Finding balance as a college athlete, a UNC student’s experience with burnout

By Harrison Clark

Charlie Schuls finally laid down in bed, physically and mentally drained. His legs felt like jelly and he stressed about what he was missing back on campus. 

The Villanova University men’s tennis team had completed a taxing doubleheader in Annapolis, Maryland. The squad took on the Navy in the early session and finished the day playing Morgan State University. Schuls competed in three matches in one day: two in singles and one in doubles.  

At night, Schuls thoughts left him tossing and turning. He was not motivated, had no energy and the wear on his body was taking a toll. Behind in classes, he missed being home and craved balance.

Schuls commitment to tennis was getting in the way and it was sucking the life out of him.

A cherished memory

Pushed by his tennis-loving father Erik Schuls, Schuls had a racket in his hand since he was six years old. After starting on a smaller Quick Start net at Gaston Country Club, he graduated to hitting over the real net, something he had long been waiting for. In celebration, his mom, Emily Schuls, made his favorite pesto pasta. 

Schuls won his first state championship at 10 years old and dominated state rankings growing up, representing Forestview High School and competing in club matches. 

While Schuls relished the competition, the joy he found playing with his friends is what he cherished the most; none more so than with his close friend Dillon Gooch. The two played club doubles together for over seven years, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses like the back of their own hand. 

Before heading off to college, Schuls and Gooch made sure to enjoy their last match together at Cary Tennis Park. Underneath their warmup jackets and sweatpants, they matched navy-blue tank tops with the phrase, “Weights Before Dates,” in white block lettering coupled with $4 gold chains from Walmart. Schuls wore a dull orange headband in stark contrast to his bleached hair. The lower half of his outfit featured skin-tight black shorts, rainbow socks and neon blue Adidas tennis shoes. 

They won the title and celebrated by throwing on a new neon green tank top that read “BEAST” across the chest. 

“It was such a funny but awesome moment,” Schuls said. “We honestly stole all the momentum because the other doubles team could not believe what we were wearing.” 

Later on, Schuls waited patiently for one of the four courts to finish before getting his match against Xavier University underway.

By the time Schuls took the court, the scoreboard read 3-3. In the race to four points, Schuls’ match would decide the winner.

After losing set one of the best-of-three in a tiebreaker and going down 5-3 in the second set, a fire lit inside Schuls. He battled back to win the second set and set up a winner-take-all third set.

Schuls was down three match points in the final set and his legs weak from sprinting all over the concrete floor. He aggressively pounded winning shots with no fear, many grazing the baseline and often hitting the corners, with him finally clinching the match in a final set tiebreaker. In a frenzy, the entire team mobbed Schuls on the court, similar to a hitter walking off a baseball game. 

For a moment, it was fun again. It was his moment. 

The burnout begins

For Schuls, the burnout ignited shortly after he stepped foot on Villanova’s campus in the fall of 2018. He immediately had a schedule and routine that he would follow for a full year.

6 a.m. workouts. Class. Practice in the afternoon. Lifting. Late-night labs. Homework. Sleep. 


Schuls’ entire perception of practice changed. Fun practices he remembered in high school turned into tiring, lethargic afternoons; with sweat pouring down each player’s face and no smiles to be seen. 

Zero goofing off.

Burnout for collegiate athletes is extremely common. Many associate it with physical and mental exhaustion; others see it as a lack of motivation. 

While outsiders desire the popularity, financial benefits and talent that comes with being a collegiate athlete, they often overlook the lack of balance in an athlete’s typical college life. The sport becomes an occupation, leaving room for struggles in the classroom and a lack of social life off of the court. 

Most Division-1 athletic teams do not accept athletes who are STEM majors as labs tend to interfere with team activities. Villanova gave Schuls the unique opportunity to help him as the only player to study pre-med on the team.

“My coach worked with the school to get me labs that did not affect my tennis schedule,” Schuls said. “It was one of the main reasons I chose to go to Villanova.”

Schuls tennis requirements meant his nights carried over into the library and chemistry labs. He consistently studied late at night and never felt up to date.

Schuls rescheduled exams midweek in preparation for the weekly matches. It made him further behind. He had no time or chance to be successful, especially in his field.

Finding a balance 

In March, Emily and one of her close friends attended one of the four matches she got to see in person. They both could immediately sense her son’s frustration and lack of motivation.

“This is not the same kid anymore,” the friend said to Emily.

And it was true. His usual bright smile had vanished. 

He had academic goals. He wanted to be social. He wanted balance. Tennis was not fun anymore.

His win against Xavier flashed in his mind. He felt he had already had his big moment, that another one was inconceivable. 

He shared frequent calls with Erik and Emily, yearning for change, upset about constantly missing class and wearing his body down.

At the end of freshman year, the tennis chapter closed and his new life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill started.

UNC-CH was the only school Schuls applied to out of high school. Hopeful of a medical future and with friends attending, it seemed like the perfect fit, until Villanova offered.

Schuls called his tennis buddy Luke Townsend on the UNC club tennis team, curious about what they had to offer. Townsend gave him the rundown.

Optional practices.

Full social freedom.

Great competition.

The balance Schuls had wanted.

Ready to graduate in December of 2022, Schuls could not be happier. He has represented the club tennis team and played throughout the year in tournaments on his own time. He also joined the Sigma Nu Fraternity, fostering a new group of friends and allowing him to finally have fun again. Now, he’s decided to go pre-dental and has applied to multiple dental schools across the nation. 

“I have all I want here,” Schuls said. “I found the balance I had been searching for all along.”

Edited by Ryan Mills and Macon Porterfield