College-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).
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
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.
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.
- Students Under Pressure (2014), Amy Novotney, American Psychological Association
- High Stress High School (2015), Alexandra Ossola, The Atlantic
- The Pressure of High School Athletics, Newport Academy
- Results from the 2015 GOALS Study of the student – athlete experience. (2016). NCAA Research. doi:10.1063/1.4915594 http://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/GOALS_convention_slidebank_jan2016_public.pdf