The transition from high school to college athletics is not always easy for students. It can be particularly difficult for hometown stars, who now find themselves sitting on the bench, or having to compete with several others for starting roles at the college level.
Some students seem to make the transition without much of a problem. Others shift gears a bit – perhaps taking up a new, recreational sport, or immerse themselves in other university activities. But some athletes become discontented, even depressed, as a result of the new reality. Some of these students will leave that school, either transferring to another institution, or perhaps dropping out of college entirely.
So, which athletes tend to be resilient, and which don’t make handle this “athletic disengagement” so well?
Jeffrey VanLone, director of counseling services at Southern, has some answers, based on several years of research he and others conducted. VanLone is also a youth sports coach and was a high school athlete, himself. He began at SCSU two years ago.
“One of the trends we are seeing is an increase in the number of kids who specialize in a particular sport, rather than participating in various sports,” VanLone said. He said that kind of specialization is often happening even before high school. As a result, a single sport is becoming more a part of the identity of students than in the past.
While serving as an associate vice president of student affairs at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., from 2007 to 2015, he said he noticed that a rising number of athletes were leaving the school if they weren’t getting much playing time, or didn’t get a starting role in their freshman year. “They were more connected with a particular sport than the institution,” he said.
VanLone said he and some colleagues at that school decided to study what appeared to be a trend, adding that very little research was available on this topic. What research was available indicated that those who identified the most strongly as an athlete had a greater likelihood of suffering emotionally, and sometimes even physically, when trying to cope with a diminished role in a particular sport.
“Our research found the same trend – but what we also found was that there were many dimensions to it,” he said. “We identified seven major factors that are involved.”
His findings appear in an article posted Jan. 13 in the Journal of College Students Psychotherapy and will run in the print version next month. The article is titled “Assisting College Students With Athletic Disengagement.”
VanLone said that while previous research focused on internal factors when assessing how strongly a person identified as an athlete in a particular sport, his study also found significant external factors, as well. Examples of external influences include encouragement or pressure generated from family members and from the campus community. In other words, those who have a significant fan base, or whose parents push them, are likely to have a stronger athletic identification, and therefore, may have a more difficult time disengaging from their sport.
The seven factors that VanLone found significant were:
- Sport vs. collegiate identity: Those who identify more closely with their sport than the college they are attending tend to have a more difficult time with athletic disengagement. As a result, an athlete is more likely to leave the school to play somewhere else than someone who identifies more closely with their school. Conversely, those who identify more closely to the college or university are more likely to continue as students at that institution.
- Athletic identity primary: Athletes who put a preponderance of their time and energy into a particular team tend to have a tougher time when faced with the prospect of leaving that time or having a diminished role. On the other hand, those with a wider array of interests tend to make the transition more easily.
- Direct engagement: Those who place a higher importance on excelling and actual playing time than average tend to have a more difficult time with athletic disengagement. For example, a player who is used to starting for his team and suddenly is forced to take a substitute role may have a hard time adjusting.
- Perceived encouragement from coaches and teammates: Athletes who believe their coaches and teammates support and care about them as individuals tend to handle the possibility of athletic disengagement better. They may opt to continue participating on the team in a reduced role, or perhaps in a new role assisting the coach. Similarly, those who like the social aspect of sports tend to more easily find another sport or activity that brings similar social benefits.
- Athletic achievement history: Athletes who receive significant rewards and gain positive notoriety from the public with regard to their participation reap significant benefits. But one of the potential challenges associated with these benefits is a more difficult time for athletes in adjusting to a new identify if they leave the team.
- Perceived social status symbol: If an athlete believes their popularity or social life is strongly related to their participation, leaving the team can be more difficult.
- Family pride: While family encouragement and support can be healthy, students who feel that the family has invested a high degree of time and money into their participation in a sport can feel pressure not to let them down. As a result, they may opt to transfer to another college where they will be able to have a bigger role on that team.