Show ’Em The Books

As academic performance becomes more important than ever for collegiate student-athletes, athletic directors and coaches need to promote a different culture in their programs.

By Dr. Kevin Hatcher

Kevin Hatcher, EdD, is the Associate Athletic Director for Administration and University Relations at the University of Texas-El Paso.

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005,

For today’s NCAA Division I athletic director, balancing budgets, ensuring compliance with NCAA rules, and winning championships are no longer the only criteria for maintaining a successful athletic program. Athletic directors must now also produce graduates at a higher rate than ever before.

In response, many athletic departments are directing more resources to their academic support services and asking coaches to more thoroughly evaluate recruits’ academic readiness. However, to truly boost an athletic program’s focus on academic achievement, there must also be a subtle culture shift in many programs. Administrators need to show they value academics—and they have to make this part of the everyday communication of the entire athletic department.

Most athletic administrators do value academic achievement, and many coaches do, too. But we don’t always know how to convey it in a meaningful way. The following provides some advice on how to make success in the classroom a focus of your program.

Talk about it. When we chat with student-athletes, the first thing most of us say is usually, "Great game last night," or "Good luck on Saturday," or "How’s that pulled hamstring?" Instead, consider talking about something going on in their academic lives, like, "I heard you decided on your major last week," or "Great job raising your GPA last semester."

The only way for student-athletes to know that we value academics is for them to hear the leaders in the department talk about it. When you, other administrators, and coaches let student-athletes know that their classroom achievements are on your mind, they will understand that academics are important.

Set up a mentoring system. At some institutions, athletic directors provide increased interaction with student-athletes by assigning athletic administrators as one-on-one mentors in a type of "adopt-a-student-athlete" program. In the past, academic advisors have typically served as these mentors, but many athletic directors now solicit the help of the entire athletics administration. The strategy is to target high risk student-athletes prior to their arrival on campus so that the department can provide them with as much assistance as possible.

In this model, athletic administrators facilitate the learning process by helping student-athletes in several small but critical ways. First, a mentoring program gives student-athletes someone to talk to outside of the coaching staff when they are having problems. Second, it gives them one-on-one help in areas like time management and making academic choices. Finally, it shows the student-athlete that someone important is invested in them and believes in them.

Enhance orientation. Most athletic departments have annual orientation programs for new student-athletes that cover everything from athletic training room procedures to NCAA rules. Consider going one step further to provide something that shows the athletic department’s commitment to academics.

For example, you could have a senior student-athlete speak to the newcomers about how his classroom achievement has been the greatest part of his collegiate experience. You can have a representative from each sport stand up and highlight one or more academic achievements of their team. The idea is for someone outside of the traditional academic support team to talk about the importance of academics, which shows that it is integrated into the whole department.

Talk to your coaches. Athletic directors should sit down with head coaches at the beginning of each academic year to outline specific academic standards and expectations. Coaches should then be evaluated on these criteria at annual reviews. In fact, clauses in their contract can stipulate that coaches will receive a loss of wages (including denial of bonuses for postseason play) if the team’s academic performance falls below a certain standard.

In addition, monthly coaches’ meetings should include the topic of academics. Administrators can take this time to reiterate the standards and expectations of the entire department, academic advisors can lead a short discussion, or coaches can trade ideas on boosting academic accountability of athletes.

You can also use this time to give your coaches some ideas on promoting academics among their student-athletes. Some coaches call out players who have done well in the classroom and praise them in front of the team in a very formal way. Others make a point to talk about something in the realm of academics at practice every day. Another strategy is for coaches to talk to their student-athletes about academic goals alongside athletic goals. Using any of these approaches will underline the department’s emphasis on their classroom performance.

Insist on regular meetings. The NCAA’s incentives/disincentives program is now in place and athletic directors need to convey to their staff that no time can be lost in meeting the Academic Progress Rate (APR) minimum score of 925. Therefore, student-athletes should be involved in regularly scheduled meetings with their academic advisors—and their coach—in which academic standards and expectations are outlined. It’s important to meet at least once a month so problems can be spotted early, and to develop disciplinary actions for student-athletes who don’t meet expectations.

Provide help with time management. When student-athletes struggle in the classroom, one of the main reasons is poor time management. By providing seminars and one-on-one help in this area, and by giving athletes the resources to study on road trips, athletic directors can clearly communicate the importance of learning to balance athletics and academics.

Bringing about the necessary changes to increase graduation rates will be a slow and arduous process for many athletic directors. Emphasizing academics on a daily basis, in many different ways, is an important part of the solution.