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Behind the Backpack revisited: Addressing the needs of student-athletes

Last quarter, I looked into the subject of what it means to be a student-athlete at Stanford. After taking a class this past quarter taught by Dr. Hans Steiner on the mental health of collegiate athletics, I felt that it would be worthwhile to delve further into the specific problems such as school versus sport, coach-player dynamics, mental health, nutrition and injuries that arise for student-athletes, and how the Athletic Department and the Athletic Academic Resource Center (AARC) address those problems.

***

Of the 213 athletes from 25 varsity sports that responded to a survey conducted by Psych 78Q: The Mental Health of Collegiate Athletes, 83 percent wished that their team had a sports nutritionist, 73 percent said they wanted a sports-specific psychologist and only about 40 percent agreed that they felt comfortable approaching their coach with questions and concerns. The Emotional Well-Being and Assessment of Campus Resources Survey — initiated by senior rower Christina Bax — led to a presentation to various members of the Athletic and Psychiatry Departments and the AARC on how the student-athlete experience could be improved.

It’s no secret that student-athletes often have to miss class time, midterms and finals in order to compete for their teams. Some professors are accommodating and are able to work things out with the student; however, other discussions require outside intervention — that’s where the AARC comes in — to mitigate the tension between academic and athletic pursuits.

(SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

Football players from Stanford’s incoming class of 2006-2007 were reported by the NCAA as having a graduation rate of 95 percent. Although some decide to delay their graduation to join the NFL, many come back to Stanford to finish their degrees–some even in the midst of raising a family–which says a lot about the types of student-athletes that Stanford attracts.  (SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

“We are uniquely aware of the different challenges that student-athletes face on campus,” said Austin Lee ‘02, an advisor for the AARC and former Cardinal football player. “Our role and expertise is to advise student-athletes in the context of how Stanford students should be advised but with a knowledge of what their lives are like as student-athletes and all of the NCAA rules and regulations that they have to adhere to with their academic progress.”

Besides coping with varying levels of accommodations from professors, athletes must also find the time to fit in required classes for their major between practices. Often, class times are set for departmental reasons and cannot be adjusted, so it becomes crucial for the AARC advisors to have an open conversation between coaches and players in order to create opportunities for students to take those classes, whether it be taking the class another quarter, shifting practice times, or staying on an extra quarter after graduation to complete the major.

The accommodations vary by team, however. A sport with as many athletes as football must set parameters for practice time; however, a sport like golf, with only 10 players, might have practice times adjusted to the athletes’ schedules. Men’s volleyball, for example, holds practices from 7-10 p.m. so that the players have fewer restrictions on what classes they can take.

“We [at the AARC] do as much as we can to educate athletes about [NCAA] requirements and at the same time put systems in place that allow them to have a similar experience to the rest of the student population. So we don’t have priority registration for athletes here, they may ask for it, but they’re never going to get it,” Lee said. “If there isn’t flexibility [with a section time] then maybe you don’t take the class that quarter. But we have heard stories where a professor would shift those times or consult with us.”

Lee asserts that because athletes are forced to manage their time so wisely in order to get assignments done and study for exams in their small amount of down time, many professors confess that some of their most organized and dedicated students are athletes.

According to NCAA statistics released on Stanford’s incoming class of 2006-2007, the student-athlete graduation rate was 93 percent, just two percent shy of that of the entire student population. That number even excludes athletes who come back to Stanford to complete their degree after competing professionally. Lee explained that he’s even advised some of his former teammates who have returned to the Farm.

“The majority of the faculty is understanding and respects the student-athlete and is willing to work with them. They earned their way into Stanford through the admissions process, so it’s not like they’re dumb jocks taking up spots,” said senior associate athletic director and former Stanford basketball player Earl Koberlein ’87. “If there was ever an academic scandal here or student-athletes not graduating then we lose all credibility and we have a lot harder time. It’s incumbent upon us and the student-athletes to keep those standards up and graduation rates and going to class, being integrated into the classroom.”

One student-athlete astutely pointed out that “we are student-athletes, not athlete-students” and so many of them place the greatest emphasis on schoolwork. Often, the ambition of a student-athlete will lead him or her to overload on activities in order to take advantage of Stanford, taking on extra units, working in a lab, writing a thesis, shadowing as an intern, and TA-ing in addition to practice, as one women’s rower did this year.

Ultimately, the load of stress could affect performance as well, which is why it is crucial that coaches understand these pressures for athletes to perform both athletically and academically. One athlete claimed that much of the suffering of student-athletes stems from dissatisfaction with coaches because there isn’t an open forum for communication.

“The senior athletic directors who hire and oversee the coaches, part of their job is to make sure the coaches that they bring to campus embrace the experiences that the students are going to have and the commitments academically,” Lee said. “If you’re not going to embrace the opportunities that the students have [outside of sport] then it’s going to be difficult for you as a coach.”

The associate athletic directors oversee the relationships among the players, coaches, and trainers within the teams that they are responsible for, encouraging open discussions to monitor the overall student-athlete experience. They work to look into any issues that may arise with the student-athlete in regards to their sport or coaches and also work with the coaches on the overall functioning of the team.

“It’s all about communication from the coaches and the athletes and I think that’s a challenge because some student-athletes, especially when you’re 18 years old, can come in and say ‘wow, there’s an administrator that I don’t really know and I’m intimidated by my coach and I don’t know who to talk to,’” Koberlein said. “And so I’m at their practices and I break down that barrier.”

Injuries are another topic of concern for athletes and a difficult conversation to have with coaches. Athletes push their limits in regards to injuries, often ignoring their injuries for fear of losing playing time or his or her position, as was the case for one rower who rowed through an injury and straight into a broken rib.

“I don’t care if you’re Andrew Luck and it’s the fourth quarter, if the doctor says you’re out, then you’re out and they [the medical staff] have the ultimate say,” Koberlein said. “Any student-athlete who is driven wants to play, and so they’ll mask injuries because they want to play. It’s intrinsic that they’re going to try to fight through pain because they think, ‘I don’t want to sit the bench because it’s a big game.’”

(ZETONG LI/The Stanford Daily)

Women’s volleyball is among 14 Stanford varsity athletic teams to have received Division I Academic Progress Rate Public Recognition Awards from the NCAA this year. (ZETONG LI/The Stanford Daily)

Because of this, students of Psych 78Q suggested that athletics coaches be required to take a class so that people in positions of power might better understand the mental health issues surrounding student-athletes and the pressures that they are put under to perform on and off the field.

“We do our best to fit into the larger infrastructure of campus resources for mental health. We continue to evaluate opportunities to provide further support in sport psychology,” said senior associate athletic director of external relations and former Stanford golfer Kevin Blue ‘05. “We try to stay on top of this. We had a coaches meeting this morning with a speaker with ideas and concepts that coaching staff can continue to use and work on as far as being able to develop resilience in their teams.”

There may be the perception among student-athletes that the Athletic Department works for the University in order to maintain the standards of excellence of Stanford Athletics and to ensure more NCAA titles and Directors’ Cups. However, the athletes are not just tools whereby athletics may accomplish those goals; everyone in the Athletic Department is put in place to better the student-athlete experience and to serve their needs, first and foremost.

“We wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for the student-athletes,” Koberlein said. “That’s how I see my role: as a resource, and how to make their goals come true, their aspirations and their experience here a great one…There are about 25 former Stanford student-athletes that work in athletics as either coaches or staff. I think we become empathetic to what they are going through. When I was going here, I had no idea that there were 200 people in the athletic department working for you if you were a student-athlete.”

The Athletic Department and the AARC are the hub of resources for the student-athletes to take advantage of and to either assist the student-athletes athletically and academically or refer them elsewhere. In terms of nutrition and mental issues, athletes are referred to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) or Dr. Lisa Post in the Department of Psychiatry, with whom the Athletic Department has a contract to serve the needs of athletes.

“There is more and more recognition that the needs of athletes are special and that they have a job in addition to being in college and the pressures of the media is laying a lot more emphasis on sports and a lot more pressure on the athletes. Stanford in general is a high-pressure place,” Post said. “We are hoping to promote a more organized, umbrella program that will have a sports psychologist working with teams.”

There currently exists a disconnect between the mental and physical treatment of athletes on campus even though much of sports is mental and played out in the mind. Through suggestions made in the survey conducted by Psych 78Q, athletes requested that athletic nutritionists and clinical sports psychiatrists be hired to work within the athletics department specifically and be as natural to meet with as a trainer or AARC advisor. It takes a “one-of-a-kind recipe,” as one athlete put it, to be a Stanford student-athlete and so diverse, targeted, sport specific resources are necessary to work with them.

The body is the main tool in order for student-athletes to perform at their highest level and many athletes admitted that they didn’t know how to properly fuel their bodies for the amount of sport that they do on a daily basis.

“We have our Director of Sports Performance, Brandon Marcello, and a number of our trainers are familiar with that but we don’t have a full-time nutritionist,” Koberlein said. “A lot of teams want full-time nutritionists on staff so that they can have more interaction with nutritionists regarding meals on the road, pre-game meals and the ultimate healthy diet for that student-athlete. A football offensive lineman is going to eat differently than a swimmer, so that’s another area we are going to update as well.”

In addition to a team sports nutritionist, having an athletic mental health professional on staff would help to “find solutions to the mental blocks, fears, frustrations and stressors that arise when performing, learn how to manage performance anxiety, develop coping skills to deal with pressures and help to create a balanced life,” according to the suggestions made to the Athletic Department in Psych 78Q.

Many of the frustrations that athletes feel are not known, according to Dr. Steiner, because of athletes’ high levels of reprehensive defensiveness — the ability to minimize adversity and move on.

(MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

Stanford student-athletes have earned 20 consecutive Directors’ Cups, NCAA titles for the past 37 years, and countless conference titles. To earn all the hardware, Stanford student-athletes undergo mental and physical stress, miss classes, cope with pressure from coaches and the media, however, more than 90 percent claim they would do it over in order to play their sport at Stanford.  (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

For all of the complaints that athletes have, though, known or unknown, the survey results showed that happiness and self-esteem levels are higher for athletes. Despite the stresses, complaints and high levels of commitment, the majority of student-athletes are very satisfied with their time at Stanford.

“It’s our belief and philosophy that precisely the challenge of balancing and fully engaging in the complementary experiences of trying to win championships and trying to be a leading scholar…turns out and helps refine and shape citizens that are going to be ultimately very productive as leaders in our society,” Blue said. “The rigor involved in this is substantial, but that’s a helpful formative experience as well, and when properly supported, which we [the Athletic Department] believe we do a good job of, we think it is a very strong positive for the student-athlete experience and something that is the hallmark of what we do at Stanford.”

The athletic department, the coaches, trainers, psychologists, professors and academic advisors are all put in place to benefit the student-athlete and are ready and willing to help in any way possible. It’s just a matter of the student-athlete realizing this and acting upon those resources when necessary.

“Part of our job is to make sure that we are out in front of the students and reminding them of what they should be doing,” Lee said. “They need to be asking questions and making connections on campus and that’s how they’re going to make the most of their experience here. If you’re asking questions of your professors and TAs and advisors and athletic directors then you aren’t going to be surprised and you’re going to get to the right place.”

But when sport is the first thing on student-athletes’ minds in the morning and last thing on their minds at night, that’ s not necessarily an easy task.

Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Ashley Westhem

Ashley Westhem is the voice of Stanford women’s basketball for KZSU as well as The Daily’s beat writer for the team. She has been a desk editor for three volumes and plans to take over as Managing Editor of Sports next volume and aid in KZSU’s coverage of football. She is an American Studies major from Lake Tahoe, Calif., and aspires to work in sports administration, to positively affect the lives of student-athletes and the relationship between the athletic and academic spheres of universities.
  • Candid One

    Thank you, Ashley, for this excellent follow-on exposé of this behind-the-scenes world of Stanford Athletics. Stanford is mixed bag of striving toward excellence in its sports program. On one hand, Stanford is a small school, which offers a much less unwieldy environment than schools with the size of Cal, USC, or UCLA. On the other hand, Stanford has many more varsity sports teams than other schools of somewhat similar academic stature. Nominally, SU has 36 varsity sports, Cal has 27, USC has 21, and UCLA has 22 varsity sports teams. All of those others have at least twice the undergrad population of Stanford. While Stanford is apparently hosting a model situation, let’s hope that the larger institutions can find effective ways to scale such admirable efforts.