Every incoming college student has a lot on their plate – new classes, new friends, and adjusting to the unfamiliar routines of campus life. Student-athletes have to do all this and more: Not only are they moving into a whole new phase of life, but they’ll be challenged to achieve a higher level of athletic performance than they ever thought possible.
Thousands of student-athletes, from all backgrounds and with all different interests, make this transition successfully each and every year. Those who have enthusiastic support from coaches and peers, however, are the ones most likely to adapt in a fast, healthy way. There are many ways that athletic administrators can pave the path to success for their students.
Let’s look at five ways to support student-athletes in becoming truly college-ready:
1. Emphasize Balancing Their Roles as Both Student and Athlete
When all is said and done, this may be the most important aspect of ensuring a student-athlete is ready to perform at his or her best. Many times, the most athletically talented students will let their exceptional skills and their passion for sports cloud their judgment about academics. Even the most successful athletes benefit from having a wide range of interests, talents, and skills – and taking academics seriously helps contribute to well-rounded adulthood.
Young athletes will have to make a lot of challenging decisions about their own priorities. They will do most of this on their own, with limited input from mentors and role models. Even the most skilled coach can’t always predict, let alone control, how a young person will act “in the clinch.” Thus, it’s crucial that the athletic program emphasizes that time spent on education is never wasted. Athletics and class should be balanced – and polices should support this.
2. Help Them Prepare for College Courses
With all that in mind, it’s important to make sure a student has all the resources to help him or her with the inevitable conflicts of college life. If there are serious shortcomings in some areas of the young athlete’s studies, he or she should be encouraged to work on them as early as possible. If a student-athlete becomes discouraged with some area of academics, it becomes more likely that education will take second place. The longer a problem goes unaddressed, the worse it gets.
By the time preseason training rolls around, it should be clear what kind of classes the student-athlete will be taking – he or she might even have a major picked out. Athletic administrators can work with other organizations around campus to make students aware of the assets available to them. For example, most campuses have student-led tutoring groups that can be helpful. Don’t just tell students they have to maintain certain grades – empower them to do it.
3. Make Sure They Understand That, as Athletes, They are Ambassadors of Their School
On most campuses, there are many different students who are in high-profile positions. Along with student-athletes, there may be resident advisors, members of the student government, and others who can influence the experiences of their peer group. Like these others, student-athletes need to realize that the average students around them are constantly aware of their behavior. In today’s social media-saturated world, even a small misjudgment can be turned into a big deal.
That can have a negative impact on individual students, teams, and the program as a whole.
This realization can be stressful, but it can also be turned into a positive one. As athletes, few other students have such a tremendous opportunity to positively impact others. Athletes should be taught where their strengths and weaknesses lie so they can turn their unique talents into advantages. Emphasize teamwork, humility, and grace under pressure, and people will credit them for it. On the flip side, coach students about the temptations they’ll inevitably face, such as alcohol. There are a right way and a wrong way for students to handle their adult responsibilities!
4. Give Them the Resilience They Need to Deal With Setbacks
Failure is going to happen – even the greatest professional athletes deal with it. After all of the excitement of recruitment, pre-season, and first-semester fun, students can feel like they are invincible. That sets them up to take it hard if their team gets off to a rocky start for the season, or their grades take a hit while they deal with the higher standards of the college. When all is said and done, much of the danger comes from seeing themselves as “only” student-athletes.
Athletic administrators have the unique opportunity to help students value their personal traits, not just their athletic prowess. Coaches get a unique view into how their student-athletes work with others, perform under pressure, and conduct themselves on the field and off. What a student might see as “just doing their thing” could be a powerful personal asset – but they need someone with wisdom and experience to give them perspective on what they’re doing right.
In college, all students are developing their sense of who they are and what they value. The more they get used to focusing on why they do what they do, the less brittle they’ll be when they inevitably have to deal with a loss – probably “the biggest loss” they’ve ever faced. Remember: It’s what you do with setbacks that define you! Knowing this, every member of the athletic program should model the importance of accepting victory and defeat with grace.
5. Focus Them on Good Habits That Will Help Them Reach Their Potential
There are many good habits that student-athletes can develop that will help them in athletics, academics, and life. One of the most important, however, is punctuality. Everything that any successful student does relies on “showing up and being there” when he or she plans to be. It affects class, practice, and, of course, the big game. Even if a young person knows nothing at all about time management, he or she can still make a personal commitment to always be on time.
With that in mind, it doesn’t hurt to look at a more structured approach to scheduling. There are so many competing priorities for a student-athlete that handling them all can be overwhelming. It will probably take a full year – two semesters – before even the most talented athlete falls into a comfortable rhythm. Before then, something as simple as a day planner (with or without an accompanying mobile app) can help student-athletes make the most of their limited time.
From early on in a student’s first season, the athletic program can emphasize the importance of “being there.” Many campus bookstores already offer day planners and other scheduling tools at low cost. Consider the possibility that the program could use a sliver of its budget to provide these to athletes for free, or work with other departments to get a deeper discount. What your program emphasizes is what your student-athletes will take with them!
Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration program specializes in developing interscholastic Athletic Directors, building on the students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly-successful athletic department. Ohio University is a pioneer in sports education. By establishing the first academic program in the field of sports administration, this online program is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.