What’s it really like to be a DI athlete?

What’s it really like to be a DI athlete?

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What’s it really like to be a DI athlete?


USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Division I schools? Packed stadiums, games on ESPN and of course, lots and lots of perks. Pretty glamourous, right?

The truth is that being a DI athlete requires a lot of hard work—probably more than you realize. And even getting to that level is quite a challenge: with 347 schools across 49 different states, only .8 percent of high school-athletes go on to compete at DI programs.

So, to help you get a clear perspective, we rounded up our team of former DI college-athletes and asked them about their experience. See what they had to say:

  • Alison Vincent, Indiana University, track & field, Big Ten Freshman of the Year, NCAA & USATF National Qualifier
  • Ellen Brown, University of Kentucky, soccer
  • Eric Vierneisel, University of California-Berkeley (Cal), basketball
  • Kelly Stuntz, University of Minnesota, volleyball, First Team AVCA All-American, First Team All-Region and two-time All-Big Ten
  • Julian Beckwith, Miami University, basketball
  • Michael Dufek, University of Michigan, baseball
  • Kristin Heidloff, Georgetown University, basketball, 3-year captain
  • Matt Leddy, Elon University, football
  • James Cooper, Eastern Illinois University, football, 2009 OVC Champion

Why did you decide to compete at the DI level?

Alison Vincent: I was looking at the education component primarily, and it was the best educational opportunity out of the schools recruiting me.

Eric Vierneisel: I wanted to compete against the best, and Division I basketball gave me that opportunity, as well as getting my education paid for with an athletic scholarship.

James Cooper: I wanted to play at the highest level of competition and saw I had the talent to do so. Also, I knew by going to a bigger school and program, I would have the opportunity to network with more individuals from diverse backgrounds. Plus, I received a scholarship and it helped pay for school.

What were some misconceptions you had going into DI sports?

Alison Vincent: Everyone is on a full ride scholarship—that is completely false.

Ellen Brown: As a coach, I’ve seen many student-athletes go in not realizing the workload, commitment, and amount of time you may have to wait to compete in a game. And as a player, I was told that coaches have “favorites.” But really, a coach’s job depends on performance, so you can bet they’re putting the best players on the field. In the end, being stuck on the idea that a coach is “playing favorites” will just get in the way of your improvement.

Kristin Heidloff: The biggest misconception for me was that it’s not as glamorous as it seems. It’s not all private planes, seven different custom uniform combinations, or being a celebrity on campus. The reality is: long bus rides, uniforms like half the other teams in the country, and being known as an athlete because you’re wearing sweats to class—again!

James Cooper: First misconception: playing at a DI school meant I was going to make it to the NFL, or at least have a shot, because scouts only come to those type of programs. Being on TV is another—we weren’t a prominent program that got substantial TV time. Also, I think a lot of student-athletes think that attending a DI program means you’re going to a big school, but some DI colleges are just as small as DIII and NAIA schools.

How did you find balance between your sport and school?

Kelly Stuntz: My teammates and I were all very close. We enjoyed time outside of volleyball and school together. Cooking meals together, game nights—we were a close-knit family. I also enjoyed volunteering for various organizations through our athletic department, such as reading to elementary school children.

Michael Dufek: The coaching staff and academic advisors really helped me find this balance. In fact, during my freshman year, I was required to attend study table every weeknight for two hours.

Ellen Brown: I took minimum hours needed during the season, and then made it up during the summer, if needed.

Julian Beckwith: It’s all about time management. You just have to be able to have discipline with your schedule and know when you need to get things done. It’s difficult, but not impossible.

What were the benefits of playing at that level for you?

Eric Vierneisel: I was able to take advantage of state-of-the-art equipment, coaches, and nutrition to help me reach my potential. Plus, I had a world-class education paid for, and I was lucky enough to use my experience of playing at the DI level to play professionally overseas.

Kelly Stuntz: Playing at this level takes so much sacrifice, but I wouldn’t trade any of it. Who I am today was completely shaped by my college years on the court and in the classroom. My coach’s guidance and wisdom has always had such a major impact on me, including how I’ve dealt with numerous decisions and adversity in my life. The entire support of our volleyball department and school will always have a special place for me. And my teammates are one of the greatest gifts I still cherish to this day.

Kristin Heidloff: If you’re an incredibly competitive person, there’s no thrill like competing against the best every single day. It’s not just about the games. Every day at practice is a competition. Every person was All-State in high school and a star, and now suddenly everyone is competing for limited minutes. For someone with that intrinsic drive to be the best, playing DI is the ultimate test.

Matt Leddy: I was able to compete against the best players in the country—athletes who are record holders and first round draft picks. I pushed myself every single day just for a chance to compete at that level and see if I could break my own personal limits.

What’s something you’d like student-athletes to know about DI sports?

Julian Beckwith: You’re not going to be able to go out every Friday and Saturday night like the rest of the students, especially if you’re on a full scholarship. You might have a very difficult time majoring in challenging majors like pre-med, engineering, architecture, etc. On the flip side, though, you do have a built-in network of friends on the team and in the athletic department.

Michael Dufek: Your entire college experience is basically scheduled for you, including classes, practice, games, meals, and strength and conditioning. Yes, I did have free time, but that was mainly on the weekends during the offseason. It was like I had a full-time job and worked overtime every week.

Matt Leddy: Remember that just because you’re a DI student-athlete, you shouldn’t expect things to be easier for you compared to other students. If anything, the expectations are higher.

James Cooper: You’re only on scholarship for one year and that scholarship can be taken away if you’re not taking care of things on-and-off the field. Because your time is dedicated to your sport, you may find it difficult to participate in internship opportunities like your peers. Also, coach turnover is more common than you think so it’s possible you may not have the same coach over the course of your college career.

READ MORE: What NCAA Division is Right for You?


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