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Examining the Transition Experiences of Mid-Major Student-Athletes

By Mitchell T. Woltring, South Alabama; Caitlyn Hauff, South Alabama; Brooke Forester, South Alabama; Shelley L. Holden, South Alabama

Transition periods are always difficult, as moving from the known to the unknown is a naturally stressful experience. The transition from high school to college is a common example, as, for many, it represents a move from structure to relative independence. During this time, student-athletes bear the additional burden of adapting to an athletic environment with which they are largely unfamiliar. In order to help alleviate these additional concerns, the NCAA has long-required that support systems be in place at member institutions to aid student-athletes with their unique transitions. Over the past 30 years, such services have expanded considerably, focusing on common issues such as eligibility, graduation rates, counseling, and advising. While these efforts are critical to improving the successes of student-athletes in both their academic and athletic endeavors, considerable challenges remain. Recent literature highlights continued, pervasive challenges still faced by student-athletes in areas such as mental and physical well-being, academic stress, managing concurrent academic and athletic schedules, relationships with support systems, and coping with dual athletic and academic identities. Implementing a support system to best address the concerns of student-athletes requires the involvement of the student-athlete voice to determine where time, money, and effort would best be spent.


In our recently published article in the Journal of Athlete Development and Experience (JADE), we examined student-athletes’ experiences as they transitioned from high school to a mid-major DI institution. We interviewed student-athletes in focus group settings to obtain their perspective on the transition issues they faced early on, as well as issues they still face. During these focus groups, we also inquired about how the student-athletes dealt with these issues, further asking for suggestions on how the support systems available to them could be improved. 


Following analysis of the focus group interviews, the findings identified two major themes, with accompanying subthemes. The first theme was encounters with athletic academic support, with subthemes of student-athletes discussing their transition to campus, and the perceived responsibilities of athletic academic support. The second theme was skewed perceptions and expectations of their lives as student-athletes, with subthemes of the coach-athlete relationship, lifestyle modifications, and the high-stress practice environment. Each theme and subsequent subtheme represents an area which should be addressed to alleviate transition issues of student-athletes.


The Role of Athletic Academic Support


Throughout the focus group interviews, student-athletes had both positive and negative experiences with the academic support systems provided to them. Some were pleasantly surprised by the considerable resources that were afforded to student-athletes, while others relayed that the support systems simply did not meet their needs. Whether their experiences ended up to be positive or negative, there was a common thread – student-athletes were not entirely sure of the role that athletic academic support played. Some of the student-athletes had an idea, but too often their perceptions did not align with what they actually received. There were two particular areas where the role of athletic academic support repeatedly came up as a source of confusion. The first was during student-athletes’ initial transition to campus. The second area was student-athlete’s difficulties in trying to parse out what, exactly, were the athletic academic advisor’s responsibilities.


Transitioning to Campus


Student-athletes discussed at length their experiences associated with the initial shock of arriving on campus and the role that athletic academic support played. Included in this was the (often lack of) communication prior to arrival on campus. On the positive side, many student-athletes praised the availability of tutors and of instructors being flexible with their athletic schedules. Many relayed that this helped them adjust to a new academic schedule. But on the whole, student-athletes were underwhelmed with the information and advice provided by athletic academic services. Numerous student-athletes expressed that they were given little to no information before arriving to campus, and once they were on campus, the first-year advising resources, which were supposed to help them, were ineffective. Student-athletes repeatedly reported issues with registering for classes, meshing class and athletic schedules, and understanding their projected course of study. Even into their junior year, some student-athletes were still dealing with problems as simple as scheduling an advising appointment. An overarching theme was that student-athletes believed there was a lack of structure for delivering these critical services. Many discussed being registered in classes which they did not need, especially in their first few semesters, which they saw as a waste of time. They did not feel they were given appropriate information on who would help them to register for the correct classes, with one student-athlete going as far as calling the process, “a mess”. 


Perceived Responsibilities


Participants voiced serious concerns regarding the actual role of athletic academic advisors, and what they thought the role should be. These concerns stemmed from two particular areas. First, that there was a disconnect between their athletic academic advisor and their assigned academic advisor for their program of study. Second, many student-athletes believed their athletic academic advisors were ill-equipped to properly advise them due to a lack of knowledge of their individual academic programs. Ultimately, it led to confusing and frustrating situations where student-athletes needed to go back and forth between two different advisors who may be giving them contradictory advice. This situation could be especially precarious since it was the athletic academic advisor who would register them for classes – and more than one student-athlete stated that this led them to be registered for the wrong classes and delayed their graduation. Many student-athletes, even after several years, were left perplexed about why they had two advisors, and who was responsible for what.


Skewed Perceptions and Expectations


As student-athletes shared their experiences regarding their transition to a DI campus, a second theme that emerged was the disparity between what they expected, and what they actually received in terms of resources, advice, and necessary information. Whether their perceptions and expectations about campus life were rooted in their own ideas, spawned from their interactions with campus personnel, or a combination of both, the reality was ardently different. Participants regularly entered college and DI athletics and quickly felt a disconnect between perceptions and reality when it came to relationships with their coaches, making modifications to their lifestyle, and the nature of the athletic environment they were entering. 


Coach-Athlete Relationship


In the course of participant responses, student-athletes discussed several disconnects in their relationship with coaches. There were examples where the relationship was positive, including instances of coaches helping with their transition to campus or with their adjustment to new training regimens. But often, their expectations of the coach-athlete relationship simply did not match up to the reality of the situation. In some cases, student-athletes reported abrupt changes to the relationship as soon as they arrived on campus. Recurrent issues included poor communication, inability to relate to student-athletes, and a sense that coaches sugar-coated what campus life would be like. For some, they felt the information provided by their coaches did not adequately prepare them for campus or athletic life.


Lifestyle Modifications


A persistent hurdle that participants communicated was their adjustment to the independent nature of collegiate life. For many, they were moving away from the familiar and into the unknown; and especially in terms of the initial transition, they were tasked with clearing these newfound hurdles on their own. A common sentiment was that they believed they would receive more assistance in negotiating these issues. Participants repeatedly voiced their difficulties related to food availability, eating patterns, schedules, balancing academic and athletic workloads, and motivation. Many expressed that these changes were only exacerbated by the increased demands of the athletic component to their identity, which is the final subtheme.


High-Stress Practice Environment


This final subtheme manifested in many different ways for the student-athletes in the study, but the shared attitude was that participants were not prepared for the reality of collegiate athletics. For some, it was the amount of time they were required to dedicate to their sport. For others, it was the stress of performing to a certain level in order to avoid hurting the team, or even to justify having (and keeping) their scholarship. Interestingly, international student-athletes in the study consistently pointed to the lack of independence in collegiate athletics. Many of them had come from a background of having the freedom to choose their training times and, in some cases, even the competitions they would take part in.


Recommendations for Improvement


The most persistent and detrimental issue the student-athletes scrutinized was communication. There are several potential areas to focus on in regards to communication, and many of them have been examined in similar literature. Prior to arriving on campus, it is all too common for student-athletes to rely solely on their coaches to communicate important information to them. While it is normal for students in general to struggle with transition, student-athletes are supposed to have additional resources due to their dual role. Coaches do not necessarily know everything that should be communicated to a student-athlete beyond their sport; as such, the athletic department and university should have a more structured system in place to disseminate essential information to student-athletes. 


To confront this common problem, we would advise the creation of a handbook for student-athletes containing necessary information which is distributed prior to their arrival to campus. Individual universities would have information unique to their campus, but existing literature continues to point to issues such as advising, lifestyle modifications, and mental health that could be common to all. An additional resource at the disposal of the university for disseminating information are veteran student-athletes. Student-athletes in our focus groups regularly reflected on the essential role their teammates played in easing their transition, and previous studies have detailed the positive impact of peer mentoring. Establishing a formal structure of peer mentorship would also help to improve communication.


Not only would these steps compel an institution to better classify critical information student-athletes need; it would enable coaches to focus on the areas of their expertise, and perhaps better utilize their time communicating with student-athletes to adequately prepare them for the rigors of collegiate athletic competition. Removing some of this responsibility from the coaches, and placing it with those who are better equipped, would remove coaches from positions where they may otherwise feel they have to set expectations on subjects which they really are not familiar with. Participants in our study relayed that coaches were often the source of setting their expectations for issues like academics and lifestyle modifications, when that really should not be the case. These are not areas of expertise for most coaches, and the skewed perceptions and expectations that form as a result may lead a student-athlete to believe that their coach is inauthentic. As such, this information would be better-served coming from a source such as NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committees (SAAC) or veteran athletes in the program.


Arriving on campus better informed can undoubtedly help to alleviate the transition issues that tend to manifest upon that arrival. But there are particular issues which linger long-beyond the first few weeks on campus, and previous literature has shown that if such issues are not resolved, not only will the coach-athlete relationship deteriorate, but student-athletes are more likely to struggle academically and ultimately leave. The most concrete example from this study is the frustration with advising. Almost universally, student-athletes pointed to the ambiguous relationship between their athletic and academic advisors as a fundamental issue. Previous literature has pointed to a lack of collaboration between academic and athletic advisors, and that is an area that needs to be addressed. Student-athletes need to have a clear understanding of the role that each advisor fulfills, and that starts with the university and athletic departments unequivocally defining those roles. 


Successfully navigating the first year on campus for any student is based on both their social and academic involvement with their university, but student-athletes are tasked with adding athletic involvement to that mixture. If they are forced to spend needless time and energy on what should otherwise be routine tasks, it is going to have negative ramifications on their ability to successfully transition. Coaches, athletic departments, and universities each play a critical role in facilitating student-athlete transition. Positive, meaningful, and feasible advances start with providing student-athletes with valuable information. Valuable information should help to set realistic expectations, properly prepare them for the rigors of their dual role, and clarify the support systems available to them with the role that each fulfills.


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