Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Son’s Athletic Success Is Leading Him Down a Risky Path

His prowess in the pool isn’t all that matters.

A swimmer in goggles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is an amazing swimmer. From his first toddler class, he was at home in the water. In elementary school he was on club swim teams, and frequently made it to junior state and national competitions. In middle school, he tried water polo and fell in love with the sport, and now, even though he’s just a sophomore, he’s on the varsity team at his club and the only sophomore on varsity swim and water polo at his school. His club team made the national championships, where several coaches from top schools later reached out to his coaches, expressing strong interest in him. We’ve been told that he’s almost guaranteed to get an offer, and I couldn’t be prouder.

However, he’s gotten wind of this too, and over the course of the school year, his grades have gone from straight As to some A-minuses and low Bs (for a couple of reasons, including a demanding practice and training schedule, volunteer work with younger kids at the local pool, and—most worryingly—because he says “it’s okay for my grades to slip a little because colleges will see past that if they want me to play for them”). I know “athlete grades” are a thing in college admissions, but it’s upsetting to me that my son just takes them for granted. He didn’t put any effort into raising his grades before his finals this spring. How can I convince him that his grades are as important as his water polo ability, and are still worthy of effort? Next year he’s supposed to take the PSAT and SAT, and I’m worried he’ll apply the same “It doesn’t matter because I’m talented at sports” attitude to those tests.

—Athletics vs. Academics

Dear Athletics vs. Academics,

Can we take a moment to try to separate grades from “academics”? That is—to make a distinction between grade-getting and learning? Has your son stopped doing the reading assigned for his classes? Stopped paying attention in class? Stopped participating in class discussions, doing homework, turning in assignments? Or has he just stopped pushing himself to get As?

I mention the distinction not to split hairs, but because I think it’s important. He’s not failing his classes—he’s still doing relatively well in them, in fact. Not putting effort into “raising his grades” is not the most important thing in the world, though I know we have all been trained to think it is.

I don’t know your son, though. So I can’t tell exactly what you’re worried about. Are you worried that he’s becoming an arrogant jock asshole? Is he? If so, then a conversation about humility and not taking things for granted is in order. Or are you worried that he’s become complacent and may be kidding himself—that he may not get into a college he wants to attend? A conversation about realistic plans may be in order, then. Or are you worried as a matter of principle? That is: He was a straight A student and damn well ought to stay that way! In that case, I would ask you just one question: Why?

The bottom line here is less about grades and getting into college than it is about competing priorities and also about what kind of person your son is and is going to be as time passes. Instead of lecturing him about his no longer perfect grades—or demanding that he work hard to prepare for the SATs—why not have a talk with him about the big picture, about perspective and attitude and his near future?

If you want some reassurance from me, as a college professor for over three decades who also has a keen understanding of college admissions, I can tell you that he’ll get into college somewhere even if he doesn’t have straight As and excellent SAT scores, and no doubt get a good education, because one can get a very good education at a vast number and variety of colleges. But if he—he, not you—has a dream college in mind, and will be crushed if he doesn’t get into it, it’s worth making that clear to him and let him take it from there.

Some kids his age enjoy working ferociously hard at their schoolwork (I know this to be true, as I had one); some don’t (I was one of those). If he’s content to be a solid but not great student in terms of grades, and if he understands the consequences of this, and is not being a jerk, I would let him be. But make sure you talk it all through first.