The Rigorous Life of the Student-Athlete

Ruben Leavitt

The academic rigors at our school are undoubtedly demanding and often inundating. The repercussions of school-induced stress can routinely be seen on the faces of students. Yet there is a segment of our student body that shoulders physical stresses on top of the mental ones — student-athletes. Day in and day out, they must accommodate both their academic and athletic commitments. Student-athletes’ time is extremely limited by their practice and game schedules, but they cope with the same workload as the rest of us. How do they do it when it is hard enough for the rest of us to just focus on our academic responsibilities? I interviewed some of the players on the women’s hockey team to probe their thoughts on this matter. Although this article reflects the attitudes of one team, I believe there are wider applications and generalizations that one can take away from it about the lives of the rest of our student-athletes.

“It is a great endeavor to be a student at Colgate University,” Head Coach Scott Wiley said. The team has enjoyed great success both on an off the ice. In his six years behind the bench, no one on the team has been academically suspended, and the team’s GPA average is 3.0. For those of us who are pressed for time without devoting 15-18 hours devoted to hockey per week, we find it difficult to imagine how these girls can do it all.”

Wiley attributed part of his team’s collective success to the types of players Colgate recruits. “Most of the girls we look at can play at the Division I level,” he said, “[But] what we [the coaching/scouting staff] look for in players is their off-ice habits.”

Wiley went on to mention that the coaching staff’s homework mostly consists of gauging these prospects’ character, how they were brought up, assessing whether they can cope with Colgate’s rigorous academic requirements and social atmosphere and whether a player would be a disruption to the team chemistry because of issues in either of those areas.

Team leaders Junior Sam Hunt and Senior Kara Leene reinforced their coach’s words.

“The school offers great academics and great hockey,” Leene said. “Most other schools have one or the other, but Colgate has a perfect balance of both.”

“These are smart kids who want to be successful in more than one area,” Wiley said. “These girls are not afraid to do their homework.”

I personally accompanied the team on a road trip and witnessed the players’ work ethic. While many use their bus time or hotel room time to watch movies, play cards, or just chat, others read Nietzsche, do Calculus homework and make the most of their downtime to keep up with their academic responsibilities. Leene admitted that she does not like to study on the road and that she usually uses the free time to nap or get mentally focused for the upcoming match.

“Sunday is my homework day,” she said. It is a strategy that many of the girls employ which creates much tension sometimes for getting work done in time.

Yet there must be times that the pressure gets to be too much. What happens when midterms, finals and term papers arise? How can these players possibly get the big assignments done when they cannot put aside their athletic responsibilities? It is due to the great Colgate support system that provides athletes with the help that they need. The coaches collect each player’s syllabus to create an academic monitoring book that details when each player’s tests, papers and various other major assignments are due. This allows the coaching staff to know when players are most “under the gun,” and allows them to accommodate the players accordingly.

“Scott knows we are student-athletes and that being a student is our full-time job,” Leene commented. Hunt followed up by saying that Wiley is very good about giving players an off-day when needed.

“We can also do individual workouts to make up for the ones we miss if we can’t come to practice or lifting because of a lecture or something,” Hunt added.

The coaches purposely form practice itineraries around the monitoring book and their players’ needs. Hunt gave an example that if she had a lecture to attend, the coaches would alter the practice itinerary to not work on the power play, a commonly employed practice.

Professors provide another integral part of the players’ support system. They assist players who are in a time crunch and understand when their athletic endeavors conflict with their academic ones. Professors are willing to give players extensions, excuse players from class because of road trips and provide them with supplementary notes. All first-year women’s hockey players and players with a 2.75 GPA or below must attend the mandated study hall at the library, for which the captains take strict attendance. Many of the other players attend anyway. Lastly, there are no practices scheduled during finals week because, as Coach Wiley said, the players have a job to do and need the requisite time to do it. The coaches more than understand what these athletes are going through and provide as much help and guidance as they can.

When I asked who they would go to when they felt that they were having academic issues, both Sam and Kara said that they would feel very comfortable approaching Coach Wiley, and that for specific academic questions, they also look towards Dean of First-Year Students Beverly Low. Overall, mechanisms are devised to have players’ athletic and academic schedules work in sync, and there is a huge safety net for players who may be struggling academically. Open and honest communication is fostered so that everyone can be on the same page and that all the players’ needs can be accommodated.

There is no WNHL and few options for women to play hockey professionally. Most players after their college years join the labor force. A very miniscule percentage gets the opportunity to play for their senior national teams. Why then, I asked, do you play college hockey when there are few hockey options in your future? Why not focus solely on academics? Leene’s response was that she loves the team atmosphere and that it was her dream to play college hockey growing up. Hunt’s answer was that college hockey is the ultimate step before playing for Team Canada (Sam is already a member of Canada’s Under-22 team).

“For them it is their crowning moment,” Coach Wiley said. “Playing college hockey is it for them, the end of the road, so they want to make the most of it because they love the game.”

Being a Colgate student is tough; being a Colgate student-athlete is tougher. But the university has established a reputation for academic and athletic excellence. Our players are individually motivated to succeed and choose an academically rigorous school such as Colgate as much as Colgate chooses them, which is why they find such great success here. With the support systems it has created, Colgate fosters an environment suitable for players’ athletic and academic responsibilities to coexist and flourish. Colgate hockey teams graduate 100% of their athletes and many go on to illustrious careers after school, whether in professional athletics or in the real world. Such statistics are the envy of many other schools and the pride of our own and we should all be proud of everyone’s efforts to sustain such high credentials and create such wonderful options on behalf of our athletes.