Madness in College Athletics Isn't Confined to March

Madness in College Athletics Isn't Confined to March

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The basketball arena is packed with a sellout crowd of over 13,000 cheering fans. The television cameras capture the game for the entire nation. A horn blares, and the game, which was supposed to be a blowout, is now in overtime. The pressure is huge, because if the underdog wins, it would make history. Both teams are anxious, but focused, knowing that one misstep, misjudgment, or misfire could make or break the season, and everything they have worked for all year.

Such was the scene during the recent ‘March Madness” game, between #4 seeded Syracuse, and #13 seeded Vermont, a.k.a. the ‘Cinderella Story,’ of this year’s NCAA tourney. The Catamounts, who were not expected to make much noise during the tournament, opened it with a bang, after securing a win over powerhouse Syracuse in the final seconds of overtime.

Now imagine, a player on Vermont’s super squad. He has spent the past few years working nonstop to get to this point in his basketball career, and it has finally arrived. However, after the cheering, congratulations, and celebrations, he must go back to school, and finish studying for midterms, which happens to coincide with the post-season schedule.

When fans watch March Madness, or any other college sporting event, it is safe to say that most don’t look at their TVs, and think about how the athletes will spend the bus ride home trying to catch up on the schoolwork they missed so they could compete in the away game.

However, this is the reality of a college student-athlete. There are constant obligations to fulfill, and expectations to be met, on every level, and most of the time, the reality is stressful.

“Athletes have additional time constraints, and pressure to perform not only academically, but athletically….and then there’s the stress that their body undergoes,” said Lauren Haas, director of student-athlete support services at Northeastern University.

Haas also pointed out that student-athletes face a strain to try and lead the life of a normal college student, even though they have additional requirements. Student-athletes often have similar obligations to the average student, in the classroom, and in the workforce.

Academically, athletes must complete the same amount of schoolwork as their peers, although they have less time to complete it, and they miss classes to participate in scheduled competitions. Most professors do not offer an extension on the workload.

Financially, many athletes have jobs to offset tuition costs, which they must juggle into a busy schedule.

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Athletes who are not on scholarship are often economically hard-pressed, because they do not have free time in which to make money.

“I have six dollars to my name right now, and I don’t have time for a job, which means I have to ask my parents for money, and I feel bad about it. I has work study jobs last year, but I had to call in all the time, because I was too tired to go,” said Kristin Smith, a member of the Northeastern women’s crew team, who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. every morning for practice.

Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore, was a walk on to the team her freshman year, and gets no money for being an athlete.

However, despite external factors, such as academic and financial strain, many athletes feel the most stress from the pressure to please others.

“There’s pressure because you want to become a starter, or contributor to the program, and do well not only on the field, but in academics, so you have to prove yourself to your coaches and academic advisors, and professors…and you’re also trying to represent the university well,” said Jason Khouri, 22, a junior on the Northeastern football team.

In one study done by Deborah Yow, James Humphrey, and William Bowden, appearing in the book “Stress in College Athletics: Causes, Consequences, Coping,” student athletes were asked to fill in the blank “Stress is _____.”

Varying responses included, “The pressure you feel to perform to the best of your ability,” “When the mind realizes you have so much to do, and the body realizes it is physically impossible,” and “ the frustration of having sports stress that piles up with school stress.”

After the poll was complete, researchers came to the overwhelming conclusion that the major stressor for student-athletes was the failure to meet other people’s expectations.

Yet when taken into account all of the expectations an athlete might meet in one day, who wouldn’t be stressed?

“Athletes have so many people’s expectations pinned on them; coaches, parents, teammates, professors, siblings….and somewhere in there, their own.” said Linda Carmody- Kaczor, Director of Training at Northeastern University’s Center for Health and Counseling services. Carmody-Kaczor works with most of Northeastern’s athletes who seek counseling, and a few times a week, exclusively advises athletes in Northeastern’s Student Athlete Support Services center.

Carmody-Kaczor said athletes concerns are wide ranging, and can vary depending on the “status” of the athlete; “status” meaning whether or not the athlete is the star of the team, if they are on a scholarship, or whether they’re an underclassmen versus an upperclassmen.

“I feel a lot of pressure to run well at every meet, because I’m on a full scholarship, so I feel like I need to live up to that, so that I can keep my money….I also don’t want to let my teammates down,” said Ashley Wilson, 21, a sophomore on the Northeastern women’s track team.

Other stress-inducing issues included career ending injuries, a lost sense of unlimited potential, and, for freshman athletes, finding a place in college athletics. In high school, many freshman athletes were the star of their team, but in college, they may not even make the
starting lineup.

“Many athletes come in having been the best one on their team, and then they get here, and it’s like they used to be a big fish in a small pond, and now they’re a little fish in a big pond,” said Haas.

“You feel intimidated when you first come in [as a freshman], because people are much more physically developed than you are….you weigh 220, and the guy you’re competing against is 260, so physically, you just don’t match up with him,” said Khouri.

Stress on athletes can lead to issues such as poor performance on the field and in the classroom, as well as additional issues, such as alcohol or steroid use, and mental and emotional problems.

Carmody-Kaczor said the stress associated with athletics can be positive or negative, depending on how and athlete decides to cope with it.

“I am biased, but I think psychotherapy is a good way [to cope]….also relaxation, time management, and meditation work…but some athletes find less-healthy ways of coping, such as drinking and partying.”

Although both Haas and Carmody-Kaczor know that many athletes drink and party as a means of stress relief, Carmody-Kaczor thinks that a certain amount of these behaviors can be expected from athletes. It's when the drinking and partying becomes excessive, then it’s a problem.

“It’s a sub-cultural norm….studies have shown that athletes typically start drinking at a younger age than non-athletes,” said Carmody- Kaczor, who attributed the outcome of these studies to the fact that athletes tend to be “risk taking, sensation oriented individuals.”

She also said, however, that athletes are more likely to be “binge drinkers,” and that when drinking reaches this level, it becomes a serious issue, that needs addressing.

To help athletes deal with stress in a healthy manner, most colleges have comprehensive supports services for their athletes, which encompass a wide range of areas. Services such as academic advising, tutoring, counseling, and physical therapy are standard on most campuses that support athletic programs.

At Northeastern, all these programs are available. Haas said that most athletes use the student athlete supports center’s services to help cope with time management issues, and the struggle to keep up with academics rigors.

“The biggest issue is trying to find a balance, especially for the younger students-the freshman and sophomores. They’re more academically and athletically challenged, and pressured on all levels, than they were in high school,” said Haas.

Haas also pointed out that many younger athletes must deal with similar issues to other non- athlete incoming students, such as homesickness, and feeling out of place. She said that these athletes are the ones that usually have the hardest time dealing with the many expectations of being a college athlete.

However, Haas also said that freshman athletes especially, can have an advantage over their peers because of the services available to them.
For example, study hall, according to Haas, which “is required for all freshman athletes,” is a program which obligates all freshmen athletes, as well as athletes showing poor academic progress, to spend a certain number of hours per week in a “study hall” setting, doing homework and studying with other athletes. Attendance is strictly monitored, and reported to coaches on a regular basis, to ensure all athletes manage their academic workload.

“I wish I could send some of the non-athletes I see to study hall,” said Carmody-Kaczor.

In addition to required study-time, the N.U. Student Athlete Support Services Center provides tutoring and mentoring services, exclusive to athletes, as well as various “life-skills” seminars throughout the year, to help athletes reach their potential on all levels.

Athletes agree that these services are a big advantage to playing college sports.

“I hated going to study hall, but when I went, I always got my work done,” said Smith.

In addition to athletic support services, Carmody-
Kaczor says that there are various other advantages to playing college sports.

“It gives students who normally couldn’t afford college, a means to do so, through scholarships,” said Carmody-Kaczor, who also cited a sense of “camaraderie,” as a big advantage.

From an athlete’s perspective, the sense of camaraderie is a particularly big benefit.

“It gives you a niche, especially in a big school,” said Smith.

The “niche” factor can be a big relief for freshman athletes, who don’t have to deal with the issue of making new friends, because a group of friends is provided for them through their teammates.

“It’s an instant support system,” said Wilson.

Carmody-Kaczor said that athletes in a school also tend to stick together, because they understand the pressures and concerns of other athletes.

“The hockey team dates the track team, and the football team dates the volleyball team,” she said, giving an example of how different teams tend to interact with one another.

For most athletes, the benefits of playing college sports outweigh the stressors, and student-athletes see the added stress as simply a price they must pay for being an athlete.

Khouri summed up the feelings of most student-athletes, about the stress and benefits of playing college sports.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. There’s a reason people play sports. If it weren’t fun, no one would do it,” he said.
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