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”

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“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.

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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)

Overview
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.

Closing
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.

 

NCAA Study: College Athletes Want More Time for Friends, Self and Visiting Family

New study shows majority of college-athletes spend more time each week on their college sport than a full-time job.

According to a recent study by National Collegiate Athletic Association—GOALS (Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in College) student-athletes report spending more hours each week on their sport than reported in previous studies—in-season and off-season. College athletes who responded to the survey (total = 21,000) also report they’d like to have more down time; time to spend visiting family (76% to 56%) and socializing with friends (72% to 58%). High on athletes’ list, more so on female-athletes than males, was wanting more time to relax on their own—75% and 63% respectively (2015 GOALS Study, slides #46, 50, 16 and 51).

TimemagementAverage Hours Spent Each Week on Their Sport—37 to 52
All this not surprising given the hours college-athletes invest in their sport along with time needed for academics and necessities like eating and sleeping. The average time college-athletes spend on athletic activities (practice, conditioning and competition) according to GOAL’s 2015 results, range between 27 and 42 hours per week, depending on the sport and division (slide #32). But these hours don’t include non-athletic activities such as meetings with coaches, team functions, film-study, travel, etc.  If we add another 10 hours per week for non-athletic but team-related activities, then college-athletes are spending between 37 and 52 hours per week on their sport. NCAA omitted the total hours spent on ‘non-athletic activities’ in its summary report.

Concerns about Accuracy of GOALS Survey
The GOALS study, administered in 2015, 2010 and 2006 to athletes of Division I, II and III sports, is NCAA’s effort to measure student-athletes perceptions of academic and athletic experiences, and behaviors related to health and well-being. The 2015 survey consists of 92 multiple-choice and 2 free-response questions.  The questions, categorized into nine sections, include ‘time commitments’, ‘college social experience’, ‘health and well-being’, among others.

After studying the student-athlete questionnaire closely, the wording of several questions is misleading and some questions seem designed to curtail or channel student responses. It  appears, in some instances, designed to avoid gathering data. For example, the final two, open-ended questions where students can respond freely:

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Screenshot of the two last questions on the 2015 NCAA questionnaire that student-athletes responded to.

The wording in question #94 forces the student to respond with only ‘one thing‘ that is negatively associated with his or her sport, yet the wording for question #93, where students expand on the positives, is worded such that more than one thing can be included. A subtle but powerful effect. Question #94 in keeping with wording for question #93, should have read “What has been the worst part of your student-athlete experience so far?”

Another example is question #15:

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Notice the wording of “has athletics prevented you from majoring in what you really want”. Is adding the the word ‘really’ necessary? Subtle wording differences like those used in this question can produce great differences in results (qualtrics.com).

Rather than a providing a simple response of ‘yes’ or ‘no‘, the response choices associated with ‘yes’ are encumbered with the word ‘regret’. Regret is a strong word meaning disappointment, sadness or repentance. Most college students won’t admit disappointment with their choice of major, mainly because any regrets will happen after graduation when they are in the real world, looking for a job. Case in point, a Pew Research study of college graduates ranked their ‘regrets’; things they could have done in hindsight to better prepare for careers while in college, 29% selected ‘choosing a different major’ (Pew Research Center, 2014, pg. 10). Regrets come later, not during.

Bottom Line: What the Results Mean for Parents and Student-Athletes
Because of the voluntary nature this study (non-random) and the small sample size, only 21,000 athletes completed surveys out of 450,000 total NCAA athletes, (.05%), it’s not  statistically accurate, meaning the results can’t be generalized to all NCAA athletes. But it does provide useful insight about athletes perceptions about their academics, sports and  health and well-being. It’s helpful for parents, students, coaches, NCAA policymakers and decisions-makers within college institutions. Also useful is looking at trends in athletes’ perceptions and behavior over time—in analysis of results from 2006, 2010 and 2015.

The purpose of this post is to raise awareness among the student-athletes and their parents about common concerns of student-athletes, the challenges they face (time commitments, off-season workouts, etc.) that typically are under the control of the coaches and schools, even though governed by NCAA guidelines.  The article focuses on the time commitment of student-athletes in order that athletes can see they are not alone in concerns they may have. Even though there are rules in place about time devoted to ‘athletic activities’ (non-athletic activities are not included), the schools and coaches don’t follow the rules and the NCAA, other than handing out a few penalties here and there, haven’t done much to protect the athletes.

During the season, college athletes aren’t permitted to devote more than 20 hours a week to competition or official practices and workouts. Yet the average number of hours spent in season on athletic activities, according to NCAA surveys, far outnumbers that limit for every sport…A handful of programs have been penalized by the NCAA in recent years for conducting countable “athletically related activities” out of season — “What Off-Season” by Jake New, Inside Higher Ed

What to do? Students need to take a stand, to vocalize issues with violations and bending of the rules at their expense, and feel confident doing so. After all they want and need more time for friends, relaxing and most importantly (for parents anyway), visiting their family.

In the two following posts I’ll tackle two other sections of the report—’Academics’ and ‘Health and Well-being’.

Further Reading

 

“Backspin” Takes the ‘Spin’ Out of What it Takes to Be a Scholarship-Athlete

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“Backspin” book cover. http://www.coachstrobl.com/backspin

Backspin” is a highly entertaining memoir of basketball player Pete Strobl a scholarship athlete turned professional, playing for several European leagues between the years 2000 and 2008. Strobl’s passion for the sport and his gift for writing make the book a great read for all audiences, though the experiences Strobl shares about playing as a college athlete and his journey after college to pursue his dreams of the big leagues, provide valuable insight for aspiring college-scholarship athletes and their parents. “Backspin” begins with Strobl sharing his often amusing, experiences at a small-town college, Niagara University, on the east coast in New York State and a long way away from his home state California. The latter two-thirds of the book Strobl describes his turbulent career as a professional athlete playing for several teams within European Basketball leagues in countries that included France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Switzerland over a period of nine seasons.

The ‘Backspins’
The ‘backspin’ segments within the chapters are brief snippets of Strobl’s life experiences pre-college days that give the reader insight into his tenacity and drive for not just the sport, but his approach to life. My favorite vignettes are the ones featuring Strobl and his dad, which reveal not only the deep influence of Strobl’s dad had on his character, but are touching, funny and real.

Three Helpful Lessons for Potential College Athletes and Parents
Between the pages the book holds helpful lessons for young athletes—either current college athletes or aspiring scholarship-athletes and their parents. It’s not a how-to book, but by reading of Strobl’s experiences coping with school, coaches, relationships and travel, the reader gets a glimpse into the challenges and opportunities of a college athlete. Three themes emerged from the book that may be of value for student-athletes and their families; summarized below.

1)  The Scholarship-athlete’s Multiple Roles
A scholarship-athlete’s college experience greatly differs from a traditional student’s experience, which Strobl highlights perhaps unintentionally in his book. Strobl writes of his experiences in college and his multiple roles and the challenges associated with each. The roles include: student, athlete, scholarship-athlete and teammate, but it’s the role scholarship-athlete that appeared to be most challenging which Strobl recounts as:

“Playing basketball at this level was practically a full-time job, and the value of my full scholarship wasn’t lost on me. I knew I’d have to deliver on the court if I expected to stay on campus, and that required me to work harder than I ever had in the past. If that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I had a second full-time job—staying on track to earn a college degree.” (p. 33)

Strobl also gives the reader insight into the student’s role; he describes accounting for every minute of his day, which according to Strobl was “the key to survival” (p. 33). It’s evident that he worked hard, and was able to balance his multiple roles successfully; Pete finished with not only an under-graduate degree, but also a MBA. Impressive.

Not surprisingly in order to handle all his roles, sacrifices were made, typical of most college athletes that play for a varsity team. Strobl mentions the sacrifices that he made for his scholarship experience, primarily his social life and friendships, “Between hustling back and forth from the library, the gym, cafeteria and weight room, there wasn’t much time left for anything or anyone else” (p. 66).

Takeaway: Scholarships can provide tremendous opportunities for young athletes to study at a school they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend if it weren’t for their sport, or have been able to afford, not to mention the experiences that can lead to fulfilling careers. However, the key to leveraging these opportunities is for the athlete and families to weigh the pros and cons of a scholarship offer, consider all factors and potential outcomes. Frequently, the cons outweigh the pros, and student-athletes don’t realize it until well into their first year. Considerations student-athletes and parents may want to consider when evaluating athletic-scholarship options:

  • total cost of attending the school; the costs not covered by scholarship
  • risks associated with a sports scholarship (injury, performance, etc.)—consider what the outcomes might be if the scholarship was not renewed in the 2nd or 3rd year
  • fit between the athlete’s long-term career goals and what can be studied at the school, for example some programs require demanding workloads not compatible with pressures of a varsity athlete
  • academic sacrifices which may include study abroad or work-study programs, research opportunities or internships
  • value of the education associated with the school and program of study once the athlete is in the working world.

2) Leverage the Experiences Both Good and Bad
What makes the “Backspin” such an excellent read is the stories Strobl shares which are not only the highlights of his basketball career, but are of his disappointments, challenges and struggles.  His career in Europe playing for several leagues is not all glamour, but reflects hard work, with Strobl often working with a great deal of uncertainty. His job was not guaranteed for longer than a season or two, he was often in a country where he didn’t speak the language, even the same one as his coach and often had to move to another country with little more than a days notice. Yet Strobl descriptions are inspirational at the same time. Strobl appeared to make the best of every situation, for instance even when he was benched for most of a season in college (p. 47) or working for a team that was broke and wasn’t paying its athletes, he was able to turn those into positives.

Takeaway: Experiences playing as a college-athlete and beyond are filled with favorable and seemingly negative experiences, though even the negatives can be turned into circumstances for reflection that can lead to personal growth, and opportunity. This is takeaway is not a cliché when you read “Backspin”.

3)  Who’s looking Out For You?  You.
This may sound harsh, but a scholarship contract between an athlete and a school is akin to a business transaction. It’s helpful to keep in mind that coaches are paid by universities to manage and coach a team to achieve a certain level of performance, and are also under a contract. Strobl writes of many instances of very positive relationships with his coaches, and many of his coaches that provide instructive life lessons, yet there are times his experience reveal that coaches actions and decisions are not always made in best interest of the athletes.

Takeaway: Athletes need to put their needs first, and be smart about what is being offered by administrators and coaches. Getting the most value out of a scholarship opportunity is essential for the athlete and his or her family.

Closing
“Backspin” is an excellent read, and an especially informative read for any scholarship-athlete. I wanted to learn more about what Strobl did after his basketball career, which I discovered through his site thescoringfactory.com, which is a basketball development program and organization which Strobl started with his wife, also a former basketball pro that played for several European leagues. Not surprising that Strobls’ hard work, extensive experience and talent all come together in his company, The Scoring factory.

Related Reading: