Chief Operating Officer David Goldstein said there’s no fixed amount of money given to a specific number of athletes. In the end, it really depends on the school. 

“A unit is the value of tuition and fees for one student at a given institution,” Goldstein told The Journal via email. “A unit can be divided by a school so that one student athlete receives part [of a unit] and another receiver the rest.” 

Goldstein added “there is no requirement [for] schools to give any  AFAs — [U Sports] only uses units to describe and regulate the maximum amount of money a particular athlete can receive.”

“[AFA’s] are helpful,” Schroeter, who’s received one throughout his undergrad, said of the school’s effort to financially assist student athletes. “[But] it’s nothing compared to what’s offered south of the border — it’s nothing.”

Universities in the United States tend to offer varsity athletes full scholarships, wherein an athlete’s tuition and living expenses are nearly entirely covered. As reported in 2016, the National Collegiate Athletic Association can offer students up to $50,000 — a significant difference from the OUA.

The OUA’s financial mandate also doesn’t account for other expenses a student athlete may bear, including rent and food. During the AMS’ University District Summit last February, a report found that landlords in Kingston charge tenants roughly $500-$750 per month, setting the yearly average at $7,500. 

Another challenge for varsity athletes is finding time to focus on their mental health while balancing their academic and sport schedules.

As to whether students are adequately prepared to cope with the rigors of a varsity athletic schedule on campus, assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies Luc Martin said it’s a difficult question to answer. 

With his research focused in the psychosocial influences present in sport and physical activity settings, Martin said coming to university is a “big life transition [for student athletes] — over and above just the sport element.”

More than just attempting to balance school and sport schedules, athletes also have to deal with the stress of constant evaluation. As a result, Martin said a student’s response to that stress — and their coping mechanisms — are important to consider when a student is being evaluated.

“[T]hey are dealing with two almost separate worlds that are very demanding,” he said.

Martin said the doubling up of school and sports can draw a student’s attention in multiple directions.

“Now also maybe competing for a [playing] position or playing spot — and being stressed and having increased arousal in these [types of] situations is a natural response.” said Martin.

Nonetheless, in some cases, the student athlete experience with their mental health is positive. Women’s rugby player Nadia Popov says Queen’s is supportive of student athletes’ mental wellness. 

After leaving Queen’s in 2014 to spend two years with the women’s national rugby team in B.C., Popov returned to campus last year to finish her studies. During her return, the rugby centre wrote an article for CBC in 2016 which discussed her experiences with depression while on the national team. In the article, she wrote “[t]he pressures of competing and working at a high level require a special kind of commitment and dedication, and sometimes that impacts your personal life.” 

In an interview with The Journal, Popov said this article garnered a positive reception from the varsity athletics community. 

“When I released that article ... I had people in administration contact me and ask, “What can we do better as your support team to help athletes?” she said.

Popov also commented on the culture at Queen’s surrounding varsity athletics:“I think it is something that athletes still struggle to talk about because you don’t want to appear weak, and if you’re fighting for selection on a team or for playing minutes, it can prevent some athletes from speaking openly about it,” Popov said. 

Despite these heavy pressures, Popov says being an athlete at Queen’s has had a largely positive impact on her mental health, and the culture at Queen’s surrounding student athlete mental health has been changing for the better. 

“[The] culture is starting to change, the more we talk about it as a team and within the varsity community, the more people feel like it’s okay to talk about having bad mental health days,” Popov said. 

The dual stresses of academia and athletics can often affect each other as well. While the school provides backing in way of tutoring services and other means of support, the difficulties of managing heavy academic and athletic schedules persist for many athletes. 

“We all take a lot of pride in how we play and perform on the field, and that can be stressful at times, but most of us take that exact same pride in our schoolwork,” Popov said of pushing through low levels of energy and motivation.

It seems that Queen’s athletes have largely been able to strike the balance between their sport and school. 

According to a document published on the GoGaelsGo website, the 2015-2016 academic school year saw 87 students earn U Sports Academic All-Canadian status and 84 garnered OUA Academic All-Star status. Both recognitions require students play in U Sports or OUA-sanctioned sports and achieve an academic average of 80 per cent or higher. 

Despite long hours of athletic and mental duress accompanied with the challenge of trying to balance a full-time class and sport schedule, players display a dedication and drive for their team that shines. 

“I love my team, they’re my friends and my family, and so at the end of the day, not getting to go out four nights a week doesn’t seem like a sacrifice anymore,” Popov said.

With crippling financial burdens and mentally-taxing time commitments — not to mention the improbability of pursuing sports in a future professional capacity — it begs the question: Why do Canadian varsity athletes even play at the collegiate level? 

In the words of Schroeter: “It’s for the love of the game.”

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