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



Playing Contact Sports May be Hazardous to Your Kids Health

The Pediatric Society of US and Canada recommend that children avoid contact sports altogether— the risks of head trauma even mild head injuries, are too great (Purcell, 2014) .  As more and more research comes to light, it would be irresponsible for the medical community NOT to create such a warning.

Football at young ages puts kids at significant risk for head trauma. Photo Credit: Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) CREDIT: Carlos M. Saavedra (Photo by Carlos M. Saavedra /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Football at young ages puts kids at significant risk for head trauma. Photo Credit: Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Concussions are a hot topic in the medical sports community with the increasing incidents of youth concussions in conjunction with emerging research on head injuries that highlight the detrimental effects of head trauma to young athletes, even mild head injuries not classified as concussions.  Thankfully the topic is moving beyond the medical community and into mainstream media.  Last week The New York Times published an op-ed titled “Don’t Let Kids Play Football” by chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, CA (Omalu, 2015).  The concussion-risk news will alarm some parents and cause skepticism in others. Yet the evidence is mounting against kids playing contact sports.

A recently published book “Sports-related Concussions in Youth” revealed some (alarming) facts:

  …concussion rates are more frequent among high school athletes than college athletes in some sports —including football, men’s lacrosse and soccer, and baseball; higher for competition than practice (except for cheerleading); and highest in football, ice hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, soccer, and women’s basketball.  Concussion rates also appear higher for youths with a history of prior concussions and among female athletes. (Graham et al. 2014)

The pressure is on for schools and leagues to respond. More so when there’s class action lawsuits, as there is with a group of parents against U.S. Soccer and four other soccer associations for their mishandling of concussions and head trauma.  It’s no coincidence that  US youth soccer federation is launching a ‘Player Safety Campaign’ and also published a statement outlining new rules that soccer players aged 10 and younger should be prohibited from heading the ball, and players 11 through 13 should only be allowed to do so during practice (U.S. Soccer, 2015).

Detrimental effects of concussions were first thought to be exclusive to NFL football players, yet the medical community has brought concussion risks and a related progressive brain disease that shows up later in life CTE to the attention of youth sports community due to the overwhelming evidence of risks. It’s creating a culture change in sports that we can see by campaigns to educate athletes, coaches, physicians, and parents of young athletes about concussion recognition and management (Graham, 2014).

50anniv-logoParallels to the Surgeon General’s Warning
I see parallels between the recent concussion warnings and the ‘smoking is bad for your health’ phenomenon that began in the late 1950’s.  The Surgeon General made a statement in 1957 announcing its official position on smoking; smoking is harmful to your health—overwhelming evidence pointed to a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. But the majority of the public didn’t buy in. A Gallup Survey from 1958 found that only 44 percent of Americans believed smoking caused cancer.  Over time though as more information became available, public opinion did change. By 1968 over 78 percent of the public believed that smoking was a health hazard; it became common knowledge that smoking damaged health for the smoker and carried risks for those exposed to second-hand smoke.

What’s Next?
Will parents stop putting their kids in contact sports? Will leagues be forced to change rules, limit participation? Likely, it will take time before we see significant change. Doing so represents a change in culture. One where sports leagues, associations, sports companies and clubs have much at stake. Yet as awareness expands and sources of information go beyond the medial community change is inevitable.

Another example similar to the the New York Times article where concussion awareness moves into mainstream media, is with a new movie,” Concussion” starring Will Smith opening on Christmas Day. The movie is about a forensic pathologist, played by Will Smith, who discovers neurological deterioration in the brain of a NFL player that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease.  Preliminary reviews of the movie aren’t great, but it’s still a significant step forward in highlighting the issue and influencing change.

It took ten years for the public to believe that smoking was harmful to health, let’s hope it will take far less time for parents and the public to accept that the risk of head injuries is a health hazard for real.