Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Student- Athletes and Sense of Self

          Athletes are lucky to have the support of their team as they navigate college. As an athlete, I was immediately socially successful as I entered the college community. The freshman recruits and I had been in contact since summer so throughout the first days of school, meals were never lonely. Athletic activity is always a conversation starter among athletes and soon, I became a part of the wide network of Harvard athletes. Common experiences and a lifestyle distinct from that of non- athletes at Harvard make the athletic community strong. Daily greetings among athletes include remarks on fatigue, hunger, and a lack of time working against an increasingly lengthy to- do list. Despite the negativity of such conversations, these comments are often delivered with a smile and people across athletic teams form strong relationships based upon these mutual struggles. I am often invited to parties and other social gatherings on campus because I am an athlete.
          However, this distinct community of athletes often isolates the students within it and discriminates against those outside of it. Stereotypes about student- athletes cast an image of academically incompetent students who are in college to party and play their respective sport stealing spots at colleges and universities from more deserving students (“Excellence without a Soul” Harry Lewis). However, in being part of the Lightweight rowing team, a group of mostly recruited athletes, I have found that the opposite is true: athletes in constant pursuit of perfection in their sport are also academically ambitious (“Identification of Key Factors Student- Athletes Perceived to be important to the College Student Athlete Retention Process” Christina A. Rivera).  In being isolated from the greater Harvard community, athletic teams on campus become a network of support for each other. Mentorships among teammates allow student- athletes to succeed academically and socially while in college and later in their careers (“Investigating the Relationships Among Peer Athlete Mentor Leadership Behaviors, Mentoring Functions, and Perceptions of Satisfaction” Matt D. Hoffman). Despite academic strength stemming from inter- team support dynamics on athletic teams, student- athletes are still not seen as students.
          Common perceptions of what athletes are like can make class selection and club affiliations difficult. Harvard professor and student- athlete advocate, Harry Lewis discusses perceptions of athletes at Harvard in his book, ““Excellence without a Soul.” He wrote that athletes are “… accused by adherents of … not being real students, of having their own distinctive ‘jock culture’” (“Excellence without a Soul” Harry Lewis). Harry goes on to describe a professor who excluded athletes from his course because, “they would not be committed enough to his course work.” Often, athletes are forced into simple concentrations and are not chosen for extracurricular activities because their commitment to their sport is viewed as their only value on campus. This unfortunate reality of a student- athletes’ existence is what makes mentorship among teammates so critical. New college athletes can depend on older mentors to help them find classes, activities, and direction outside of rowing that academic authorities cannot provide.
          In “Excellence without a soul,” Lewis also discusses the value of athleticism in academic work. He says 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.” Lewis speaks to the character values that intense athletic activity can instill in young people: understanding of competition, patience, and persistence. These same characteristics are evident in the most competitive students and demonstrate the injustice in excluding athletes from academic opportunity. It is true that Harvard athletes and students alike, “…have many talents and are devoted to the pursuit of extraordinary excellence in at least one of them.” Student- Athletes are people who pursue excellence and in doing so, represent standards of excellence imposed on them by their team and by their school. The “student- athlete” label is a complement: we can be identified for our unique and continual drive to achieve excellence.
          Sports teams are often the most visible representation of a college and a source of pride for the school community. Student- athletes represent their school every time they compete. This sense of responsibility for the image of the school forces student- athletes to adhere to certain behavioral norms enforced by coaches and upperclassmen. In her interview, Ada noted that members of RVL should, “take our team seriously so other teams will take us seriously.” As athletes strive to be respectful and responsible to best represent themselves, their school, and their team, they also develop a sense of self- worth. Projecting confidence is part of competition and when practiced daily, becomes a part of life.

“Excellence without a Soul” by Harry Lewis


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