Program Development: Athletic Performance for Student Athletes
It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of the game. Sometimes the best athletes, however, are not natural students. Or, they could be placing more emphasis on sport than academics. Athletic directors and coaching staff have a responsibility to redirect these students and help them find success both on the field and in the classroom before it becomes a problem, teaching the need for balance between athletic and academic success.
Chris O’Donnell, athletic director at Loyola High School, says academics are very important for student athletes and at his school the athletic department makes that known.
“When students come to Loyola they are taught that we have a three-pronged approach to education: 1. Academics 2. Co-curricular 3. Spiritual. None of the three more important than the other. But we tell students that academics may be the reason they don’t play sports or are involved in clubs or other activities.”
Like many Catholic institutions Loyola is a competitive school, one that turns away hundreds of applicants each year. Because of this, many students come in knowing how to excel academically but as sports become more intense student athletes sometimes struggle to find balance.
It is important to make athletes aware of the potential athletic consequences of poor academic performance. At Loyola, O’Donnell says students know they have to concentrate and focus on their studies or there will be consequences to athletics and potentially other areas of their school life.
“Our school tells players that while they should believe in themselves, they need to be as well rounded as possible because they are going to want as many doors as possible to get them into the college they want to play at,” O’Donnell says.
A good way to combat potential issues is to get ahead of the problem. At Loyola there is a peer-tutoring program for students who find themselves in trouble academically. Teacher also keep mandatory office hours so students can meet and get help in classes when needed.
The school emphasizes the importance of these hours by creating a gap of time that all students can participate. No athletics—games or practices—are planned during that 30 minutes meaning no student athlete has an excuse to miss office hours if they need the help. In fact, if they are waiting around for sport to start, they may find taking advantage of office hours is a good use of that free time.
Coaches are informed of this policy and adjust accordingly. All sports begin no earlier than 15 minutes after office hours are done and sports that take longer to get ready for, such as football, push practices back even further to accommodate the free period and give students the time they need to prioritize academics.
“You need coaches to be involved in the academic lives of their students. At Loyola, many teachers will seek out the coaches of students that are having problems in their classes and let the coach become part of the solution,” O’Donnell says. By working together, the whole school shows a united front behind the student’s success.
Together a plan can be made. Solutions can be born out of a simple comment from a coach asking if the student needs help and making that student aware the coach is in the know on the academic situation. In some cases accommodations can be made to prioritize schoolwork over practice when the situation calls for it.
“You want teachers to feel comfortable to use coaches as a resource because coaches spend more time with student athletes and can be a great resource when teachers need another source to help motivate a student,” O’Donnell says.
As an athletic director, O’Donnell plays a role, too. The main collaboration may happen between coach, student and teacher, but the athletic director is sometimes the go-between. In many cases O’Donnell has connected teachers with coaches so they can find solutions together because these are the people who spend the most time with the student athlete and that puts them in the best position to help.
Some student athletes simply need a reality check. Those who have a potential future in sports or have tunnel vision when it comes to athletics can do themselves a disservice by not considering all possible outcomes. O’Donnell says being honest is key and he sometimes tells athletes that one serious injury could turn them from an athlete to a full-time student.
“They may not believe it because many teenagers feel invincible, but most of our coaches have plenty of students that are highly recruited out of high school that only play for a year or two and then are out of there sport,” he says.