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).

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 6.03.02 PM

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


5 Reasons Why Parents Need to See the Movie ‘Concussion’

If you’re a parent of a child who wants to play football [soccer, ice hockey & other contact sports] and you avoid the movie “Concussion” the way the NFL wants you to avoid it, then you’re avoiding reality” — The Chicago Tribune

la-et-mn-concussion-movie-nfl-20150903Kids that play contact sports are at risk for concussions and CTE, a degenerative  brain disease caused by hits, even mild blows, to the head. Which is why I suggest that all parents of athletes and kids over 12 years old who play contact sports—not just football but hockey, soccer, rugby, basketball or any other contact sport see the movie Concussion.

It’s based on the true story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, who discovered by studying deceased football players’ brains, that the brain is damaged by repetitive strikes to the head which leads to severe symptoms that can show up later in life. Symptoms that include headaches, memory loss, behaviour changes such as aggression, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. In younger people CTE begins with behavior and mood changes; in older people it begins with cognitive problems that progress and lead to dementia. Real life examples are Mike Webster, Pittsburg Steeler who died a tragic death at age 50 and Chicago Bears Dave Duerson who commit suicide in 2011. Both had CTE.

While concussion symptoms are immediate, CTE symptoms aren’t. CTE symptoms typically appear years after exposure to repetitive head trauma which makes it almost a hidden disease. Essentially the brain does not have the protection it needs to take repetitive, even mild blows to the head as experienced by heading a soccer ball, or through contact in football during tackling, or hockey during checking or collisions on the ice—all these incidents places our kids at risk. The movie does an excellent job of explaining what CTE is, how it happens and how Dr. Omalu was threatened and ‘strongly encouraged’ to suppress his findings by the NFL. Best described in the following 45-second clip below where Dr. Omalu’s (Will Smith) boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) explains why:

If you’re not yet convinced you should see the movie, below are five (really good) reasons:

1. Protect your Kids… by learning how head trauma can affect your child’s brain over time. There are several scenes in the movie where Will Smith explains what happens to the brain when there are repeated strikes to the head—Dr Omula shakes an egg inside a glass jar, mimicking how the brain moves around inside the skull. Given there’s no shock absorber in the skull, with repeated trauma it can lead to progressive degeneration of brain tissue, putting the athlete at risk for CTE.

2. Be informed…Know the risks so you can assess and make decisions about the kind of sports programs you want your kids to be part of.

3. Learn why the NFL, NCAA, FIFA and other sports associations are concerned about “Concussion”…For several reasons, mainly the culpability; there is a level of responsibility—blame that can be placed. Many failed to provide adequate warning and protection for players, whether through concealing the risks (NFL), or by not implementing adequate safety guidelines (NCAA). There are numerous class action lawsuits past and current: the NFL was ordered to pay $900 million to over 5000 retired players given they concealed the dangers of head trauma, NCAA for inadequate protective measures for athletes diagnosed with concussions, and in youth sports where a group of soccer parents brought a class action lawsuit against FIFA, U.S. Soccer and AYSO for failing to protect players with concussions. There will likely be more to come.

4. Educate your kids…Kids need to know the risks. If they are old enough, have them watch the movie, if they aren’t use an example of the egg in the jar to explain what happens to their brain. There are other resources parents can use to educate kids including this 5-minute YouTube video “Concussions 101, a Primer for Kids and Parents”.  There’s also role models, for instance Chris Borland of San Fransisco 49ers and one of NFL’s top rookies, quit the NFL at age 24 because of concerns about long-term risk of head trauma.

5. It’s a damn good movie.

When I watched Concussion it stirred an array of emotions—sadness, disgust, empathy, and hope. Hope, because at the end of the movie there’s a sense of triumph knowing that Dr. Omalu succeeded in raising awareness about the risks and effects of head trauma, not just among the medical community but to one of the most powerful and influential sports entities in North America—the NFL. Parents—you gotta see the movie and bring your (12+ age) kids.

To Learn More:



Parents of Athletes: Stop the Insanity–It’s Time to Take Back Holidays!

Breaks from sports practice around holidays provide a rare opportunity for young athletes to recharge, rest and recover, but more importantly give families time to reconnect. Not so for many athletes participating at the club level in sports such as swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, diving, among others, where breaks are used for intense practices and training. This article outlines why it’s time to take holidays back; stop the insanity before it’s too late.

stop-sign-2It seems like just yesterday I was driving my daughter to swim practice during Christmas break—every day of Christmas break for 7 AM practices with only two days off—Christmas and New Year’s.  Practices were grueling (2 ½ hours) too according to my daughter.  She was 10 at the time, in a group of swimmers’ ages 9 through 12. The kids in the older groups swam more; some had double workouts of morning and evening practices. The club viewed breaks from school as a chance to get in intense training.  Unfortunately I, along with 99% of the parents, bought into the madness. Looking back, well over eight years ago now, I realize the insanity of it all. Swim clubs are notorious for driving the kids hard, 12 months of the year with little more than a two-week break at the end of the summer. Taking holidays during breaks was frowned upon, to the point that most kids were afraid to miss any practices.  Though our family’s experience with year-round training was exclusive to swimming, other club sports follow similar patterns e.g. gymnastics, diving, baseball, cheer leading, wrestling, among others. Most clubs state outright on their websites the training schedules take place over breaks—Christmas and summer. Some are explicit in describing the nature of the workouts, like this High School wrestling team:

“Practices during Christmas break are focused and intensive. Christmas holiday practices are not mandatory, but highly recommended to make a significant difference once season commences in January”.   — St. Mary’s Wrestling Team,  Titans Wrestling

It might as well read something like this, ‘Merry Christmas junior, you are going to practice intensely all Christmas break so you can kick butt in January. And if you even think about taking a day off, think again’.  Some teams are more subtle like this swim club, “a special schedule will be provided to members for the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays” — Malvern Swimming, PA. 

Why the Insanity?
There are really only a few reasons why there is such a phenomenon. The philosophical answer is the culture of youth sports with the emphasis on sports specialization as well as the focus on competitiveness (of which parents to some degree are responsible), creates a culture of intense pressure for clubs and coaches and thus athletes experience pressure to attend year-round practices and perform.

The practical answer comes down club revenue, and in some instances coaches’ salaries—hence it comes down to money.  Youth sports clubs are run like businesses whether for-profit or not, and the majority depend upon a 12-month revenue stream.  In some instances coaches are incentivized based upon how individual athletes, or the team performs. This is the case for some swim clubs, and there’s evidence this system exists in other youth sports, and college sports even more so (Cheer Professional, Duggan, Lopiano).

Specific to swimming, a coach can potentially earn a financial bonus (and prestige) on the backs of high-performing swimmers.  Swim clubs within USA Swimming also receive awards, Club Excellence Programs, that includes a criteria of high performing swimmers. This structure is not ideal. If we look at it one way, the child becomes similar to a commodity, like a stock, yet the performance of the stock depends upon its fitness and performance level of which coaches influence (Mullen, 2014). Ugh. Not to say that coaches are earning big bucks, most are not, but the incentives are in all the wrong places.

…And It Continues into College
This pressing, obsessive training behavior for young athletes continues into college—for kids that join a college team regardless of whether it’s a Division I, II or III team.

A good, albeit disturbing example of intense sports training over break is the swim team at UNCW (University of North Carolina Wilmington).  An excerpt from an article titled “UNCW’s holiday swim training is brutal, but necessary“:

Since the 1980s, UNCW coach David Allen has been running his teams through this gauntlet in preparation for the conference championships. 

During Christmas Training sessions, UNCW swimmers average between seven and nine miles in the water.  The team first trains from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., working mostly on endurance. After a meal and a few hours sleep, the group returns to the pool from 7:30-9:30 p.m. for power and speed training.

“As I tell the swimmers and those who’ve been with me now for a few years, during that time, I turn my sensitivity switch off. I’m a bulldog when it comes to training,” Allen said.

“I tell them, ‘We’re going to train. And, when you’re at home in preparation, you need to get yourself ready because when you come back here I don’t want any excuses. You get in the pool and you swim. And if you can’t, go home.’ That’s the approach we take.”

One  might wonder what the goal of this training is—perhaps to prepare for the Olympic Trials so swimmers might quality for the US Olympic team?  Nope. The coach’s goal is to win the coveted conference title:

 Allen notes his goal every year is to get the conference title. It’s the only meet that is guaranteed to give out a trophy – and that’s a prize he wants. (Riley, 2014)

It’s no wonder that results from a panel conducted with NCAA college athletes cited “time off during off-season” as their number one recommendation for reforming college sports (New, 2015).

Take it Back!
This behavior of intense sports practices for young athletes during breaks is none less than destructive. Not only does it rob kids of time with families, time to rest and recover but it can lead to psychological stress, injury and patterns of behaviors that undermine health and well-being.  Parents, it’s time to stop the insanity and take holiday time with your kids back!

Further Reading: