The transition to college is hard for every freshman: new people, a new place, and demanding academics at Harvard can be overwhelming. However, athletes have access to teammates who can provide guidance in managing the college experience. In this autoethnographic study on the Varsity Lightweight Women’s rowing team, it can be observed that these sort of peer- to- peer relationships generally happen organically despite formal infrastructure (the RVL family system) in place to foster mentorship. Yet, for lightweight rowers at Harvard, relationships with upperclassmen are critical for younger girls to gain confidence in dealing with weight issues, managing classes, and navigating Harvard social life. Without such guidance, girls face negative consequences and even leave the team.
A person’s mental health can make or break their success in whatever it is they do. When faced with grueling workouts six days a week multiple times each day, the performance of college level athletes is often dependent on their mental state. Stress around academic work plagues the mind while physical activity plagues the body. How could this lifestyle be manageable without help?
Before even arriving on campus, freshmen on the Women’s Ice Hockey team are guaranteed mentorship by a senior who is assigned to take care of them through their college transition. This system yields a positive team environment and a sense of safety for younger girls. While RVL collectively provides a similar sense of safety for incoming freshmen throughout their transition, upperclassmen often choose to take responsibility for freshmen. However, not everyone will form informal relationships and so, it would be beneficial to employ a more formal system to connect underclassmen with upperclassmen. A buddy system similar to the Hockey team’s system would be ideal but RVL families could be a platform for more engaged mentorship since the infrastructure already exists. If these small groups met each week, or even each month, the team would be much tighter knit. In rowing, building trust is a critical part of creating fast boats. These relationships are not just important to transitioning freshmen, they will also yield the right team environment for success in the sport.
Although it is critical for student athletes to form mentorship relationships among themselves, the school administration needs to do a better job being an authoritative support system for athletes. Upperclassmen should not be an incoming freshman’s greatest advisor when there are paid professionals available to do the job. Athletes serve each other athletes but in representing the school in competition, athletes also serve the school. With greater support from administration, the feeling of safety which athletes find among each other could be found in the academic community as well. The truth is that partnerships among non- athletes and faculty happen more often than partnerships between athletes and faculty. These partnerships will not exist until the administration chooses to provide athletes with greater academic support so that athletes are equipped to take courses they would otherwise be deterred from enrolling in. Free tutoring for athletes is a tangible resource for Harvard to provide that has been proven effective by other Division One schools, including Stanford.
Of course, I am partial to lightweight rowing because I am a lightweight rower, but I truly believe that the size restriction, intensity of training, and intensity of competition makes it one of the toughest sports to participate in. Marina Felix so eloquently expressed this truth, noting that “the struggle that lightweight rowers endure makes for the fairest racing across any sport—and so, come race day, it’s anyone’s game. Who’s the fittest, strongest, who is going to row the best race, and who might, despite all of those factors, be insane enough to throw themselves into “the wall” that other athletes only sometimes hit, in order to cross that line first?” Each week in spring, the team travels up and down the East coast to face other lightweight teams. Indeed, after a week of intense training and days of starving to weigh in, it is a feat that lightweight women can still race to win. But there is nothing like the feeling of utmost pain in the middle of a race when stopping is not an option and all you can do is fight to get your boat ahead—you and the girls in the boat. For rowers, teammates are not just friends, mentors, and academic resources… at a certain point in each race, they are a lifeline. Investing in these relationships by improving formal mentorship relationships and creating better academic resources will allow lightweight rowers to find trust in each other and be even more fearless on race day.
Note: I specifically recommend that...
1. We use the RVL family system to create a more formalized buddy system where each incoming freshman is assigned to a specific upperclassmen "buddy" who will reach out to them before they arrive on campus and continue to check in with them for the entire year. Also, RVL families should actually meet and act as they are intended to.
2. Harvard's administration provide free tutoring to athletes in an effort to begin to reconcile the athletic and academic communities at Harvard.