Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Administration and Athletes: A Review of Relevant Literature

          Harvard students are a unique faction of student athletes as we face increasingly challenging academic stakes with less support from staff and coaches than student athletes at any other Division One college. Other schools provide tutors, specialized dining, and guaranteed centrally located housing. Harvard provides little to no infrastructure in support of athletes and so, student athletes often have to trek from the Quad at 5 am to get to practice (before embarking on the same class schedule and work load as every other Harvard student), struggle academically in private, and spend thousands of dollars each semester to buy food that meets nutrition which their sport demands.
          Professor Harry Lewis addresses the problems Harvard student athletes face in his book “Excellence without a Soul.” As a Harvard professor, Lewis has credibility in his claims that student- athletes are underserved by the University, particularly in their partnerships with faculty. He notes that “some professors scorn athletes because they care so much about practicing, perfecting, and winning. These same professors want their students to compete for academic honors, as they themselves have done. But—unless they were college athletes themselves—they do not see a connection between the games they have spent their lives winning and the athletic games their students are playing.” So, is it misunderstanding by professors of the nature of college- level athletics that diminishes the student- athlete experience at Harvard? Should Harvard professors be forced to work more closely with teams to form formal mentorships with students? Should Harvard install some sort of quota system to ensure that student- athletes are able to take every class they choose to enroll in? Lewis says “Both the dean’s and the professor’s stereotypes about the worth of athletics are extremes. And both miss a characteristic Harvard athletes share with their less athletic peers: They have many talents and are devoted to the pursuit of extraordinary excellence in at least one of them.” The story he tells about Harvard’s student- athletes is one of untold excellence: Harvard fails to recognize and reward “20 percent” of the student body who experience a more physically demanding college experience than anyone else on campus. What should the school do to honor this excellence? As a Harvard professor who thinks Harvard is not doing enough to support athletes, Harry Lewis is an invaluable resource in supporting the argument that Harvard should do more.

            As Harvard currently does not provide resources to support athletes in their academic work, it is understandable that student- athletes often struggle to keep up with classwork as practices can occur twice a day every day for more than two hours at a time. With less free time to actually do work, how could an athlete manage to fully comprehend their coursework? “College Student Athlete Success Both In and Out of the Classroom” discusses the implications of student- athlete life in a narrative that supports Universities in providing resources exclusive to student- athletes. Since athletes “face huge time commitments, physically grueling workouts, a high- profile existence, and demanding expectations. Even in the case of an academically gifted student, the combination of academic and athletic requirements can cause incredible strain” (19). In this piece, Carodine, Almond, and Gratto discuss concerns surrounding mental health that make it increasingly difficult for student- athletes to succeed academically. “Student athletes must … make decisions about a career, identify and modify personal values, form effective interpersonal relationships, develop self- esteem and integrity, and achieve interdependence and autonomy” (20). The overwhelming nature of these demands might overcome a student- athlete entirely if they do not have the right support.
“College Student Athlete Success Both In and Out of the Classroom” describes some college that “have realized their obligation to provide a supportive environment as soon as possible for student athletes to succeed … [and] in recognition of the unique needs of student athletes, institutions have begun to enhance their support services programs” (21). The mental health of some student- athletes rests on their assurance that they have resources which will allow them to play their sport and also attain a meaningful degree. Without such services, student- athletes may begin to feel isolated as they are forced to take easier courses that comply with their demanding schedule and lack of free time. “A student athlete recruited with the opportunity to earn a degree while participating in intercollegiate sports has great time demands and is expected to have a high level of time commitment. The disconnect to campus that this creates can result in a negative experience for the student” (20). “a significant number of student athletes, particularly in the sports of football and basketball, report ‘frequent’ or ‘occasional’ feelings of isolation … athletic departments should intensify efforts to encourage student athletes to build relationships outside the department” (21). Student- athletes need expansive support to thrive in college— “a model student athlete support program … should include academic support, career counseling, and personal development for student athletes.” (31) Without it, these students can be expected to struggle mentally and academically.

          The initial condition of almost every college freshman is one of unease, isolation, and confusion. Most colleges provide resources to guide freshman in their daily life as they transition to college. “High School to College Transition: A Profile of the Stressors, Physical and Psychological Health Issues that Affect the First- Year On- Campus College Student” by Terence Hicks and Samuel Heastie describes stressors that impact every first- year student’s academic experience. They note that “Life transitions, such as moving away from home to college, create valuable opportunities for growth and change while also potentially heightening self-doubt and disappointment, and even encouraging self- defeating habits” (143). What happens when a huge transition like moving to college is paired with overwhelming demands of college level athletics?
          Athletes are lucky to have teammates to support and guide them in their early transition. Hicks and Heastie claim “Peer relations are critical for support, confirmation of one's identity, opportunities for socialization, and other dimensions of college adjustment. For example, Pierce, Sarason, and Sarason (1991) found that college friends' support was the most consistent predictor of self-reported loneliness. Langston and Cantor (1989) also found that many students, who experience the transition from high school to college as painful, reported disappointment in the domain of social interactions and friendships” (144). If we work to strengthen mentorship among teammates, can we combat issues with the mental health of student athletes that Harvard does not address?
          “The Importance of Mentoring in the Development of Coaches and Athletes” gives specific evidence to the argument that mentorship is important to developing athletes specifically. Importantly, athletes who experience mentorship and have “mentors acting as confidants, counselors, or positive role models reported a higher degree of comfort to express emotions and commit to relationships” (270). Mentorship prepares “athletes for life outside of sport. Being aware of and sensitive to athletes’ personal needs and interests can notably enhance their learning experiences. Furthermore, mentors themselves can derive lessons and satisfaction from their mentorship relationships” (276) Understanding these perceived benefits of mentorship is critical to employing a peer mentorship framework. Through the narratives of these works, I can confidently conclude that athletes need support from administrators in addition to the support they receive from their peers in order to feel safe as they transition to college and college level athletics.

“Excellence without a Soul” by Harry Lewis
"College Student Athlete Success Both In and Out of the Classroom" by Keith Carodine, Keith F. Almond, Katherine K. Gratto
"The Importance of Mentoring in the Development of Coaches and Athletes" byGordon A. Bloom, Nathalie Durand- Bush, Robert J. Schinke, and John H. Salmela
"High School to College Transition: A Profile of the Stressors, Physical and Psychological Health Issues that Affect the First- Year On- Campus College Student" by Terence Hicks, EdD and Samuel Heastie, EdD


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