College sports offer distinct challenges and benefits

So you want to play a sport in college. Can you juggle the competitive and academic demands?

Brookline alumnae and college freshmen Lisa Popkov, Katherine McElroy and Satchel Tsai have all gone through the process of joining a sports team in college. Their answer is yes. Although it can be challenging to take on a new level of difficulty in sports, they found that the changes are manageable and there is much to be gained at the collegiate level.

McElroy currently plays Division 1 (D1) soccer at the University of Michigan. She verbally committed as a junior at the high school and now is a goalie on the team.

According to McElroy, while playing a sport in college is more physically strenuous than in high school, it is nothing that people who have prior experience cannot adjust to.

“The addition of lifting and getting fit during the offseason and during the season on top of those practices, that’s the thing that I would say most people probably didn’t do during high school, so that becomes a little more challenging, but I would not say it is a level of difficulty that is vastly different than high school,” McElroy said.

Even playing at a Division 3 (D3) school, like Swarthmore, requires more of a commitment than high school for Tsai, but she said time spent towards lacrosse pays off since the team becomes closer.

“You have a built-in group of friends going into school and I think the teams are definitely closer than high school just because most people only play one sport. Also, you practice all year round so you just get to know the people a lot better,” Tsai said.

Popkov, who attends MIT and rows for their D1 team, said that as the intensity of practices increased, the support system on the team developed.

“Everyone is pretty goofy but also very serious about rowing. I think there’s a very healthy competition type of atmosphere. We push each other and want each other to get better. People compete with each other, but for the sake of the team,” Popkov said.

In terms of balancing academics and social life, Popkov said that being responsible becomes more crucial.

“You’ve got to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, which is hard because at MIT there is definitely a culture to stay up late so sometimes it feels like you are missing out on social opportunities, but usually going out on the weekends is enough. I try to go to sleep before 11 p.m. if I can. The closer to 10 the better,” Popkov said.

McElroy said that sports help her with time management.

“I find some of the people that I talk to who don’t play athletics have a harder time because they feel like they have so much time that they don’t actually have to be diligent,” McElroy said. “It’s almost a blessing to have those things that take up so much of our time because that way we only have a certain period that we are able to do work. That means we get it done.”

Tsai said she observed a shift in commitment and team culture.

“It’s more intense. It’s a little bit of a higher level of a cost as opposed to having people come in having never picked up a lacrosse stick, and those people can make varsity in Brookline,” Tsai said.

For high schoolers looking to get recruited, Popkov recommends that people don’t procrastinate if they are interested in playing for a certain school.

“Do your research if you are planning on getting recruited. Reach out to coaches early to show your interest because the longer you stay in contact, the more it seems that you are interested and that you are really serious about it and you can build a relationship with the coach over time,” Popkov said. “Work hard and whatever the outcome is, don’t worry about it because it’s for the best.”

McElroy’s advice was along the same lines as Popkov’s. While the uncertainty of finding the right college created a lot of stress for her, she realized she’d be fine in the end.

“I’d say in hindsight I stressed too much and I should’ve probably just trusted I’d end up where I need to be,” McElroy said. “There is no limit to how much work an individual can put in, and that will definitely be shown off if the individual really wants it enough.”