ACADEMICS AND THE ASPIRING COLLEGE ATHLETE
by The Athlete's Parent Staff
Interview with Dr. Louis Harrison, Professor at The University of Texas Austin
“I’m not worried about my grades; I’ll just get an athletic scholarship.” We’ve probably all heard this before, or at least know of someone who is relying solely on his or her athletic ability to get into college. While athletics is a great avenue for a student to make his or her way to a college, it’s only half of the equation. Think of it this way…your kids are so excited because you’re bringing them to the Super Bowl. Once you get them there, they put out their hands for a ticket to get in, but you don’t have any tickets. The same scenario exists with athletics and academics. A student’s sport may be the vehicle he or she is relying on to get to college, but without the grades they won’t get in. Although this concept may seem obvious to parents, some student athletes don’t grasp the importance of academics until their dream of being a college athlete is in jeopardy due to poor grades or test scores.
According to Dr. Louis Harrison, Professor at The University of Texas Austin, there’s a mindset adjustment that needs to occur, and it needs to be implemented by coaches early on. “We need to change the mindset of young people, that the academic part is just as important, if not more important than the athletic part,” said Dr. Harrison. In his research, Dr. Harrison found that this emphasis needs to happen by junior high, where athletic identities are formed. The athletic identity of an individual is solidified by high school. “At this point many see themselves only as athletes,” he added.
The detriment in seeing oneself only as an athlete is the reality that a small percentage of athletes will go on to play their sport professionally. According to NCAA.org, “More than 480,000 compete as NCAA athletes, and just a select few within each sport move on to compete at the professional or Olympic level.” In sports such as football, basketball, and soccer, the percentage of NCAA athletes who will continue on to the professional or Olympic level is less than 2%. In reality, the vast majority of college athletes will go on to pursue careers outside of the sports arena. Should this fact discourage young athletes from reaching for their dreams? Absolutely not; however, it reinforces the relationship between athletics and academics. Being a college athlete is synonymous with being a student who is preparing for a career beyond athletics. You cannot have one without the other at the college level. For this reason, it’s crucial for young athletes to focus as intently on their academic success as they do on their athletic success.
This is where coaches come in. Being a former high school football coach in years prior to his career as a college professor, Dr. Harrison understands the vital role that coaches play in motivating athletes to reach their full potential on the field and in the classroom. He points out the impressive nature of an athlete; including the drive to be the best he or she can be; the strong work ethic; and the understanding of commitment and sacrifice that is required. All of these traits, when properly motivated, can lead to great academic success as well.
Most coaches will say that do all they can to get their athletes to the next level. They push them to be the best athlete they can be. They hold them accountable for their effort and performance; however, if they only focus on the “drive to the Super Bowl” and not on the “ticket of admission” they’re not truly preparing their athletes to take that next step as a college athlete. Coaches have a tremendous amount of influence on young athletes. It’s the coach’s motivation that can push a good athlete to be great. That same motivation can push a student athlete to achieve great academic success.
Coaching Tips to Emphasize the Link between Academics and Athletics:
Speak their language. As Dr. Harrison mentioned in our interview, athletes already know how to study film; prepare for opponents; and commit to succeed. Coaches should encourage young athletes to apply these same skills academically.
Promote teamwork. Dr. Harrison encourages his student athletes to take their team mentality into the classroom. When a teammate fails to give full effort, or is doing something wrong on the field or court, the other teammates hold them accountable and encourage them. This same concept should apply in the classroom. If a student is missing class, falling behind, or failing to put forth effort, his or her teammates should hold them accountable and encourage them. The accountability and support of a team can yield tremendous results.
Adjust priorities. Coaches play a significant role in molding a young person. Many young athletes will adopt the priorities created by their coach. Create the mindset early on that academics and athletics go hand in hand. To achieve success as an athlete, and receive that coveted athletic scholarship, work must be put in academically as well.
Set expectations. A coach would never let an athlete get by with a mediocre effort on the field. This same expectation should be set for the effort given in the classroom. When a coach does this, then he or she is setting up their athletes to be successful at the next level.