Are we Raising Excellent (but Stressed Out) Sheep?

“You cannot say to a [college student] ‘find your passion’, most of us do not know how and that is precisely how we arrived at college, by having a passion only for success” — Student, Yale University. “Excellent Sheep”


“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life”, William Deresiewicz, 2014. Simon & Schuster

Part of the American Dream for teenagers (and parents) of middle & upper class families is going to a prestigious university, or at least one that ranks highly on U.S. News Best College list. Former professor William Deresiewicz describes the college admissions process as a ‘rat race’ in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Lifea rat race that pushes high-schoolers into relentless pursuit of AP classes, leadership experiences, SAT prep workshops, volunteering ventures, varsity sports, and ‘enriching’ extracurricular experiences. The pursuit doesn’t end in high school; it continues into college which Deresiewicz writes, leaves college students stressed out, burned out and aimless. More concerning and the thesis of the book, is how these pursuits, deemed necessary by the ‘system’ (the college application process and experience), leave college graduates without a sense of self or purpose and clueless about what they want to do after graduating.

Deresiewicz writes about experiences of students at elite universities yet his findings are applicable to middle-class kids attending any suburban high school who want to get into the best university through academic performance or a sports scholarship. I’ve seen this first-hand with my three kids who in high school all went through the arduous, stressful, overwhelming college admissions process. The pressure and expectations, embedded in our school and community culture was clear—do whatever it takes to build your college application so you can get into the most prestigious college possible. Never mind if a lesser-known college would be a better fit—getting into a school with a name is what it’s all about.

Why Excellent ‘Sheep’?
Deresiewicz writes that the system churns out students who are smart, talented, and driven, yet at the same time are anxious, distraught, and lacking in intellectual curiosity. They are all heading in the same direction—herded, like sheep, by the system.

herding sheep

Deresiewicz suggests college kids are like sheep, herded blindly by the system. Photo by Carl Purcell.

Deresiewicz suggests an alternative: he believes college education should prompt thinking — “What is the good life and how should I live it?” He also suggests that college education should be about building character, good citizens and individuals who think independently. Most importantly students should find their vocation—their purpose, or at least be on the path that takes them there.

“Purpose has the virtue of uniting the inner with the outer, the self within he world: what you want to do with what you see as needing to be done. “What moves you – what do you feel connected to? Becoming a lawyer isn’t a purpose. Becoming a lawyer to defend the rights of workers or to prosecute criminals is. Purpose means doing something, not ‘being’ something” (pg 99)

Aimed at high school and college students, the book is not only a must-read for students but for parents. There’s four parts: Part I gives the history of “The System”— how we ended up with this unwieldy college application process and experience. Part II – “Self” speaks to students, outlining what they can do to survive the system, rise above it, while finding a path to self-discovery and purpose. These chapters are helpful, for parents too as they pose questions such as ‘what is college for?’ Questions worthy of consideration.

According to Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, “Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spend using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake in crisis, now knowing why they have worked so hard”… If adults are unaware of this, that’s partly because they’re looking in the wrong direction.   (Pg. 11)

Chapter six “Inventing your Life”  is for students. So how do you find a vocation—your purpose? The million-dollar question—and hough there’s no formula Deresiewicz does a good job with the topic including advice and experiences of college graduates (pg 102).

In Part III, “Schools” Deresiewicz writes about the need for humanities in schools, an education grounded in the liberal arts with ‘Great Books’. He also suggests we need small class sizes with good teachers. Part IV is where Deresiewicz outlines his suggestions for change, how to fix the college application process and curriculum. Though I agree with most of Deresiewicz proposals, he misses the big picture—there needs to be significant change in higher education where the focus should be on educating students (not on research or collegiate sports) within the realm of our global and digital economy, also incorporating liberal arts, small class sizes and courses for students that guide them to finding a path with purpose.

berkeley_mom_bumper_bumper_bumper_stickerTakeaways for Parents
There are takeaways in Excellent Sheep for students, educators, high school administrators and parents. From a parent’s perspective the book provides instructive if not painful advice. In chapter 3, “The Training” the role parents contribute to the system is clearly described—overbearing, helicopter parents, who orchestrate their child’s life with activities and classes, coddle and boost their self-esteem with praise for every success and accomplishment. Then there are the parents who view their child’s accomplishments as a validation of their own self-worth. The latter is insidiously prevalent in our culture; it’s embedded within TV commercials, bumper stickers, e.g. X university MOM, seminars at high schools, and within outlets afforded through Social Media where we can post about our children’s accomplishments for the world to read.

What  Deresiewicz writes about is a complex problem to fix, but Excellent Sheep is a good starting point. It raises questions to consider that can serve as an opening for bucking the system, or at least for trying to work with the system for the benefit of our children.


College-Athletes Under Pressure

under-pressureCollege-athletes are under tremendous pressure; not only pressure to perform, but pressure they put on themselves to meet high (often impossible to reach) expectations. One set of expectations prevalent among college-athletes  is that of going ‘pro’. And while many expect to go pro or play at the Olympic level, there’s a huge gap between expectations and reality. The chances are slim, (less than 2%) yet according to a recent NCAA study a significant number of college athletes expect to do so. For example approximately 50% of Division I male athletes think it’s likely they’ll go pro (NCCA Research, 2016). This is concerning for a number of reasons which I wrote about here, yet it’s helpful to look at why; what factors contribute to college-athletes having expectations that don’t match up with reality? Looking at these factors is helpful for parents, educators and coaches; it raises awareness so they can help reduce the pressure these student-athletes experience.

Below are three sources of pressure that research shows influence student-athletes.

1. Pressure from Parents
The NCAA research mentioned previously reveals that many student-athletes felt their parents expected them to play at the professional (slide below). Parents expectations aren’t as high as the students, but are significant (NCAA, 2016, slide #84).

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NCAA Research (2016), Slide #84. Legend: MBA: Men’s Basketball, MFB: Men’s Football, MTE: Tennis, etc.

One one hand, parental expectations are a positive motivator for children and young adults. Encouraging kids to reach high and strive for a goal motivates them to work hard and commit their best effort. But expectations can be tricky, more so when: 1) there’s an emphasis on one set of expectations that might be unrealistic; in this instance there’s a risk that a child’s self-esteem and identity rely on meeting expectations, 2) when parents self-worth is tied up in how their kids perform, e.g. parents might receive status and recognition for their child’s successful performance, reinforcing their self-worth, and, 3) an investment of resources (financial, time, etc.) is closely linked to expected results. When families spend money on team travel, lessons, equipment and club fees, it’s not uncommon that children feel pressure to perform, and experience a sense of guilt when they don’t.

Yet it’s important to acknowledge that not all student-athletes in the NCAA study felt that their parents expected them to play professionally. Just as numerous parents of young athletes in the general population don’t have such expectations.

2. Pressure from Youth Sports Culture
But parents aren’t the only sources of pressure. In fact parents often feel pressure for their children to perform; feel the need to keep-up with other families. In today’s culture there’s an unprecedented emphasis on sports, partly due to the messages embedded in our media and institutions. Telling examples are  youth sports teams, leagues, clubs and camps that promote their organization using words that emphasize performance, winning, competition and getting to the elite (collegiate, Olympic or professional) level. Below are just a few examples.

MRL mission is to provide the highest standard of competitive play for youth teams and to assure the continued growth and development of elite level players…Very simply we are here for the BEST TEAMS…BEST PLAYERS…BEST COMPETITION MRL strive[s] to provide the absolute best high-level competitive environment for our teams —Midwest Regional League, US Youth Soccer

Brighton Youth Baseball Association (BYBA) offers a competitive baseball program that plays through Altitude Baseball League (ABL). There are up to three (3) levels of play for each age group. It is structured much like Major League Baseball, in that there is a Majors or Elite which is the top-level — Brighton Youth Baseball, CO

We are proud to train swimmers from the novice level to Olympian and treat each of our athletes with the same belief each has unlimited potential  — Canyons Aquatic Swim Club

Golf training at IMG Academy offers youth, high school, collegiate and professional teams the ideal foundation for future success.  Notable golfers who have trained at IMG Academy include… IMG Academy

Crew SC Elite is an all new level of programming focused solely on our U12 through U18 girls teams. This level is designed to develop and provide players an opportunity to play at the highest levels of youth soccer and prepare them for college — Columbus Crew, Player Development


3. Pressure from College-Teams/Coaches/Media
The pressure young athletes feel begins as young as nine and ten, which contributes to the high drop out rates for youth sports. Yet, for those student-athletes who do make it through high school, and then to the collegiate level the pressure doesn’t stop. There is frequent talk of getting to the professional or Olympic level among coaching staff in collegiate sports across all divisions. It’s more intense in highly visible sports like football or basketball where media reporters broadcast their opinions and musings about individual players’ chances of going pro, their statistics, and performance to millions of viewers.

Closing Thoughts
Experiencing stress or pressure is linked to positive performance, yet the burden of ongoing pressure to perform—to win and be the best creates an environment that promotes narrow-thinking and takes a toll on young athlete’s well-being. Let’s help our student-athletes have realistic expectations and ease their burden so they can experience a healthy state of physical and emotional well-being.

Further Reading


Going Pro: A Long Shot

CSU against San Diego State. Image credit:

CSU against San Diego State. Image credit:

I had a discussion recently with Jim, vice-president of marketing for a successful private company about his experience with hiring college students who’d recently graduated. Our discussion confirmed my long-held belief that college-athletes for the most part, are less likely to find a satisfying career after college than those that don’t play a NCAA sport.

Jim shared the story of one of his recent hires, a college-athlete—Sean, who attended a prestigious university playing for the school’s ice hockey team on a scholarship. Jim described how Sean, hired as an account manager, appeared confident and personable, yet spoke frequently about how he ‘almost made it to the NHL’. Sean seemed haunted by ‘just missing’ his chance at the pros. “Sean had lots of potential, but seemed to be holding back—almost as if the job was beneath him” is how Jim described it.

Results from a recent NCAA supports shows that Sean’s aspiration of making it to the pros (or Olympics) is an assumption held by many college-athletes from all sports—case in point as many as 78% of Division I male college-athletes playing hockey think it’s at least somewhat likely they’ll become a professional and/or Olympic athlete in their sport, as do 53% of soccer players, and 24% swimmers (NCAA, slide #92). Even with the median falling around 50%, that’s a significant number of athletes thinking that they’ll be going pro after college. Female athletes don’t have as high expectations (NCAA, slide #94).

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NCAA Research (2016), Slide #91

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NCAA Research (2016), Slide #94

Huge Discrepancy Between College-Athletes Expectations and Reality
Yet not surprising, the chances of going pro or making the Olympics is incredibly small; for the majority of sports it’s around 1.0% or less (NCAA Research, 2015). The discrepancy between what college-athletes think is likely to happen, going pro or getting to the Olympics, and what will happen is significant. Distressingly so. The concern is how this mindset of these athletes affects the choices they make in college, and the plans and expectations they have for the future—after graduation.

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NCAA Research “Estimated probability of competing in professional athletics” (2015)

Negative Impact on College-Athletes Mindset During College Years
The goal of higher education is to prepare students for adult life that includes not only having the critical thinking skills to engage fully in civic, family and community life, but the experiences that will guide them to a path that leads to a fulfilling and satisfying career. College is the foundation for providing these opportunities, yet the schedule of college-athletes leaves little time for athletes to engage in clubs, participate in on and off-campus events, mix with different groups, or explore different academic paths. Their schedule is tight, thinking narrowed because of it. Their sport is the single focus for most athletes. The lack of breadth in school experiences is likely why many student-athletes think of little else but going pro.

Fortunately not all college-athletes think this way. The NCAA research reveals that Division I and II male athletes are more likely to think of going pro, while female athletes and Division III athletes have for more realistic expectations (NCAA research, slide #93).

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NCAA Research (2016), Slide #93

Means to and End
There are benefits to being a student-athlete, being able to attend a college one might not have been able to attend without one’s sport for instance, but it’s a means to an end, where the end is an education that sets college-athletes up for life; not for going pro.

Further Reading