I was just 4 years old when my mother helped me put on my first pair of cleats and I followed her onto the field.  Soccer had long been a passion in our family so starting early seemed the natural thing to do.

These days, I’m fully enjoying my career as a professional soccer player but I understand I’ll need to be prepared to move on to the next phase of my professional life at some point.

That’s why I’m so grateful that I embraced the opportunity to get a good education, as that has always gone hand in hand with pursuing my goals as an athlete.  The two areas don’t have to be competing priorities.  In fact, with the right balance, they can enhance each other.

Sports help children develop the five “C’s” (competence, confidence, connections, character and caring) which are important to their development as people as well as students.  Research has demonstrated that the brain’s physiology, including cerebral capillary growth, oxygenation, development of nerve connections and brain tissue volume, benefit from the increased level of physical movement our bodies experience when engaging in sports.  These changes can help improve attention, information processing and memory.  So in essence; sports feeds both your muscle memory and your brain!

If you’re a teenager or the parent of a teen who has a passion for a particular sport, it may feel like school and sports are competing for time and attention.  Keeping in mind that your career as an elite player won’t last more than perhaps a third of your adult lifetime, you need to prepare for your second career by laying the foundation through education.Here are some of my tips to help you balance school and sports:

Prioritize – even elite athletes know they have to put a high priority on academics.  Regardless of how far you go in your sport, a good education will prepare you for success throughout your life.

Plan – you’ll need to be very organized and the skills you develop planning your time now will last a lifetime.  Use tools like a hard copy Planner or time management app to help you map out your sports and study schedule.

Find quiet time to study – distractions are the enemy of good grades.  Make space and time for your brain to quiet and focus on the task at hand.

Take advantage of free time during your school day – making use of your study hall period, part of your lunch break or time spent waiting for or riding on the bus home will mean fewer late nights spent on homework when you’re already tired from practice or competition.

Avoid putting yourself under stress – the beauty of planning is that it should reduce your stress levels by making you feel more in control.  Planning can also alert you to when you’re take on too much and need to fit in some down-time along with study time.Ask for help – if you’re struggling, ask your parents, teachers or counsellors for help and advice.

Have fun – playing sports can help your brain be better prepared to study so have fun on the field and enjoy the adventure of learning.

For teen athletes who are in the process of selecting a post-secondary institution, I’ll offer you some advice that helped me.  I was very lucky to have a number of Canadian and American universities who wanted to recruit me for their soccer programs.  In making my selection, it wasn’t just about which school offered me the best opportunity as an athlete.  The academic portion of the institution had to provide the right opportunities to develop a broader knowledge base on which to build an interesting and lasting career.  When I visited a campus, I’d walk around and get a feel for the place.  I’d go through the departments that I was considering for my major, check out the classes and the lab and, if possible, meet a few professors.

My family has always encouraged me to have as much ambition for my education as I do in my soccer career.  When I was studying physiology and kinesiology at the University of Portland, my family would travel to Oregon to watch me play.  Afterwards, we’d go out for a family dinner.  The conversation always started with questions about classes and school and how much homework I had to do, and then they’d start discussing a call or a play.

I learned how to balance as I went along but there are now excellent resources available to help youth who are passionate athletes to fast track to balancing the demands of their sporting vocation while gaining a post-secondary education.  The International Olympic Committee has developed Athlete’s Kit which includes a section on education.  At https://olympics.com/ioc/education/olympic-values-education-programme you’ll find a comprehensive set of resources that will help you choose the right educational institution and balance sport and education.  The IOC takes a career perspective to helping athletes who are also students to achieve balance by building a resource kit around four key skills: time management, overcoming procrastination, active study skills and learning how to study whilst travelling.  I highly recommend that any student athlete who wants to be proactive about taking control of their sporting and academic lives take advantage of these resources.If there is a competition between sports and academics, it can be a healthy competition where the student acquires organizational and mental skills worthy of any professional manager, skills that will deliver lasting benefits throughout their lifetime.