Over the course of my tenure as a success coach, more than a few of my students have been athletes, and I would like to speak a bit about the unique challenges I’ve encountered and strategies that I’ve used in my work with these students.
The good thing about working with student athletes is that not only they, but you, become part of a team. Among professors, success coaches, advisors, athletic coaches, and the students themselves, there are always multiple people with a vested interest in a student athlete’s academic success. Athletic coaches, especially, can be great partners. In many cases, these coaches have personally recruited these students, provided them with scholarship money, and are now counting on them to be able to play. This, of course, cannot happen if the student is not academically eligible according to NCAA rules, which makes coaches doubly invested in each of his or her students’ academic success. When I am having trouble with student athletes either failing to turn in work, go to class, or show up for meetings with me, my first call is almost always to the coach. “I will take care of that today,” is a common response. So is, “that will not happen again,” and “I’m on it.” They always are. Because they are directly responsible for a student’s ability to play the sport they love, coaches can also provide carrots and sticks that the rest of us cannot. For example, last February (another frigidly cold, Ohio February…) I was working with two members of the soccer team who had problems both with not turning in assignments and lying about not turning in said assignments. So I called the soccer coach. Well, lo and behold, the next morning if those boys weren’t running suicides on the soccer field in sub-zero temperatures! We didn’t have to talk much about turning in assignments after that.
Because time management can be complicated for student athletes who have to juggle classwork with practices, workouts, and games, we also set up a variety of group-study resources for them. Every one of our athletic teams has a “study table” which meets for 6 hrs. or more a week under the supervision of an assistant coach or graduate student. Students can use these meetings in any way they want (group study, independent study, writing, research, tutoring), as long as they meet their weekly hour requirements. In addition, I have organized study sessions with small groups of my students who happen to all be struggling in the same area. Currently, I have four student athletes on three different teams who have started a weekly math tutoring session just outside my office.
But for all the “nuts and bolts,” ways in which we can support our student athletes’ academic endeavors, success coaches must also help some students overcome boulders of a more nuanced, psychological nature – mainly the idea that time on the field or court, and not the education, is the most important thing. Now, most of our student athletes do not come to college exclusively to play; sports are an important part of their lives, but they also have the goal of receiving a college degree. However, a few see academic work as simply the price they have to pay in order to stay eligible, as something to be tolerated in these few years before they start making millions and millions in the NBA or NFL. Some student athletes see education not just primarily but exclusively as a way to continue to participate in their real passion: sports. Thus, one of my primary jobs is to get student athletes to be able to look beyond their sport in order to understand the true value and importance of getting their degrees.
Five years ago, a freshman quarterback receiving a very large athletic scholarship walked into my office. While he was amazing on the football field, he was young, pretty immature, and had entered school on academic probation. His mind was not on the benefits of college, but he knew he had to get his grades up in order to play, so he worked hard, kept it up all spring, and by the following fall he was eligible to play. That fall, he did a great job as back-up quarterback, but academically did so poorly that he was dismissed from the university. The next year, he tried to go to another school to play football. The same thing happened and he was again dismissed. After being dismissed from his second school, he returned to our university. I hadn’t seen him in almost two years, so I was caught by surprise one day when, as we both were walking across campus, he spotted me. His walk quickly turned to a run and suddenly I found my 5’3″ frame enveloped in a bear hug. “You’re back?!” I asked. “Yes, I am,” he replied, “but this time I’m just here to get my college degree.” Since then, I have seen him often, usually in the library studying. He will graduate a mere six weeks from today.
Alright, now I’m off to cheer on our spring athletes. Go Dragons! But get your homework done first!
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.