Sunday, October 19, 2014
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Juggling athletics and academics
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April Calhoun (No. 5) is a guard for the Golden Gophers women's basketball team. She says time management is the key to balancing academics and athletics. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
University of Minnesota athletes scored above the national average on a new measure of academic performance released this week. The Academic Performance Rate tracks eligibility and retention of student athletes. It is a broader measure than the graduation rates often cited to measure how schools are faring academically with their athletes.

In the future, the NCAA will penalize programs that don't achieve a minimum Academic Performance Rate by taking away scholarships. At Minnesota, the football and men's basketball teams are in danger of sanctions if their Academic Performance Rates don't improve.

Suffice it to say, balancing academics with major college sports can be a challenge. Here's how one athlete juggles those responsibilities.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Students who play for the Minnesota Gophers are by most measures exceptional. They are serious competitive athletes who work hard to perfect their sport.

Many athletes, including Gopher's basketball guard April Calhoun, also excel in the classroom. Calhoun is a junior in the Carlson School with a 4.0 grade point average.

The key to getting top grades and performing well on the court, says Calhoun, is time management.

"I think it's difficult. I think a lot of people struggle. Maybe especially when they're freshmen, with just having a lack of time," Calhoun says. "When you play sports in high school, you're used to getting home at 5 (p.m.), and having all that time -- and not nearly as much homework as you have in college. And I think that that's a big adjustment."

Playing sports is like holding down a part-time job. During the season, Calhoun says she spends about 20 hours on basketball, and another 20 hours on her schoolwork.

As a Gopher, she also is expected to meet with news media and answer questions at weekly news conferences.

Before a recent practice, Calhoun described a typical day.

"I wake up, usually give myself about half an hour to get ready for class," she says. "On the days I have class all day, I have a break for lunch, maybe an hour, so I usually just eat during that time, eat or read a chapter."

Even sitting calmly in her maroon Gophers No. 5 jersey, Calhoun's talk of her schedule wears you out.

"And then we have practice anywhere from 3 o'clock to 4 o'clock. We'll usually start off with film, and we'll go into practice following that."

During the season, Calhoun and the rest of the team practice six days a week.

She's doing pretty well this season, averaging seven points per game. She's also known for her defense, with 54 steals so far this season.

Calhoun, 21, is a slim but athletic 5 feet 8 inches tall. She wears her chin-length blond hair in a hasty pull-away from her face.

Calhoun says she's dedicated to getting good grades, so she isn't often distracted. One thing she does miss during the season is time to herself, just to talk with her mom, she says, or go to a movie. On the upside, her teammates are her best friends.

"Just being able to spend time with them is fun in itself," she says. "We all live in the same apartment complex, so if we have free time, just stopping by somebody else's room is a lot of fun."

Unlike many of her teammates, Calhoun is not on scholarship. A native of New Hope, she spent two years playing basketball at the University of Iowa. She gave up her scholarship there to come home to Minnesota.

"I think just coming back home, and the education I will receive here, and being close to my family and playing basketball has been one of the best decisions I've ever made," she says.

Since coming to the U, Calhoun's already impressive 3.7 GPA has increased to a 4.0. She is pursuing a double major in accounting and finance in the Carlson School, one of the most academically challenging colleges at the U.

Not all of the U's 750 athletes fare as well as Calhoun.

The university does not make grade point averages public, but school and NCAA rules require student-athletes to maintain a 2.0 GPA.

The university has been struggling with low graduation rates for its athletes. The U of M currently ranks at the bottom of the Big Ten conference. The new Academic Performance Rate relies on other factors besides just graduation rates, and by using that score, the Gophers rank fifth in the Big Ten.

Laura Coffin-Koch, associate vice provost for undergraduate education, says there are some student-athletes who are not prepared for the demands of college.

"We probably have some of the best students in the university that are also student-athletes," she says. "But we do have a few that are not ready to go to college, just like there are some out in the rest of the university who are not ready to go to college, for a variety of reasons."

Coffin-Koch says some student-athletes lack motivation academically, and aren't well-prepared for classes -- either because of their environment at home, or because their high school did not prepare them very well for college.

"There are some student-athletes that may not have thought they were going to go (to college) until they realized they had some strength in a sport, and so now they're in college," she says.

Coffin-Koch says about 10 percent of the U's student-athletes need extra support and counseling to get through the program. The Academic Counseling and Student Services Center for Intercollegiate Athletics provides resources for athletes, including counseling and one-on-one subject tutoring.

Coffin-Koch says the university has a responsibility to help student-athletes graduate.

"Many of these students, almost all, are just like the other students at the university, but they have competing pieces in their lives, such as their academic work, their classroom work. Plus many of them are high-profile student athletes that on any given day, their names could be in the paper," Coffin-Koch says. "They're looked upon by some as role models for the students. We want to make sure they have every opportunity to succeed."

Catching up with April Calhoun in the Carlson School atruim, she explains she's got a small window of time between class and another practice. On this day, her class in intermediate accounting has just ended. Now she's got to prepare for a home game against her old University of Iowa team.

"Because this is a Tuesday/Thursday, it's pretty much one of my easy days. So, I'll probably go back and make some lunch," says Calhoun. "I have an online assignment, an online class, so I might do a little bit of that for about an hour. And probably just use the rest of the time just to sit back and watch TV, and think about the game a little bit for tonight."

The Gophers won that game against Iowa, 81-50. Calhoun played well -- scoring eight points, and getting two steals.

Calhoun says preparation and practice juggling school and sport has helped her succeed at the U.

She says since she can remember she's always had sports in her life, and has managed her time between homework and practice -- not to mention finding time for family and fun. She says she doesn't know a life any different than that.

She has some advice for other student athletes.

"The fact that you don't have as much time as you want -- you can't let that affect you in the sense that it stresses you out," Calhoun says. "I think that especially when I was younger, and trying to get everything done, it did stress me out, just knowing I wanted to get good grades, and just not being able to have the free time."

"But I think that you learn as you get older that everything has its place in your life," says Calhoun. "You can't let things get stressed out, because there always will be enough time for everything. And everything usually does work out in the end."

When the season ends and summer break begins, Calhoun says she looks forward to having more time for herself. As with most summers, she'll probably have a part-time restaurant job and work at a basketball camp.

Calhoun says she has no plans to head into professional sports. When she graduates in May 2006, she hopes to get a job with a large accounting firm, preferably local, so she can stay in touch with family and friends -- and cheer on the Gophers.

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