Road Scholars

With stricter academic standards entering the NCAA rulebook, today’s student-athletes need more help than ever in conquering their homework while on the road.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.5, August/September 2003,

No one denies that for today’s student-athletes, time demands are huge. From classes to practices to internships to contests to community service work, finding the time for simply doing one’s homework can be tough.

“It’s so different from when I was in school,” says Bob Pearson, Head Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Coach at Macalester College. “Nowadays, kids have all kinds of distractions going on around them, and yet still need to find the peace to concentrate on their schoolwork. They need to be much better at multi-tasking than we were at their age.”

In response, many coaches are helping their student-athletes develop better strategies for doing their homework during team travel. Some student-athletes won’t need a lot of encouragement to study while away from campus, but even the hardest workers can use help in getting the most out of downtime while on the road.

“As a coach, you need to do more than just tell your students to do their homework,” says Pearson. “You need to show them it’s important to you, and give them strategies for keeping up with their work.”

The first step is building a team culture that recognizes the importance of keeping up with homework. “The head coach has to show the players that he or she is concerned about how well they do in school,” says Greg Graham, Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Boise State University, where student-athletes boast a graduation rate 36 percent higher than the rest of the student body. “The coach needs to show them that learning how to organize their schoolwork is a priority, just like learning how to play defense.”

“We generally don’t have to encourage our student-athletes to do their schoolwork,” says Pearson. “But it’s one of the things we talk about anyway, all the time. We’ve made it an important part of our team philosophy: Doing well in school is a point of pride for them, just like having a winning season.”

“Let your student-athletes take pride in their good grades,” adds Brad Kinsman, University of Detroit Mercy Athletic Director. “You want them to feel that keeping their grades up is an important part of their experience.”

At Macalester College, where Pearson’s teams have historically finished with some of the highest GPAs among NCAA Division III swim teams, coaches talk about schoolwork at the first meeting of the year. “We start strategizing even before the first day of classes,” says Pearson. “We say, ‘Here’s what you need to do: Get out your calendar and write down the due dates of all your tests, papers, and projects. Then go back two weeks from each of those dates and write yourself a note to make sure you start preparing for each of them ahead of time. Then check it against your competition schedule to start planning how you’re going to make it all work.’”

At Eastern Michigan University, where student-athlete graduation rates jumped 24 percent between 2000 and 2001, a coach or administrator speaks to each of his or her assigned athletes before every road trip, asking a specific set of questions to help them pack their bags with schoolwork in mind. “From day one, we talk about strategies for studying everything that’s on the syllabus, every little detail of every class,” says Wendy Gunter, Assistant Athletic Director-Academics. “We ask them, ‘What books are you taking on the road with you? What are your goals? What are you going to do to accomplish them?’”

Boise State coaches also insist players check in with their professors if they’re going to miss class time. “At the beginning of the semester, we send letters to the professors to let them know when our players are going to be traveling,” says Graham. “Then we make sure our players visit their professors before every trip. That’s their job: to make arrangements for notes, papers, handouts—anything they might miss—so they can take their assignments on the road.”

At the University of Detroit Mercy, where the 2001-02 softball team lead Division I softballers in grade point average, Head Coach Bob Wilkerson also emphasizes making studying a constant part of the team’s landscape. “Our kids can study anywhere,” says Wilkerson. “They’re the kind of team that will crack their books open no matter where they are.”

Cracking open those books begins as soon as Wilkerson’s players board the bus. He divides the bus into two, with those wanting to study sitting in the back, away from the distraction of CDs, videos, and cell phones in the front. His students utilize their time on the bus in many ways: by studying together for a test, by upperclassmen offering to tutor underclass teammates; and in one instance, he’s seen a student use a particularly long bus ride to interview one of her coaches for a class paper about Christian Science.

For Wilkerson, knowing when to keep the bus quiet is sometimes a matter of instinct, and sometimes a factor of learning to listen to his student-athletes. “If they ask, we can make the whole bus go quiet,” he says. “This past season, we were leaving Green Bay on a Sunday, and a number of the students had an exam at eight o’clock the next morning. So we set aside two hours for quiet time on the bus, and it worked very well.”

At Western Carolina University, where teams travel by bus for almost all of their away games, Head Women’s Basketball Coach Beth Dunkenberger makes a point of setting aside time for schoolwork on the ride. “We try to create quiet on the bus so people can study whenever we’re on the road,” says Dunkenberger. “We make sure they don’t watch videos for the whole ride. We have a lot of kids who spend a significant amount of time on the bus studying.”

To give his student-athletes an added boost on their bus ride studies, Pearson packs another resource: an academic first aid kit that contains all the tools his players may need away from their dorms. It includes pens, pencils, calculators, scissors, rulers, glue, highlighters, paper, and a laptop. “We try to take everything imaginable, just in case,” he says. “It’s one more way we can take some of the stress off our student-athletes.”

When they’re at home, Dunkenberger expects all her freshmen to attend study table. But when they’re on the road, she takes schoolwork to the next level, requiring all her players to clock study hours in the hotel.

“They are required to bring books and they’re required to study, especially on days that we miss classes,” Dunkenberger says. “They’re expected to be in their rooms with their doors unlocked, sitting up and doing their schoolwork.”

The assistant coaches then walk up and down the halls, checking the athletes’ progress. And though other schools choose to set up study table in the hotel conference room, Dunkenberger prefers keeping athletes separated. “With only two people in a room,” she says, “there’s less opportunity for people to distract one another.”

“Bringing students together can sometimes create more distraction and less time for homework,” agrees Gunter. “You have to structure the situation carefully to make sure it’s productive.”

When Gunter’s teams from Eastern Michigan University arrive at their hotel, the coaches will announce the time, usually the hour and a half after dinner, and a place, usually a coach’s room, where their student-athletes are expected to put in their time at study table. And the key to making the time effective, says Gunter, is for the coaches to take an active role.

“The bottom line is that the coach needs to mandate study table, and talk to the players about their expectations,” says Gunter. “When coaches talk clearly about their expectations, student-athletes will try their best to meet them.”

With sports like swimming and track and field, where athletes spend a lot of time waiting to compete, studying can be a part of meet-day activities. “Every year, we’re invited to a meet in December, and you can learn a lot about our team by looking at the photographs,” says Pearson. “Along with seeing our kids cheering, you’ll see them with their noses in their books, studying right there on the deck. If there are little snippets of free time, our student-athletes take advantage of it by going over notes, or reading, or testing each other.”

To help his student-athletes study between races, Macalester encourages them to think of work that can be divided into small chunks, like doing research on the Internet, outlining a paper, or taking notes from a textbook. He also encourages his student-athletes to think of ways to make schoolwork a more social experience and use teammates for help.

“We encourage our student-athletes to make decks of flashcards, because they’re a really effective study tool at a meet,” says Pearson. “Even if you’re constantly distracted, you can still pick up lots of information as you go.

“By the time we get to the meet, our student-athletes already know what their strategies are going to be,” Pearson continues, “so they don’t sit there doing nothing between races. They can take an hour and a half to study, and then a half hour to finish their mental preparation for their race.”

As part of an emphasis on schoolwork, it’s important to recognize your student-athletes for their academic achievements. At the University of Detroit Mercy, student-athletes who achieve a GPA of 3.0 or higher are placed on the Athletic Director’s honor roll and recognized during a halftime ceremony at a basketball game. An annual award is also given to the team with the highest grade point average.

The key, says Dunkenberger, is for coaches to keep emphasizing the importance of academic success. “Make schoolwork a topic of conversation before and after a practice,” she suggests. “I ask my players, ‘How’s your homework? How was your exam?’

“It’s up to every coach to make sure the student-athletes understand that if they don’t do well academically, we’ll expect them to shift their emphasis from athletics to schoolwork,” continues Dunkenberger. “It’s amazing what students can do if they know that something they love might be taken away from them.”

Along with expecting her players to talk about their classes, Dunkenberger has created her team’s own academic competitions. “Competitive people are generally competitive in everything they do,” she says. “So we split the team in two, and one assistant coach takes half of the team, and another takes the other half. Every week, the students check in with their coach, and they’ll compete with the other half of the team to see which group gets the highest cumulative grade point average.

“The losers have to cook dinner for the winners, so they become very motivated,” she continues. “It’s a matter of pride that all the student-athletes want to be in the winning group. Even the coaches get into it, joking with each other that they’ve got the better group. It works really well.”

And for a select few, the season ends with one last competition: seeing if your team can qualify academically for national honors. “It’s nice to have a carrot to offer your student-athletes,” says Pearson, whose team posted the highest GPA in NCAA Division III women’s swimming in 2003. “They know they can do well in the pool, but as the coach, it helps to remind them, ‘We can show the rest of the country what we can do in the classroom, too.’

“Knowing they can win a title like that motivates a team more than just me saying, ‘You need to do your homework,’” he continues. “Really, they’re here to learn, and we’re just making sure they follow through on the commitment they’ve made to themselves.”

The Colonial Athletic Association has come up with a new idea to help student-athletes study more effectively during road trips. Following an agreement initiated last fall by a consortium of CAA provosts, the 10 member colleges formally began providing visiting student-athletes a place to study away from home, opening their libraries, computer labs, and student-athlete academic centers to teams they are competing against.

“Oftentimes, when athletic teams visit another college, they’re unable to carry out their studies, because it’s difficult to gain access to the resources,” says James Madison University Provost Douglas Brown. “We thought we’d try to solve that problem, and we have.”

Before the policy, visiting teams might have had access to some library facilities. Now, they’re issued temporary identification cards that allow them entrance into the host college’s computer system and to the same resources as members of the home team.

The procedure for securing privileges is as simple as making a single telephone call, with an academic adviser from the visiting team arranging access through his or her counterpart at the host institution. And after a semester in operation, all reports say the system is going well.

“It’s a great opportunity, and a very simple procedure,” says Tom Yeager, Commissioner of the CAA. “Everyone is concerned with the amount of time that our student-athletes spend away from campus. This is the next step to opening some additional academic resources to them. There’s really no downside to it, and I can’t believe no one had ever thought of it before.”

Sidebar: Notebook to Success
By Dr. Sheila Graham Smith and Gerald Carr
Sheila Graham Smith, EdD, is the Director of the Office of Access and Learning Accommodation and Gerald Carr is Assistant Head Football Coach at Baylor University.

Whether on the road or at home, getting athletes to focus on their studies is more difficult when they are not motivated to perform well in school. We’ve found that unmotivated students come to campus with two main problems: the inability to organize their work and the feeling that how they do in school doesn’t really matter.

At Baylor University, we’ve been able to solve these two problems among football athletes with a tool we call “the notebook.” This tool arrived with our new football coaching staff, whose dedication to academics has also been vital since their hiring in December.

Somewhat similar to an executive’s day planner, the notebook enables a student to take control of his time. It gives the athlete the tools to prioritize, plan ahead, and structure his activities efficiently.

New Baylor Assistant Football Coach Gerald Carr brought the notebook system to our campus after learning it from John Baxter (Assistant Coach at Fresno State) when the two worked together as assistants at the University of Arizona. It is an organizational tool based on the premise that the key to academic success is putting students in situations where they feel they are managing time instead of time managing them. It is more flexible than mandatory study tables at specific times and is more effective in the long run because it forces the student-athlete to figure out his own strategies.

The notebook contains a monthly calendar as well as a weekly planner with daily time increments. A sturdy utility holder is also included, which holds a highlighter, pen, pencil, hole punch, and ruler. The highlighter is used for marking upcoming tests and projects on the syllabus in order to transfer these dates to the personal calendar. The hole punch is included so that a student can insert handouts between the appropriate dividers of the three-ring notebook, and the ruler is for lining during note-taking, which is taught in the study skills program.

We teach student-athletes to use the notebook for three functions:

1. Recording information: At the beginning of the semester, they identify requirements from their syllabuses. They record all due dates and test dates in their calendar, along with other important dates including those related to sports and personal activities. They also have an area to write down contact information for professors, tutors, and other academic support sources.

2. Task Analysis: After recording major due dates, the student-athlete takes time to anticipate expectations. We ask him to think about what it will take to hit each deadline—how to break the requirement into smaller tasks, then how to structure his time to make that deadline. These smaller tasks, which may include reading requirements, note taking, and research, are entered into their calendars. We also ask them to consider whether they will need supplemental instruction, and if so, to schedule their tutoring time as well.

3. Quality Control: With the above scheduling plan in hand, student-athletes are taught how to constantly review their plan to stay on track. Once a week, they meet with an academic mentor, and the two look over the calendar. They make a daily task list and write down new responsibilities that may have cropped up. Student-athletes eventually learn how to make adjustments to their plans, allow for some flexibility, and even how to manage their personal time.

Just as important as the actual use of the notebook is the football coaching staff’s belief in it. Lack of attendance at the mentor meeting, an incomplete notebook as demonstrated by an empty calendar, a day of incomplete notes, or unorganized materials is recorded as a miss, just like a miss in the weightroom or on the practice field. At team meetings, individuals with misses are called out as being unreliable team players. Coach Carr repeatedly tells his players, “I’m not going to let you fail yourselves.”

One might think that this much accountability would not sit well with the players, but we saw the opposite happen this past spring semester, the first with the new football staff. These are just a few of the comments that at-risk players shared at the end of the semester:

“I used to have all F’s. Now I have C’s. I did what you told me to do. I gave it a try, just so no one would call me out at a team meeting and look what happened. I succeeded.”

“I didn’t want to keep failing myself and my family. This notebook thing helped me get organized and get started in the right way.”

“I learned to get on my teammate for not doing what he was supposed to do, and that it was okay to do that.”

Initially, students may require incentive in the form of misses and consequences, but as the notebook exercise is repeated semester after semester, independence is gained and success is achieved. And most important, the student-athletes have learned a lifetime skill.