Clayton’s top tier academics are continuously highly ranked on not only the state level, but national as well. CHS isn’t only home to some of the brightest minds, it’s also home to dedicated athletes striving for athletic success alongside the good grades and high pressure classes. The pressure student athletes put on themselves to succeed can lead to mental stress and physical exhaustion, making it hard for them to achieve in both aspects.
“A lot of times I am stressed about tests, and that affects how I play,” says star varsity golfer Amaya Everett.
Everett discussed having tests within a day of districts for golf, talking about how she had to utilize her time in the best way possible, while also trying to avoid creating any more anxiety for the important upcoming events. Her strategy? Focus.
“If I focus on the test and the question that I’m doing, then it definitely helps a lot more. I focus on the goal, my shot and what it’s going to look like, that helps a lot with my game,” describes Everett when asked what her strategy of focus looks like.
Unbeknownst to most student athletes, there is a whole department at CHS ready to help them with academic strategies like Everett’s that can also be used on the field, court, or course. The Learning Support Department, directed by Mrs. Lehnhoff Bell, is most commonly known for the Learning Center class, which students can take to get homework done while getting academic support from teachers. Lesser known is the work they do with student athletes.
Lehnhoff-Bell, works with student athletes with direct help from athletic director Steve Hutson. With Coach Hutson the Learning Support department figures out which athletes need help outside of class with academics and communicates with the coaches of the athletes. In some situations Coach Hutson creates personalized academic plans to help an individual.
During the pandemic the Learning Support Department staff and CHS’s personal trainer, Kristin Saunders could be found running a study hall from the end of school bell until practices started, giving athletes time to focus on their individual academic needs in a uniquely stressful year. While these study halls have not continued into the current school year, the football team can be found in a study hall on Mondays, making sure they aren’t only making touchdowns but improving as students off the field as well.
“If you’re always aiming to be better today than yesterday as a student, and if that’s your mantra, then I think you’d be a great captain and you’d be a great leader on that team,” says Lehnhoff-Bell.
If you’re always aiming to be better today than yesterday as a student, and if that’s your mantra, then I think you’d be a great captain and you’d be a great leader on that team,”
— Mrs. Lehnhoff-Bell
Academic support is here to help athletes on and off the field. The Learning Support department wants students to know their academic success isn’t valued just as a grade but as individual improvement and how you use it.
Working to improve individually in academics can be hard at Clayton, especially with homework from numerous AP courses. The heavy workload can lead to sacrifices, especially with limited time due to athletics.
“I have classes where teachers don’t necessarily check homework or homework doesn’t count for a grade, so I have to let those go because I lose time being at practice to work on it, and after practice I have to eat and I’m exhausted, and I get burnt out really quickly after working out and then doing all my homework and studying,” explains Junior and varsity field hockey goalie Hannah Teagan.
Teagan recently quit playing club soccer due to the heavy workload she was experiencing from her first year of taking AP’s and the pressure to do extracurriculars outside of sports in order to appeal to colleges.
Opportunities to perform and become the best athlete is spent consumed by academic work outside and inside of school.
Calvin Swinney, varsity football player, commented on how Clayton’s notoriously hard academics could affect an athlete’s ability to continue their sport in the future. “I feel like some people are actually really good at their sports and they can go to the next level and play collegiately but I feel like it’s harder here because the classes are much harder than other schools.”
Swinney is not alone in believing that if Clayton put more priority into athletics our sports teams would perform better. The no-cut policy and the priority put on academics at Clayton has Aanya Singh, a top tennis player on the state level, wondering if our schools performance in sports is affected.
“It just leaves athletics to the curb almost. It’s like, oh yeah you can casually do that, so I think that really affects our overall performance, in sports in general all around, not just tennis but everything else too,” elaborates Singh.
To athletes putting in the work throughout the off season, in the weight room or on the court, is a priority right alongside school, not something to be brushed under the rug and forgotten. Most athletes put academics first, but sports come second. Every athlete should have the time and energy to be able to pursue what they love without exhaustion from an overload of homework.
How can an athlete improve their ability to perform both in school and sport with mentality? Dr. Dirk Downing, a mental performance coach, works with helping athletes do exactly that.
Downing starts with educating athletes on mental game and the language that can help improve it. He creates a bond similar to a coach-athlete relationship with the athlete and discusses recent performances of the athlete if they are in season. After reflecting on performances, Downing and the athlete work to create plans to mentally improve their game. In the offseason, regiments to stay mentally sharp are put to work.
Even outside of training, Downing helps the athlete find ways to keep their mental game strong. What does he have athletes turn to for extra practice? Academics.
“Academics is another opportunity to build your skills of focus and your mental stamina. Your ability to grit and work hard,” says Downing.
Academics is another opportunity to build your skills of focus and your mental stamina. Your ability to grit and work hard,”
— Dr. Dirk Downing
A core belief Downing brings to his practice is that a nervous moment is an opportunity, not a threat, to improve mental game. These nervous moments are frequently found before taking a test or after receiving a large project at school.
Downing has strategies to help an athlete overcome these nervous moments. One strategy is overcoming distraction, a way to do this is by taking a step back through deep breaths and focusing on the moment or what is being taught. Practices like journaling positive aspects of an athlete’s day lead to a new outlook on staying strong through a negative point during sport or school.
Downing explained that being self aware is the best way to overcome the moments of anxiety that can pop up by surprise. Even without a coach present, with better self awareness, the athlete will be able to fix the mental moment of anxiety or stress. Solid mental game leads to better performance in practice and better performance on game, race, or match day.
“If you show up with a mission, you’re driven, you set goals, you control your arousal level in the gym and you have a ton of reps where you’re engaged in the same way you would be during a cross country event or a basketball game. You’re building your body at a faster rate and you’re becoming stronger and faster because your workouts are more effective,” describes Downing when asked how a stronger mental game can help an athlete physically improve.
Downing has noticed a common trait in athletes wanting to succeed in sport and as well as being high achieving in school. This trait is common at Clayton, with athletes like Hannah Teagan, Calvin Swinney, Aanya Singh and Amaya Everett, pushing themselves to get top marks in some of the hardest classes while also putting hours of effort into improving skills to help win games, matches and races.
The Clayton community of teachers, parents, coaches and athletes need to reach out to one another more often. Reaching out to student athletes, and directing them to available help like the Learning Support Department, are the key to a future of even more athletic and academic success at Clayton.
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