There has been a lot written lately about how parents can help their child improve on-field performance and by doing so, improve their child’s collegiate recruiting profile. However, for most student-athletes, academic performance will prove to be the critical determining factor in their success as potential college recruits.
Academic performance in the recruiting process receives far less focus than it should. Good grades represent the most significant upside opportunity for enhancing a student-athlete’s recruiting profile and overall appeal. Perhaps more importantly, it is one of the only things that the student-athlete and the family can actually control.
The harsh reality is that all the money and energy families put into the recruiting process mean little if student-athletes are unable to achieve the grades necessary to be admitted to their college of choice. Admissions requirements for lacrosse players are statistically challenging. At the moment, there are only 67 Division I schools with lacrosse programs with many being elite academic institutions. Out of the 67 programs, 41 of them require a GPA of 3.3 or higher for admission, but the average accepted GPA for all Division I lacrosse programs is 3.45 on a 4.0 scale (or 89.5%). Admission to a Division III program may be even more challenging in some circumstances because DIII coaches generally have less sway over the admissions process.
College coaches recruit high school student-athletes who will likely improve their teams. Each year, recruiting-class decisions are made to address weaknesses or gaps in the makeup of their current team. One thing is certain: they know what they need. From the outside looking in, their options are seemingly endless and their approach is often ambiguous.
However, there is one area that is absolutely quantifiable during the recruiting process: transcripts and standardized test scores. These quantitative measures add precision to an otherwise imprecise process. Academic performance is paramount to skill over both the short and long-term. Whether a student-athlete desires to play DI, DII or DIII, their academic performance is vital to their ability to even get recruited. Every college coach inquiring about a high school player will ask: What are his/her grades?”
Of course, the focus on academic performance leads to an even broader discussion. We need to ask ourselves during the recruiting process for college: “What is the end game?” – should the end result be admission to the school that is the best overall academic/athletic fit, or is it simply playing for the best program? There are fewer more personal decisions families of student-athletes must make together. However, no matter how you see the recruiting process, high academic performance dramatically enhances the options and choices for both tracks. Academic performance, not on-field skill, is the primary vector leading to choice.
Much has been written about the importance of student-athlete academic performance. The problem we see is that there is precious little discussion about what that really means and how to actually achieve it. Our student-athletes hear, “Get good grades” repeated a lot. But, guidance about how to actually accomplish that is another thing entirely.
Over the past eight years, more than 70 student-athletes have passed through our Get It Done Academic and Athletic Performance Program (AAPP). By following the program, students have produced significant results leading directly to enhanced academic and athletic options.
Our experience strongly suggests that getting high school-aged student-athletes, especially those likely to play at the next level, to focus on their grades requires much more than simply telling them to get good grades. Different factors motivate student-athletes concerning academic performance, such as personal identity, work ethic, strengths and weaknesses, competency, self-created limitations and lack of vision/goals, to name a few.
We have come to understand that student-athletes generally fit into one of five categories based on common behaviors and characteristics. It is important for us to understand which type of student we are working with so that we can create a specific action plan for improvement. The categories are: The Workhorse, The Rookie, The Natural Talent, The Spectator and the Intellectual Athlete. Our program has helped each type improve academically and in many cases athletically.
The Workhorse is the student-athlete who stays after practice and continues to drill and work on particular skills they have identified as needing improvement. They are in the weight room regularly in the off-season and after practice. Their effort is visually obvious. We teach “workhorses” techniques to apply the same level of dedication, commitment, and work ethic they find on the field and transfer them to the classroom. We teach them to “play the sport of school” which resonates well and can quickly be applied to improve academic performance.
The Workhorse instinctively understands the notion of playing the sport of school. For example, if you ask an athlete to watch a video about how to shoot sidearm over and over again, and then ask them to go do it, they know that simply watching an instructional video is simply not enough. They inherently know that they must go out onto the field and learn how to do it for themselves. The same holds true for Math, Science, History, English, etc. It is one thing to sit in class and listen to a lecture about how to find the value for X. It is quite another to actually practice the skill, i.e. homework.
Rookies generally have a sincere interest in learning and improving academically they just don’t know how, or maybe more importantly, why. The Rookie has most likely gone through middle school simply “getting grades.” Rookies don’t spend much time thinking about the consequences, positive or negative, of their academic performance.
Typically, the Rookie has earned a grade point average that is just high enough to keep them out of trouble, allowing them to maintain good social status and avoid repercussions at home. They usually don’t grasp the importance of their academic performance on their future options. And, that’s okay. They are 13-14 years old. At their age, the frontal lobe of the brain, where critical thinking occurs, hasn’t fully developed. It’s natural for them to be unable to connect today’s actions with the college application process three years down the road.
The Rookie suffers from the most common roadblock we see in kids who lack academic motivation; the linkage between decisions made today and the number of available options in the future.
The Natural Talent
The Natural Talent is an interesting type of student-athlete. These are the athletes that amaze us with their God-given talent. It’s awe-inspiring how easily they pick up any sport. Too often, these are also the athletes whose parents tell us, “He just doesn’t meet his potential in school.”
Being great at their sport comes easily to them. Of course, this makes it even more enjoyable. They play with ease. Practice is fun when you are one of the best players on the team. Naturals want to play all the time. But what if their sport was really difficult instead? How hard would they practice then?
The Natural Talent needs to learn and internalize the relationship between effort and outcome. If they do, the law of averages tells us they will start to earn better grades and ultimately meet their academic potential.
These student-athletes are “spectators” because they are the type of student who seems to sit on the sideline of their own life. This type of student is not particularly driven to succeed, nor are they concerned about failing. According to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, this type of student does not try very hard and exhibits self-handicapping behaviors and excuses. (Self-handicapping excuses are responses to challenging tasks that serve to protect an individual’s perceived self-worth by providing excuses for poor academic performance.
These excuses pertaining to school often sound something similar to: “My teacher hates me,” “I can’t do math,” or “That class is too boring for me to do well.”)
Inspiring this type of student-athlete to perform academically can be quite difficult. They may suffer from low competence motivation meaning they have difficulty mustering the energy to try when they feel academically incompetent to begin with. Focus is on creating a personal vision. Theoretically, once we know what is at the top of the staircase, we can take the first step to get to the top.
The Intellectual Athlete
The Intellectual Athlete is the type of student-athlete who excels on the field and in the classroom. They are dedicated to their studies first. Only when their academic requirements are met, will they focus on athletics. This type of athlete’s thought process starts with setting their sights on an elite school, usually an Ivy League or one tier lower (what I commonly refer to as the “Pachysandra League”).
These students are confident in their abilities and see themselves as successful. Their self-image and confidence are intact and the fear of failure does not inhibit them in any way. In fact, they often attribute failure to factors they can control, like poor study habits (i.e., “I should have studied more.”). They have excellent study and time management skills. Most importantly, they possess intrinsic motivation and an internal drive to succeed.
What may hold back the Intellectual Athlete academically is his or her own dedication to perfection. The deficit between reality and perfection is anxiety. Students can become overwhelmed by the desire to do well on standardized tests, or tests in general. They can become hyper-focused on results, not learning.
Which best describes you or your student-athlete?
Student-athletes are not a one-size-fits-all group. They and their parents can benefit greatly by understanding what motivates them and what holds them back on the field and in the classroom. When student-athletes apply themselves using guidance appropriate for them, academic performance generally improves, often greatly.
A byproduct of the process is that student-athletes may transition from one group to another. I recently had an exit session with a client where we recapped all he had learned throughout our time together. From his perspective, he started his junior year as a Rookie, became a Workhorse, but desires to be The Intellectual Athlete in college. His GPA improved to a 3.9 from a 3.1 during the first quarter of our program.
Academic performance is clearly an important part of the recruiting landscape, but our work with student-athletes and their parents strongly suggests that achieving it is a student-specific process. Student-athletes will not find intrinsic motivation to strive for academic success because someone tells them to. Except for the most compliant, as teenagers continue to individuate (become their own person), force becomes an increasingly less effective motivator.
When their schoolwork becomes a “chore” to be completed at someone else’s request, it simply will not get done. In our experience, the magic happens when we can identify a student-athlete’s “type,” nurture their personal catalyst for change, and then teach them how to feed their ambition to make their dreams come true.
If you know a student-athlete who may not be reaching their potential in school, you are not alone. The average GPA for student-athletes beginning the Get It Done Academic and Athletic Performance Program is 2.9 (84%). Exiting the Program after an average 18-month engagement, the average GPA is 3.5 (90%). Particularly motivated student-athletes see similar results over timeframes as short as one marking period.
By coaching our student-athletes to create a positive personal vision for their lives, they can make spectacular mindset changes and internalize these to learn behaviors that allow them to continue to strive for success on their own. The UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center reported “…positive coaching effectively activates important neural circuits and stress-reduction systems in the body by encouraging participants to envision a desired future for themselves.”
Let’s begin to teach our student-athletes how to get good grades. What they learn as a byproduct of that process will yield important results for the rest of their lives. As you prepare for the college recruiting process, please place the admissions process in the forefront of your mind, not treat it as an afterthought.