5 Reasons College Athletes Underperform During Their Freshman Year

By: Jaki Hitzelberger, MA
Certified Mental Game Coaching Professional
Licensed Mental Health Counselor

DSC_0148It is all too common that highly talented athletes struggle to perform during their freshman year in college. Usually it is not a question of physical talent, but rather an inability to cope with the mental challenges they face during their first year.

Here’s a question I received from a parent regarding her daughter’s first year as a college athlete:

“My daughter plays college soccer and just completed her first year. In high school she dominated and was one of the most aggressive players on the field, but since going to college, she looks like a completely different player. I’m not sure if she’s scared of getting hurt, afraid to mess up, or just overwhelmed by the level of play. I can tell she’s totally lost her confidence, what can we do to help her?”

The transition to college is stressful in and of itself, but college athletes in particular are under an immense amount of pressure. Many are not mentally prepared for these challenges, and thus do not perform up to their ability.

5 reasons athletes underperform during their freshman year:1. No longer the top dog.

Athletes who are recruited to play in college, are likely one of the best on their team and in their local area. Most athletes get A LOT of confidence from being the best on the field or court. So what happens when they get to college? They are now competing with the best athletes around the country and no longer stand out like they once did. This is a big transition and can wreak havoc on an athlete’s confidence. When an athlete starts questioning if they’re any good, it’s very hard to perform.

2. Intimidated by the competition.

Athletes entering college athletics have a tendency to compare themselves to other athletes on their team. They focus on the skill and physical strength of others, and lose sight of their own ability. When comparing themselves to seniors who have been playing at the college level for 3 years, they wonder if they measure up. This plants seeds of doubt in their minds, the opposite of confidence.

3. Want to justify their scholarship.

Many college athletes I work with say they want their performance to live up to why they were recruited or the scholarship they were given. Thus, they are afraid to make mistakes in practices and games for fear they will disappoint their coaches, teammates, and potentially lose their scholarships. It is a well known fact that when athletes try to avoid mistakes, they perform safe and tentative. No great athlete enters competition with the mindset, “I hope I don’t mess up”. Athletes who are focused on a previous mistake or worried about making another error, have a lot of trouble staying focused and executing their skills.

4. Are focused on getting playing time.

It’s not uncommon for freshman to get little or no playing time. Therefore these athletes are going from being the star, to potentially not even seeing the court or field. Most athletes live for competition and will do anything to get that back. As a result, they put pressure on themselves to perform perfectly all the time. It is very hard for athletes to stay focused and composed when they are thinking more about impressing their coach than the current play or shot.

5. Haven’t developed the mental side of their game.

As athletes move up to higher levels in their sport, the importance of mental toughness becomes more and more apparent. Why? Because being fast, strong, and skilled is no longer enough. As the level of competition increases, a skill or a move that worked for them before may not anymore. Athletes might even notice they’re getting beat more or making more mistakes. Thus, having the skills to mentally prepare for practice/competition, refocus after mistakes, and stay focused under pressure are absolutely essential to success.

While it’s imperative to prepare physically for college sports, too many athletes neglect the mental training that is necessary to excel. Working 1 on 1 with a mental coach is the best way to learn these skills. Please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute consultation to learn more about how you can benefit from mental training.

  1. Even though I do agree that all five of these reasons are correct I think there is one that reigns over all of these and that is number 5. I think of it this way, if you are teaching a physical skill you don't want to over power them with ting details, so you give them something that would fixes all the problems. But I'm not saying that will fix it completely but put you on the right track

  2. This is absolutely right!

  3. I definitely think that in most casasc it is the transition from being that go to or top dog performer who already has their spot cemented, to now having to work for that spot, who is not accustomed to adversity within their own team setting. It is a combination of the mental and physical treatment or lack there of. Most still train as if their playing against the same caliber of competition and do nit know how to add additional skill sets for the next level both mentally and physically.

  4. nice one verry well said!!! thanks

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