Teaching Student Athletes

I had an interesting conversation on Twitter last week with @Abigail_Scheg and wanted to write a short post as a kind of follow-up.  Dr. Scheg was at the Conference on College Composition and Communication and was attending a panel on student athletes.  One of her posts in the backchannel of this panel said this:  “Speaker 2: Student athletes are not just ‘basic writers’.”  Although I was not at the conference, I was following the Twitterfeed, and I immediately responded by saying, “Indeed. Athletes are just like any other group of students. So many variables here too: size of school, division, etc.”  Our conversation went on briefly for a bit, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts here.

As a former athlete, this is a hot-button issue for me.  Too often, athletes can be lumped together as one all-encompassing (and usually, the popular opinion goes, low-performing) group.  Nothing could be further from the truth, especially because there are so many differences in programs, schools, sports, etc.  Even on my own Division III wrestling team, we had good students, mediocre students, and not-as-good students, and this was at a college that certainly privileged academics more than athletics.  To assume, then, that athletes are a monolithic group that all approach learning in the same way is as fallacious as assuming that about any group of students.

It may be true that athletes learn differently from other students, but all students learn differently, so that could also be an easy red herring.  One possibility for effectively teaching athletes, though, is to use their vast domain knowledge (sports) to help them understand difficult course concepts.  I have taught many athletes in my career and used analogies and situations from their own sports to help them with course material.  I once taught a basketball player, for example, in a composition class.  He was having a difficult time with the logic of his argument and the organization of his paper.  After several attempts using traditional methods, I framed the question in terms of designing plays that would be successful on the court.  It didn’t work right away, but the student did start to see how he could use the parameters of logic he accesses every day in practice and apply it to his writing.

This is one example from my own experience, and I would love to hear how others approach teaching athletes.  In general, though, I will say that domain knowledge may be an untapped resource for working with these students

 

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Student Athletes

  1. I find that I often use sports analogies to teach my students, and sometimes I call out the athletes in order to help make my point. For instance, nobody ever likes to take tests. Some people don’t fear them, but nobody looks forward to them. Tests, for many, are that thing to be feared, because you have to prove what you know, and that can be scary. I don’t call those days “test days” anymore; I call them “game days.” Here’s where I use student athletes to help me explain. You may enjoy practice, but everybody loves game day. That’s where you go out and play. That’s what you practice for. That’s where you can win. Everybody wants to do well on game day, and game day is just plain fun. It’s why you become an athlete. Nobody becomes a college baseball player because of his passionate love for fielding drills. But he always loves to play. And while the drills may get tedious, every athlete realizes their importance. And every athlete practices. My basketball players are sometimes stunned to learn that LeBron James still practices. Of course he does. Because of game day. Then those students nod their heads, because they realize that’s he’s special *because* of the time he spends practicing, not in spite of it.

    And like game day, test day is something you can prepare for. You may not have to turn a double play in a game, but we’re going to drill that skill because you might have to. You always have a rough idea of what could happen on the field; you just never know exactly how it will play out. So you have to prepare for all of it. Same with test days. You don’t know what will be asked. But you can prepare for what *could* be asked. You can run through the “game” in your head, considering all posible outcomes, and trying to prepare for them. So for me, test review days involve asking my students, “what sorts of things might I ask?” They know the scope of the class, the content, the class discussion. Rarely – to give a baseball example – will my players want to drill the possibility that a center fielder might have to throw out someone stealing second. The basic skills – throwing the ball accurately, being aware of the runner, knowing the pitch count, etc. – are important, but we would never put them together that way. Well, class can be the same way. I have been teaching skills, and I may ask you to put those skills to use, but the variety of things I could ask you to do does not mean that *anything* might be on the test.

    One reason I like this – a side benefit, and not the reason for the analogy – is that it helps my student athletes see that they are already involved in complex thinking. They might say, “I’m just a dumb jock,” but there’s a great deal of mental preparation that goes into planning for a game. And the ability to think quickly, to react to change, to recover from poor play, could be the difference between winning and losing. As well as the difference between passing and failing. Knowing that an answer is going bad, and having the ability to recover and change tactics, is important. (Good students, I tell my students, aren’t afraid to put a line through something and change direction in the middle of writing in class.) And whenever I am working with a student athlete in office hours, I try to get him/her to think in terms of their sport. Sometimes the analogy stretches thin, but it helps them to see that complex, critical thinking is not something they only do in the classroom. And if nothing else, it helps remind my student athletes that improvement comes with practice. You want to develop a better batting eye? Get in the cages. It’s the only way. You want to develop an eye for grammatical usage and editing? You have to sit down, and read and write. It’s the only way. Often, my student athletes understand that there are no short cuts; you want to succeed, you have to put in the time. Sometimes, non-athletes don’t quite get that. I may get student athletes who don’t want to put in the work. But I have never had a student athlete who thought that success came without practice.

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