How Intramural Sports Made my College Experience (and 7 Rules for former high school athletes)

When I graduated from high school, I had some options. I had the opportunity to attend schools that I had once only dreamed of, and I could’ve played football or basketball at a long list of universities. Yet I ultimately decided to forgo the chance to further my athletic career, and instead chose to simply go to school at the local college I had grown up idolizing – the University of Michigan.

It was a long, drawn-out decision making process, but it eventually became clear to me. I didn’t see a future for myself as a professional athlete, and Michigan had one of the best programs in the country for my major, so I was confident in my choice.

But as soon as class started, it was obvious that my life had changed. Of course, I was in an unfamiliar place surrounded by new faces, but it went deeper than that.

For my whole life, I had been a student-athlete. And if I’m being honest, I had identified with the latter half of that phrase more than the former.

But now, I was simply a student. I wasn’t part of a team. I didn’t have a particular reason to watch what I ate and stay in shape. And more than anything, I didn’t have the level of physical competition that I had grown accustomed to.

Like so many former athletes who go through a similar process, I felt off-balance. I went to my classes and poured all I could into being a good student, but it just wasn’t the same. It felt like something was missing.

Until I was introduced to the world of intramural (IM) sports.

When I had enrolled at U of M, I assumed that I would at least try IM sports at some time. I was rooming with one of my best friends, with whom I had been playing sports since before I could remember, and athletics were deeply ingrained in both of our identities.

But I was skeptical.

I was used to playing in front of hundreds, or even a few thousand fans – not an empty gym. And I figured the competition would be a joke.

Who can really take an intramural game seriously? The seasons seemed so short and meaningless, and really the whole thing seemed pretty lame. But I gave it a try.

It started with flag football my freshman year. We assembled a team of some guys from my hometown, and went out to see what we could do. We ended up winning all of our regular season games and made a strong push in the playoffs before finally losing on a failed 2-pt conversion in the semi-finals.

And in a period of less than two months, I went from being a skeptic to falling in love with IM sports.

I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. I knew that it would be different than the high school leagues that I was used to be playing in, but I hadn’t anticipated that I would care as much as I did.

In a time when I was longing for something competitive to keep me going, IM sports ended up being the perfect solution.

There was a minimal commit (typically no more than an hour or two per week) but it was enough to get me fired up. As I got involved in more and more sports, I started competing against some of my classmates, along with other guys and girls that I was used to running into at the gym, and I quickly started a passionate pursuit for IM championships. We even started some friendly banter with guys who were in our league, and it extended from sport to sport.

Ultimately, and I know this sounds ridiculous, IM sports actually gave me enough motivation to get me into the best shape of my life.

Rather than just going through the motions, I started lifting weights with a focus on becoming being stronger and faster on the IM field, and I was dead-set on keeping my weight in check so I could maintain my endurance.

After that first season, I went on to play more IM sports than I could have ever imagined. I tried everything from football and basketball to soccer, volleyball, and even inner tube water polo.

I ended up enjoying the atmosphere so much that I become an official, and then eventually an Intramural Supervisor.

And looking back at my four years in college, I can honestly say that there was no single aspect of my schooling that had a greater effect on creating a positive college experience for me than IM sports. Many of my most vivid and fondest memories of college took place on some type of intramural field, and just about every lasting friendship that I made in college is somehow tied to intramurals.

I can’t recommend IM sports enough for high school athletes who are making the transition into becoming a former athlete, and I have 7 tips to make the most out of the experience.

1. Don’t graduate without trying at least one intramural sport. Unless you’re a varsity athlete, you’re missing out if you don’t try at least one intramural sport. It doesn’t matter if you were the best athlete in your high school or the worst. There’s a league out there for you, and it’s worth checking out.

2. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of your self. Some of my greatest experiences came while playing sports that I had never tried before. I played sand volleyball, indoor soccer, and even obscure sports such as broomball and inner tube water polo. And every time I tried one of these new sports, I was glad I did.

These experiences helped open my eyes beyond the sports I had grown up playing – football, basketball, and baseball. I had watched before, but I didn’t have a true appreciation for soccer or volleyball until I was able to get into the flow of the game and start understanding how the strategy plays out. Without playing, I would’ve never guessed how similar soccer is to basketball, or how many different ways there are to try to win a point in volleyball, and I certainly would’ve never been exposed to the world of water polo or broomball if it weren’t for intramurals.

3. Respect the refs. For the most part, IM refs have effectively no experience. You have to accept that and move on. Appreciate the fact that your classmates are taking the time to officiate your games, and be patient with them.

4. And if you’re so smart, try being a ref yourself. I had never even considered officiating until my roommate started doing it, and I’m extremely grateful that I gave it a try. After years of being on the court, it was eye-opening to see how different the game is from the eyes of an official.

At the same time, I made significant strides in my personal development during my time as an IM official and supervisor.

During this time, I learned a handful of invaluable skills that are serving me well today. I learned how to deal with emotional/difficult participants, take control of a situation, trust my judgment, support the decisions that my peers made, and much more.

Of anything I learned in college, it’s possible that these learning experiences were the most practical. I handle difficult situations every day at work, and although the topics behind the discussions are very different than my experiences with intramurals, the skills that I need to successfully handle these situations are for the most part the exact same.

And going beyond the personal benefits, you can help to keep the program going by becoming a ref. If you enjoy playing IM sports, it’s important to realize all of the background work that goes into making that possible. Without officials and all of the coordination that comes behind them, there are no games to be played.

5. Take it as seriously as you want, within reason. I’m competitive by nature, and I really enjoyed the opportunity that IM sports gave me to keep my competitive juices flowing. Particularly when I was playing with my roommates, I wanted to win.

But at the same time, it’s important to accept IM sports for what they are. You’re not going to make or break your school year because of your performance an IM game. It’s not worth making a fool of yourself and berating your friend in a game that ultimately doesn’t matter.

6. Don’t miss out on the learning opportunities. Just because you aren’t in class doesn’t mean that you can’t learn while you’re playing. IM sports are probably the first chance you get to play a semi-organized sport without a coach. Take advantage of that opportunity to come together as a team and develop some high-level strategy. This is a good chance to try to find the sweet spot between leading a team of your peers, and becoming a dictator who alienates himself from the team.

On another note, IM sports can also be a great way to grow your network. Part of the benefit of going away to college is meeting like-minded people who you can learn from, and IM sports offers a convenient platform to do just that.

I used to play sports with several different organizations that I was in, and it offered a great way to get to know the other members. At the same time, you can even get to know some of your competitors if you’re savy enough.

7. And finally, have fun. You’re taking a break from your studies to play a game. Take it for what it is and enjoy yourself.

Ultimately, IM sports, just like everything else in college, are what you make of them. If you go in with an open mind, ready to be exposed to new experiences and learn from different types of people, I can almost guarantee that you’ll have a great experience.

 

But if you’re like me, simply playing isn’t good enough. I wanted to win.

As I quickly realized, while I was enjoying playing sports for the sake of competing, I also wanted to learn how to win some championships.

I say learn because simply being good at a given sport isn’t enough. There are subtle nuances that are specific to intramurals, and that need to be addressed if you really want to compete.

Once I learned this,  I won my first IM championship in a sand volleyball league. And since that point, I was hooked. I had so much fun battling through the playoffs and ultimately triumphing in the final, and I was in a hurry to do it again.

I went on to win more IM championships than I can count on one hand, in sports ranging from Flag Football to Sand Volleyball, Basketball, 3v3 Basketball, and more. And one of the great things about attending a big school like the University of Michigan is that these championships didn’t come against weak competition. Almost every run included games against former D1 athletes, or current athletes playing in a different sport.

The interesting thing was that, although we only marginally progressed our skills through the years (if at all), I found that my teams were increasingly more likely to win as I got older. And ultimately, I attribute this to the lessons and experience that was picked up along the way.

As my teams won more and more, I found that a blueprint actually started to emerge for winning IM championships.

I’ve actually put together a guide for you based on that blueprint.

To receive access to my guide on How to Win an Intramural Championship, just email me at bbartneck@gmail.com with the subject line “Intramural Championship.”

-Brandon