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Making Time for Play

At a school that fosters groundbreaking research and regularly produces Nobel Prizewinning scientists, the “stars” on campus are often those who start up new companies or invent new technologies-not necessarily the athletes. “At MIT, everybody is doing something. So if you play a sport, you’re not special,” says senior football player Phil Deutsch ‘04. “If you’re the star basketball player, it’s not a big deal. There are lots of activities, a lot of sports, and a lot of people doing them all.”

But while MIT athletes may not stand out among their classmates, they admittedly stand out amid their peers on rival teams: they carry their homework with them wherever they go. “The other teams laugh at us when we’re sitting on the bleachers at tournaments and are the only ones with our homework out in between matches,” says sophomore volleyball player Austin Zimmerman. But it is difficult for students to balance their homework with a demanding practice and game schedule.

To reduce potential conflicts between classroom time and court time, the university sets aside two hours a day, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., for “cocurricular” activities: no classes meet during this period. Students’ schedules may be so full that they literally run from a lab that ends at 5:00 to the locker room or the pool, the playing field or the court. After a hard practice, they shower, eat, and then finally settle down to study around 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. It can be grueling.

“I’m always tired,” admits Deutsch, a running back for MIT’s varsity football team. “During the season I’m up until 2:00 or 2:30 a.m.” But sports eventually do force students to close their books. “If you don’t sleep, you can’t play well,” says Zimmerman, “and if you’re part of a team, you don’t want to let the team down.”

Making time for practice is one thing, but attending every game-especially away games-is another. Zimmerman says her coach will sometimes proctor exams on the bus coming back from an away game. And students are occasionally permitted to drive themselves to games if academics encroach. Nick Nestle ‘04, two-time captain of the men’s soccer team and first-team All-American, received such permission when a game fell on the same day as an evening exam. Instead of riding the bus, he drove to the game so he could zip back afterwards to take his test.

Accommodating the rigors of an MIT education requires flexibility and understanding on the part of the coaches. Carol Matsuzaki ‘95 went from an MIT tennis team walk-on to its captain and is now the women’s varsity tennis team’s head coach. She understands the pressure her students face to do their best in the classroom and on the court.

“Schoolwork, of course, comes first,” Matsuzaki says. “If you miss a whole practice because you were in biology lab, and the experiment didn’t work, I understand. I’ve been in labs where you just drop something or you have to incubate it again. It’s hard.”

But the students’ desire to try to do both impresses the coaches and only increases their loyalty to MIT. “In a way it’s easy to coach these kids because they know that doing your best is a thing that works-that’s what got them here,” Matsuzaki explains. “I don’t have to convince them. I just have to remind them once in a while because they’re tired and sleepy.”

“I would coach no one else,” says men’s gymnastics coach Noah Riskin. “I was a Division I athlete at Ohio State University. There is a tremendous amount of pressure to win, and any academic pursuit I had had to fit around my training.” Now, at MIT, instead of coaching students who are solely focused on athletics, Riskin finds himself reveling in van rides where the conversations are about engineering, philosophy, and nanotechnology.

Riskin’s athletes have even found ways to connect sports and the classroom. This year an experimental freshman physics course is using a high-speed camera to analyze movement. Labs are sometimes held in the gym, where Riskin’s gymnasts perform flips and leaps whose physics the camera helps explain.

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