Thinking on Your Feet: Engaging Student Athletes in Academic Work

In the summer of 2014 Leah Eickoff embarked on an exhausting undergraduate research project. A Public Health concentrator and an accomplished distance runner at Brown University, Leah was interested in determining the effectiveness of a fitness program at a non-profit organization committed to improving the lives of veterans. When thinking about a research design, Leah relied on her years of experiences as a runner. She thus purposely chose to avoid seated interviews with participants, opting instead to run side-by-side, allowing conversation to flow more comfortably. Leah ran with her IPod strapped to her arm, recording interviews over miles of trails and pavement. Leah was unusually perceptive about the ways she approached her subjects and over the course of her interviews, she came to believe that running in tandem allowed the veterans—many dealing with post-traumatic stress—to  avoid eye contact with her, and as a result, be more candid, open, and forthright about their experiences in the program. Leah was also able to control the length and in most instances the quality of the interviews by adjusting her pace to adapt to the needs of her subjects. These were perceptions gleaned from her many years as a competitive runner—insights she combined with her academic training in public health to produce an exceptional undergraduate research project on the impact of an organized running program on the health of a select group of veterans. In most universities, the popular mantra is that sport builds character. But what typically goes unacknowledged is that through sport, many student-athletes also hone important cognitive skills like observation, description, synthesis, interpretation, as well as the division, classification, analysis, and translation of information. In an athletic context, these thinking skills are essential for mastering a complex defense, assessing an opponent’s game plan, or mastering a technical skill. These skills are often developed sequentially, one building upon the other and demonstrated over and over again in practices and games with feedback from coaches and teammates, Perhaps most importantly, these ‘feedback loops’ often occur under stressful situations that require student-athletes to take initiative, exercise creativity and assume responsibility for how their decisions and actions affect an outcome. When they succeed, student-athletes increase their self-confidence; when they fail, they learn from the subsequent feedback and revise. These feedback loops help athletes learn to tolerate frustration and failure. This tolerance for failure combined with the development of complex thinking skills, can help make student-athletes adept and versatile researchers. What many students don’t realize is that researchers encounter more failure than success. I believe I was better able to handle the failures and challenges [of research] because of my years playing basketball. As an athlete, I have encountered many types of ‘pressure situations’ some that ended in failure. The only way that I could continue playing and improving was to get over the failure, quickly, and come up with a different approach. So I guess I could say that sport has instilled in me a combination of persistence and creativity - and the ability to access these skills when I am frustrated or uncertain. (Nelly, D1 Basketball Player) Most college students are aware of the importance of participating in sport and fitness activities. As a result, Universities have invested in bigger and more attractive fitness centers that on any given afternoon are packed with students working out. University athletic fields are full of intramural soccer, football and softball teams. But the experience of intramural sport and fitness is very different from that of varsity athletes. Athletes are aware of the significant consequences they face when making errors, yet their sport demands they risk failure over and over again. The motivations for putting oneself through the experience of collegiate sport are complex and include a sense of belonging to a community, a feeling of competence, as well as power and mastery of physical, cognitive, affective and reflective skills. But athletes need help understanding how to transfer the skills they learn on the playing field into the classroom and universities need to better understand how to create environments that engage student-athletes in academic experiences that build upon their athletic experiences. The challenge to engaging athletes is both conceptual and practical. Conceptually, athletic departments and academic departments don’t have a history of collaborating. As such, athletics is rarely seen as part of the universities teaching and learning agenda. Coaches are rarely invited into conversations with faculty to discuss issues related to teaching, learning, or pedagogy and little is understood about the different pedagogical approaches used by coaches. Practically, student-athletes tend to have limited time. Athletes in many Division I sports spend more than 35 hours a week participating in college sport-related activities, including practice, competition, and travel. The significant demands of sport participation, particularly at Division I schools, can isolate athletes from the larger student population and contribute to a disparaging stereotype of athletes as less engaged than non-athletes in the academic life of the university. Yet as Leah’s experience demonstrates, many athletes excel in applied, engaged and experiential educational experiences. These pedagogies tend to have the greatest benefit for students who embrace the idea that the content acquired in the classroom can take on different meaning outside the classroom and one could argue that there are many parallels between experiential classrooms and organized sport. For in both, students must continually process and integrate different sources of information, attend to the community around them and orient to what action is needed in that moment. This is not to suggest that athletes are more adept at experiential learning then their non-athlete classmates. But experiential pedagogies can draw upon the skills athletes hone in sport and offer more expansive ways for athletes to demonstrate learning. The role of sport in a university setting is to support or compliment the broad educational goals of the university. As Princeton University stipulates: university athletic programs are designed to be in harmony with the essential educational objectives of the institution. That harmonious vision requires universities to embrace sport as part of the teaching and learning agenda, to understand how to create learning environments that build upon the cognitive, reflective, affective and moral benefits of organized sport, and offer student athletes pathways to integrate their experience in sport. This requires imagination and a willingness to defy many of the misconceptions about student-athletes and sport. We must not simply default to the argument that sport builds character without understanding that sport has the potential to truly compliment the academic mission. As Leah’s story illustrates, athletics serve not just to build character—they themselves are productive of knowledge. Athletes think and can bring unique insights and skills to research projects and initiatives. There are opportunities to develop rigorous departmental pathways for sport related research questions as well as opportunities to use sport as a disciplinary, social and cultural lens.
This is the second in a series of posts from Kerri Heffernan, Co-Director of Engaged Sport. Learn more about Kerri and the work of Engaged Sport at