Ah, the crisp chill of the autumn air, the brightly colored leaves on the trees, the bleary eyes of my students on Tuesday morning: football season has started! It’s probably no accident that football season and the traditional academic year start at about the same time, because there are similarities between the world of football and the demands of academic work. Unfortunately, in my experience students often drop the ball as the season-and the semester-proceed, sometimes because they can’t keep their heads in the game, and sometimes because they haven’t followed an effective game plan.
It’s a good thing, then, that football offers plenty of advice for students. All you have to do is keep in mind some of the basic rules and practices, and transfer them to your school work!
- Don’t go long on first down: In football, players have four chances to advance ten yards, so it’s unnecessary to throw the ball very far on the first attempt. The same principle applies to your first semester in college: don’t be overambitious your first semester by overloading your schedule with your most challenging courses. Instead, balance your course schedule with a variety of requirements and electives, taking care to select courses that also play to your strengths. This helps you establish yourself strongly at the start of your academic career. Check out Tarah DeSantis’s suggestions for picking courses well.
- Don’t punt on the first down: Good players also don’t punt on the first down because you don’t gain any yardage that way. If you punt the ball, you might give the ball away to the opposing team. In school, this means that you really shouldn’t take those first assignments lightly, thinking that you’ll have all semester to make it up. You may not, and you’ll be setting yourself up at a disadvantage right at the start.
- Read the defense: Good quarterbacks know that it’s important to assess what they are up against. As a student, look for a blitz by checking your syllabi to see when your heaviest work load is during the semester. Are there any weeks when you have several major assignments due in multiple courses? Strategize ways to deal with that. Similarly, know your weak spots and check for holes. The more aware you are of what you need to do to achieve your academic goals and where you may struggle, the higher the chances are that you will overcome any difficulties.
- Carry the ball: In football, the player who “carries the ball” is the one that can be relied upon to gain the most yards during a play. As a student, you should be the one who carries the ball for yourself. This means always taking responsibility for your own work, whether you are studying independently or in a group. Ultimately, you have to earn the grades you want, and the best way to do so is to take control of your academic situation as soon as possible, and do the work required to achieve success.
- Use man-to-man coverage: This is what a good defense is in football: pass coverage in which every defensive back is assigned to a particular receiver, so that all possible avenues will be blocked. Similarly, group activities typically involve many different tasks; to avoid chaos and cover all the potential holes, divide up the tasks and assign them to different people. That way you all work together, as a team, to complete the task. Auburn University offers some good tips for working in groups.
- Don’t draw a penalty: Both helping the runner and faking a rough are illegal acts in football; you cannot fake a rough to draw a penalty on the other team, and you can’t push or pull the ball carrier forward. Similarly, cheating or helping someone cheat are both illegal acts in academic work. Check out this site about academic integrity to better understand what academic work is permissible and what is not.
- Use a Hail Mary pass: Coined by Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, who said a “Hail Mary” when he made this play, it’s when a player, usually a quarterback, makes a long forward pass at the end of a game even though it may not succeed, because he has nothing to lose. This is great exam advice. If you’ve only got five minutes left on an exam, don’t just leave things blank. Write something, fill in the bubbles, do everything you can to complete it-because you’ve got nothing to lose, and you might even earn some points. Similarly, you can use a Hurry-Up Offense, which is an offensive strategy designed to gain as much yardage as possible while running as little time off the clock as possible. Approach your exam in a way that maximizes the limited time you have.
- When in doubt, call a time out: Teams often call a time-out when they need a moment to consider their next move, recover from a mistake, or just assess their general status. If you’re overwhelmed by your schoolwork, concerned about poor grades, or not sure you understand the assignment, take a moment to go back to basics. Review what you’ve done, think about what you need to do, consult with your teammates (professor, advisor, classmates) and make a new game plan.
- Review the film and be a Monday morning quarterback: Effective teams make sure they review their past performance and identify the things that worked and those that didn’t. Similarly, after every exam, assignment, project, you should review instructor comments on papers, corrected exams, and other assignments, and learn from your mistakes. This will make you a stronger player in the long run.
- Dance in the end zone! Everyone has seen jubilant players dancing after they’ve made a crucial play or scored a touchdown. As a student, it’s important that you celebrate your achievements, even the little ones. Score 10 points more on the latest exam than you did on the past one? Celebrate! This will give you momentum and optimism that you can use to take on even more challenging assignments and complete the semester.
To some people, football IS life. I readily admit that I am not one of those people. But so many of my students are, and I often find myself wishing that they would apply the same standards of performance and effort to their schoolwork that they applaud in the professional teams they follow. Hopefully this little guide will help you do that!