Behind the Smiles

Improving student-athlete welfare has become an important battle cry in collegiate athletics today. Here’s a look at how to use both informal and formal methods to evaluate if your support systems are working.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 14.5, August/September 2002,

“How’s it going?”

In a typical day, how many times do you ask this simple question? How often do you ask it, and really mean it, of student-athletes?

“How are you doing?” may be the most important phrase that can pass through an athletic administrator’s lips. With so much invested in each young person in an athletic department—be it thousands of dollars in scholarship money, months of recruiting, or simply the rising costs of running an athletics program—no one wants to lose student-athletes because things aren’t going well for them. And an athlete having a difficult go of it socially, academically, or financially can’t perform at his or her best on the court, field, track, or rink.

Much of the negative publicity surrounding collegiate athletics in recent years has to do with student-athlete welfare—time demands, pressure to work out all year, conflicts between sports and academics, and isolation from general student-body life. Now, more than ever, you need to be on top of helping your student-athletes succeed.

But how can athletic administrators evaluate the welfare of their student-athletes? How can they know when athletes are having a tough time coping with all the challenges put before them? How can you know when to intervene?

For insight on evaluating student-athlete welfare, Athletic Management talked to administrators at leading programs from different points on the size spectrum. Though their programs are far apart in size, publicity, and budgets, they all rely on both informal and formal methods to uncover how well student-athletes are coping. As they describe it, though, the formal and informal overlap. There are ways to formalize your informal assessments, and your formal assessments can benefit from less-structured techniques.

Exit Signs
One of the most common and straightforward welfare-assessment activities comes at the end of athletes’ careers. Exit interviews can go a long way toward telling administrators what they’re doing right and wrong. NCAA rules require Division I schools to interview at least a sample of student-athletes whose eligibility has expired, but precisely how they’re conducted and used varies widely.

Florida State University gives a 13-page written survey to every athlete who has exhausted his or her eligibility (to be filled out anonymously) and attempts to interview all exiting student-athletes in a one-on-one hour-long session. Most student-athletes take part, lured by a year’s free membership in FSU’s athletic alumni Varsity Club if they do.

“We ask them to be honest because we’re not really assessing them, we’re assessing ourselves,” says FSU Director of Athletics Dave Hart. “We tell them, ‘We just want to talk to you about your growth. Did you grow, and if you did, did we help you? And if you didn’t, were we responsible for the lack of growth?’”

About a dozen senior administrators share the interviewing duty, says Pam Overton, Associate Athletic Director for Student Development and Personal Services. “We just finished 69 of those,” she says. “There’s an intense effort on our part once a student has completed his or her education here to say, ‘Okay, now what was it really like, what did you need that you didn’t get, what can we do to make things better for others?’”

Interviewers start with a list of about 20 questions. They include:

• What role, if any, did your athletics experience at the university have in your personal growth?

• Did you have time to take part in extracurricular activities other than athletics? If so, what were they?

• Did coaches and other members of the athletics staff live up to the promises made to you as a recruit?

• If you could change one thing in your sport, what would it be?

• What were the most negative and positive things about your academic, athletic, and other experiences at the university?

• Did you understand and follow NCAA and institutional rules and regulations during your time here? Did your coaches? Did your team?

• What are your plans after college, and did athletics help you prepare for them?

A team of about a dozen staff members read the completed surveys and interview notes to find trends and noteworthy issues, then discuss what they’ve found and make a report to Hart. This year, Overton says, FSU learned that it’s doing okay with women’s sports in general, that Olympic-sport athletes want more publicity and recognition, and that athletes want more help with nutrition.

Other athletic departments survey and interview only a representative sample of student-athletes and conduct them differently. At the University of Texas, exiting student-athletes are also interviewed, but sometimes by people outside the athletics department if they’re uncomfortable being candid with people they know. The key, says Randa Ryan, Associate Athletic Director for Student Services, is to make sure that no matter which evaluation methods are used, they examine welfare from the student-athletes’ point-of-view.

“You have to assess your population from their perspective—what it is that they think they need, regardless of whether they really do. Whether you think they really do is not the point. The point is what they think they need.”

A Strong SAAC
Another common formal assessment tool is the Student Athlete Advisory Committee required of every NCAA member institution. Again, the way it’s used will determine its effectiveness for welfare ascertainment.

Using a SAAC well requires two-way communication, says Eugene Marshall, Director of Athletics and Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Ramapo College. He, or another administrator, meets with the SAAC regularly, both to hear members’ concerns and to share information with them. He wants to keep athletes informed so they feel a part of the athletic department and can thus provide more meaningful feedback.

“I let them know where we are in certain processes and what the program is all about,” Marshall says. “I also tell them what we’re doing, how much money we’re spending, and where we’re spending it.”

Exactly who sits on the SAAC can make a big difference in how effective it is. The best groups have members who are truly representative of their teams, have their peers’ trust and interests at heart, and have the ability to communicate with athletes, administrators, and coaches. Finding those people is not always easy, though.

At Florida State, SAAC representatives play a large role in determining their successors. “When a student leaves, they designate another student on their team who they think would be a good peer leader, and the coach approves it,” Overton says. “It doesn’t become a popularity contest. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the best student or the best athlete. It has to be someone who’s willing to speak for the team. Mostly you’re looking for your student leaders, or people with leadership potential.”

To prepare committee members for their role, the Florida State SAAC goes on a late-summer retreat with department staff. It’s largely a team-building exercise, with a ropes course and communication and goal-setting exercises, but the student-athletes are also asked, in small groups and all together, what they’d do if they were athletic director for a day. It’s all preparation for serving as a major communication conduit between their peers and top administration.

“They take on real issues,” Overton says. “Last year, one of our issues was making sure we had enough athletic trainers and that we had coverage for everything. ‘Does the swim team have an athletic trainer at 5:30 in the morning when they go out?’ They take on those kinds of real things.”

Marshall says Ramapo has a good SAAC structure, but he’d like it to be “a little more aggressive.” By that, he means, “getting more people involved in their individual teams so that there’s more dialogue instead of having the top four players, the captains or co-captains, doing all the work. We want to get other people involved.”

Around Campus
Other campus departments can also help administrators know how their student-athletes are coping. Marshall says he regularly checks with Ramapo’s student-housing office, the student affairs department, and faculty members. And he receives daily reports on away-from-athletics activities that, while unpleasant, are a fact of college life.

“Security sends me a report every morning of all the incidents that occur on campus, and I get a special highlight if they’re student-athletes,” Marshall says. “It comes from the judicial affairs director and is also sent to my boss, who is the vice president of student affairs. We talk on a daily basis, so we’re both pretty much in tune with what’s going on around the campus and what’s going on in athletics.”

Because one of the biggest welfare issues is academics, many administrators take extra steps to keep in touch with faculty members. At Central Michigan University, for example, the Life Skills office sends out report forms every four weeks to the instructors of all freshmen student-athletes and upperclassmen who’ve been identified as at-risk, says Deb McAlpin, who was Life Skills Coordinator at CMU before being promoted to Academic Adviser this past summer. That’s in addition to the weekly or twice-a-week study-table reports most sport coaches ask for.

Ramapo regularly checks up on everyone, Marshall says. “We send out progress reports to the faculty members who teach our kids to see how they’re doing and to help out in any way possible,” he explains. “We send out thousands of them, and when we get them back, copies go to the coach.”

These tools all add up to spotting warning signs of a bad collegiate athletics experience. “There are patterns,” Marshall says. “Missing practices, missing classes. The lack of homework being done, the lack of interest in school. Avoiding the coaches. They don’t want to talk about school—when we talk about school they talk about something else.”

Comparing Notes
Communication among staff is also critical so that when one person notices something unusual going on with a student-athlete, it isn’t dismissed as an isolated incident. Sandy Hatfield Clubb, Associate Athletics Director for Academic and Student Services at Arizona State University, put this into practice when reading an entry in the journals her students keep for a “University 101” first-year course she teaches. A female student-athlete wrote negatively about a talk that had been given by a sports nutritionist.

“So I asked our head athletic trainer, ‘Is this young lady on your radar screen?’” Hatfield Clubb says. “And he said, ‘You know what, I was kind of curious about her behavior.’ So we got together and shared our concerns. He met with the coach, and the young woman has received counseling and is doing real well.”

Ryan has had similar experiences. “If you’re not collecting information about those red flags and if you’re not comparing notes, then it is very easy to miss,” she says. “It’s one thing to have a student at risk in one category. But if they are at risk in two categories—let’s say academically in addition to injury—then it doesn’t just double the risk for falling out; it’s exponential. And if they are at risk in the third category, which is the social category, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to lose them.”

Ryan uses formal and informal modes of communications: She has scheduled weekly meetings among administrators but also talks to athletic trainers and coaches daily. Administrators and student-service staff, she says, must be the go-between for coaches and others who work closely with athletes.

“They’re all so busy and they have so much on their responsibility lists that you’ve got to fill that role and be more helpful to them, or you’ve just added to their burden,” Ryan says. “You’ve got to have that information readily available to them in a form that they can use, and you’ve got to have their trust that you’re on the same page with them.”

Louisiana State University seeks out warning signs from the very beginning. As part of pre-participation physical examinations, each entering student-athlete undergoes a psychological screening, which is conducted by psychologists from a Baton Rouge medical group under contract with LSU.

“It’s to make sure that we don’t see any issues for concern, and if we do, we try to pinpoint what those are and take care of them on the front end, rather than waiting to respond to them after an unfortunate event would occur,” says Miriam Segar, LSU Director of Student Services in the athletics department. “There are some indicators that show up on kids who have a propensity to have transition problems, depression, or an eating disorder. It kind of flags those kids so that we can do some further investigating and be prepared.

“And then we’ll bring them back in and talk to them a little bit more in depth,” Segar continues. “For instance, if their screen says they could possibly be suffering from depression, we try to find out if the depression and anxiety is related to coming to a new school or if it is something that’s a little bit deeper than that.”

Changing the Culture
Of all the tools on an administrator’s workbench for assessing and spotting student-athlete welfare concerns, the most important may be introducing a culture where talking about problems is okay. “There’s a culture among student-athletes that says, ‘play through pain,’ and ‘suck it up,’” says McAlpin. “We try to change that, and show them that it’s okay to ask for help.”

Modifying that stoicism is part of all activities in the CMU Life Skills program, but the key is “making the effort to become acquainted with the student-athletes so that they feel comfortable enough with you and know they can come to you with any issues or concerns they might have,” McAlpin says. “The main thing is that the student-athletes see that you’re pretty good about helping somebody on the team, and then the word spreads: ‘Go see Deb, or go see Pat. They can help you out with that.’ A lot of it depends upon the personal skills you have with the student-athletes and making them feel comfortable.”

Ryan agrees that coming forward with a problem has to be made part of the culture. “You teach it, you have an invested support staff. You have very educated coaches who are aware,” she says. “You have experienced upper-class leadership on teams who have that information and know what to look for, how to refer, how to help those who aren’t as aggressive about seeking those things out.”

Many athletics departments seek to foster these relationships early by giving special attention to freshmen and transfer student-athletes (see Sidebar, “A Fresh Start” at the end of this article.) But relationship-building also starts with simply being there. “Basically, I go to games, I go to practices,” says Marshall. “And I stress to my staff the importance of being visible. I see the student-athletes in the hallway. I see them around campus. I say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ You have little conversations, you ask them how their studies are going, how things are going at home. You also let them know that if they have any problems, to come see you.”

Marshall notes that there’s a certain groundwork to be laid in relationship-building, particularly with a diverse body of student-athletes. As a male coaching women’s basketball, Marshall says there are some issues that his players are reluctant to bring up with him. That’s when it pays to have hired women administrators.

The same approach applies in ethnic and cultural diversity, he says. “It’s very important [for a student-athlete] to have someone who looks like them, who talks like them, who thinks somewhat like them,” Marshall says. “When I was a student-athlete, my coach was great, but it was nice to have an administrator around who was [African-American] like me and could help me understand. We have certain concerns that other people don’t have.

“We have a pretty large Asian population,” Marshall continues. “We have an Asian coach now, so if I have some Asian students with problems that I might not be able to understand, I will send them to him.”

While coaches have the largest role in student-athlete welfare, Hatfield Clubb says it’s important that other people in athletics build relationships with the students. “A coach controls playing time,” she says. “A student might say, ‘I can’t let the coach know about this or that. He won’t play me.’”

It’s also important that every member of the athletics staff understands their role in establishing an atmosphere that promotes those relationships. “We do the little things,” Overton says. “A student doesn’t walk in the office without somebody speaking to them—a secretary, everybody.

“The constant message here is building relationships,” she continues. “That’s how you get those reluctant kids. Somebody has to know them. Do we miss some? Yes, everybody does. In spite of all your efforts, you’ll miss somebody who needed something and you didn’t know about it. But for the most part, we think we cover that through building relationships.”

Overton credits Hart with making it clear that student-athlete welfare is a shared responsibility at Florida State. “One of the things he tells our staff is, ‘Student development is everybody’s job. Pam just coordinates stuff,’” she explains.

Hart believes that setting the right tone helps shortcomings come out in the open. “When it’s a priority, in my mind at least, it naturally opens up lines of communication,” he says. “You have bridges of trust. Student-athletes know that the department, meaning coaches and administrators, genuinely cares about them as people. And, suddenly, a lot of pretty good things begin to happen.”

Sidebar #1: A Fresh Start

One good place to start building relationships between student-athletes and administrators is the freshmen year. It’s a pivotal transition, not only because student-athletes are adjusting to new athletic, academic, and social environments, but because it’s a chance to get them off to a positive start in their collegiate careers.

Arizona State University has a Freshman Year Experience Program that starts with a one- or two-day introduction (transfer students also take part), at which new student-athletes meet lots of different people. Administrators try to have a diverse group meet the new arrivals, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and background, says Sandy Hatfield Clubb, Associate Athletics Director for Student and Academic Services at ASU.

In addition, the sections of their freshman life skills class are usually taught by athletics staff members, including Hatfield Clubb, the CHAMPS/Life Skills coordinator, the academics and freshman-year program managers, and occasionally sport coaches. It’s a chance for a staff member to get to know 12 to 18 student-athletes, with the hope that the relationships will continue.

Hatfield Clubb has the students in her class section write e-mail journals to her, and they have proven invaluable in detecting problems. “One part is what I call the ‘What’s up?’ section,” Hatfield Clubb says. “I might ask them to write about how their life’s going, their roommate, and what they did this weekend. Often it’s, ‘I saw this really good movie, I failed a test, I’m not getting along with my roommate.’ Well, then I know something’s going on.” That’s a signal that she or someone should intervene and get extra help for the student.

Florida State also attacks the freshmen year in a structured way with its FAN (Freshman Advocate Network) program. Pam Overton, FSU’s Associate Athletic Director for Student Development and Personal Services, explains: “When our freshmen come in, every staff member—administrators, people in the ticket office, secretaries, whatever—signs up to be a FAN. We each take four or five students. What that means is you call the student in, have a conference with them, and get to know them. You send them a card on their birthday, and agree to have them at one meal a semester in your home.

“It’s very casual, but it says that somebody cares about them,” Overton continues. “We continue it in the spring. The other thing that’s real important is going to their events. If the student is a golfer, his or her FAN member will come out to watch home contests.”

The SAAC at Central Michigan University is responsible for checking on freshman student-athletes, says Deb McAlpin, Academic Advisor at CMU, which received the NCAA Division I-A CHAMPS Program of Excellence Award this year, along with Ball State University and Louisiana State. SAAC members are given the task of welcoming freshmen, making sure that they are adapting well, and checking with them if they have questions or concerns. In this way, its members help reach quiet student-athletes who are reluctant to speak up on their own, she adds.

Sidebar#2: The Top Six Issues

A list of the most common topics cited by student-athletes as impediments to their happiness won’t surprise many people in athletics. But there are some twists in how these issues are handled at different institutions:

Academics: At Central Michigan University, student-athletes who are put on the academic at-risk list, either because of high school or early-college performance, meet with advisors weekly. “We’ll discuss their progress in each one of their classes,” says Academic Advisor Deb McAlpin. “They show us their work, and we show them how to use their planner and notes to help them develop better study skills and time management.

For student-athletes on the academic at-risk list at Arizona State University, which is generally anyone with a 2.5 GPA or lower, administrators use the Academic Game Plan developed by John Baxter, a coach at Fresno State University, says Sandy Hatfield Clubb, ASU’s Associate Athletics Director for Academic and Student Services. The plan takes into account assignments and tests in each course, factors in their relative weight in determining a final grade, and helps students know where they stand at any time without waiting for midterms and final grades to be posted.

Downtime: “They wish that they had more unstructured time. Of course, I wish I had more of that too,” says Pam Overton, Associate Athletic Director for Student Development and Personal Services at Florida State University. “I’m laughing about it, but it’s real.” FSU seeks to mandate some downtime by requiring student-athletes to attend certain events, which are generally low-key and socially oriented or aimed at developing a more well-rounded person.

Money: At Central Michigan, juniors and seniors attend financial-management workshops that cover scholarships, budgeting, and personal finance, says McAlpin. Other administrators look at learning to handle money as a part of college life, athlete or not.

“I believe there is a difference between a want and a need, and I think athletes have everything they need,” says Overton. “Do they have everything they want? No, but do any of us? I see student-athletes who are actually able to save money because they use their money wisely. They live two or three to an apartment, split a phone bill, don’t have a cell phone, and they’re actually able to put money in a savings account. At the other end, some student want to live alone, have a car, put gas in it, have a cell phone, send money home, and they can’t make ends meet. They’re right, they don’t have enough. It’s a lifestyle choice.”

Family Issues: It’s not common, says Miriam Segar, Director of Student Services at Louisiana State University, but she has, at athletes’ request, held programs on parenting skills. “People come in and talk about the responsibilities involved with parenting and what it takes to be a good parent,” says Segar. “They also discuss how to deal with time problems because that’s often the real issue for student-athletes: When do you see your child if you go to class all morning, practice in the afternoon, and study hall at night?”

Nutrition: Central Michigan has formed an eating-concerns team across the university, and it includes athletics, in part to deal with eating disorders among student-athletes. Counselors, athletic trainers, and nutritionists have been called in, and coaches have been taught to be more aware of eating disorders, McAlpin says.

Campus Life: Athletes often feel left behind non-athletes in areas such as networking and preparing for careers because their sports require so much time, says Randa Ryan, Associate Athletic Director for Student Services at the University of Texas. A common approach to avoid these problems is to acknowledge the issue, minimize barriers to campus involvement, then get out of the way. Central Michigan, for example, has no class registration just for athletes; they must contend with crowds just as everyone else does, McAlpin says.

Sandy Hatfield Clubb, Associate Athletics Director for Student and Academic Services at Arizona State, however, admits frustration when the topic of isolation arises. “They are students in the classroom with every other student on this campus, and they’re exposed to student life the exact same way every other student is exposed,” she says. “We have student-athletes who are exceptional in their use of time, be they the president of a sorority and an All-American track athlete. Do they have the time to do all that’s available on campus? No. But they’re exposed to it the same way every single student on this campus is. They’re in the Union, they’re eating their meals there, they’re seeing posters up on the boards.”

Members of Texas’ teams have often said they must deal with common negative perceptions of athletes. “The scrutiny is always there,” says Ryan, “and it results in misunderstandings that the general public or sometimes faculty and staff can have about what student athletes are really about and how committed they are. Sometimes that’s real hard for them.”