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

Reference

Going Pro: A Long Shot

CSU against San Diego State. Image credit: collegian.com

CSU against San Diego State. Image credit: collegian.com

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

References

 

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