Life as a student-athlete is full of stressors, especially for those looking to make it to the next level of their sport.
Every great athlete has an origin story.
Often, it begins at a young age playing their sport on recreation or Little League/Pop Warner levels.
As a kid, there’s no real stress, but that changes as an athlete progresses to high school. That’s where everything changes, said Tyler Jones, a senior dual-sport athlete (football, track) at West Orange High School.
“It was just different from Pop Warner to high school — it’s not that it didn’t matter back then, but (because) high school stuff is more crucial now,” Jones said. “It was somewhat scarier freshman year. But after that, once summer and spring passed, it was go time — you knew what to do.”
Jones, who committed recently to play football at the University of Missouri, has been around his sport for years and always knew he wanted to play at the highest level of football.
When he arrived on the West Orange High campus as a freshman, there were expectations and promises he sought to keep. His goal was clear, and all he had to do was execute — both as a student and an athlete.
“I wouldn’t say it was pressure, because I just have fun playing the game — I’ve loved playing the game since I was a kid,” Jones said.
“It was honestly just more pressure just having the grades right, so I could play football,” he said. “I’ve always had good grades, but just so if football didn’t work out, you could still go to school for academics.”
Jones kept his grades up and exploded onto the radars of colleges as a defensive back who played with speed and intensity — especially in a stellar junior season.
That junior year was also the start of what would prove to be the biggest stress Jones had to face in his years at West Orange, because it’s the third year when the recruiting process really increases.
“It is scary at first, because you’re grinding all day and all night — all four years — to get that scholarship,” Jones said. “Money is on the line, and college is on the line.”
College offers from schools such as Missouri, Duke University and NC State rolled in, but Jones felt most comfortable at Mizzou. His commitment fulfilled a promise he made to his late mother, Sara.
“I was real relieved once I committed,” Jones said. “It’s like, this is what you’ve been waiting for all four years of high school.”
Although Jones still has a semester left of high school before he gets to take part in college athletics, Windermere Prep alum and University of Tennessee freshman Lyndsey Huizenga is taking in her first year on the university’s swim team.
Before arriving to Tennessee, Huizenga dealt with the same process of recruiting Jones endured.
“You’re still trying to challenge yourself academically and athletically — you have to keep both of those up in order to be recruited — but you also have (to) figure out where you can see yourself spending the next four years,” Huizenga said. “It’s always a process you’re thinking about, because you can’t wait until the last minute to do it or your time is gone.”
Going to Windermere Prep helped her through the process and prepared her well for college, but she knew things would be challenging — both academically and athletically — at Tennessee, Huizenga said.
School-wise, the workload is heavier, and as an athlete, there are mandatory study halls that have to be taken to keep students on track.
Luckily for athletes in the school, there are tons of resources — which for a freshman is always welcome, Huizenga said.
“One of the biggest stressors is just figuring out how the team works — the dynamics of the team,” Huizenga said. “‘How can I make an impact on the team, and how can I make the team the best it can be?’
“Being a freshman is nerve-wracking wherever you go, and I think being a student-athlete is even more so, because you have this team that you’re representing,” she said. “And you’re representing the college not at only a conference level, but at a national and international level.”
Being a student-athlete isn’t an easy job by any means, and that’s something Huizenga acknowledges, but she doesn’t second-guess her decision.
And if she could give a few words of advice to young, aspiring athletes looking to make it to the next level, she would send a simple — yet profound — message often repeated through both sports and life.
“Don’t give up,” Huizenga said. “If you want something, you’re able to achieve it. If you want it that bad, you’ll achieve it. Don’t go south when it gets tough, because it will get tough.
“It really takes a lot of self grit to wake up every morning at 5:30 and jump in the pool,” she said. “You have to really invest yourself and not only buy into it, but really just love what you’re doing.”