Friday, April 13, 2007
Raising the student athlete: achieving an athletic and academic balance
"Raising a Student-Athlete," the title of a standing-room only talk given by Dr. Adam H. Naylor on Thursday evening, March 29, at the Hunt Community Center in Concord may have misled the audience slightly. The hyphen implied that academics and athletics would have an equal balance in the talk. While Naylor, a teacher and sports psychologist at Boston University, did share much valuable information on developing an athlete, he didn't share much insight on how academics might affect the equation. Fortunately, the teacher/coaches at Concord-Carlisle High School completed the equation.
"This is an academic high school, and in most cases the teachers are coaching the sports, and their priorities get reflected," said Ray Pavlik, CCHS science department chair, head coach of the varsity state champion soccer team, and former graduate. "They're student-athletes: they're students first and they're athletes second. If they don't fulfill their student piece, they don't get to compete in the athletic portion." While state eligibility requirements may be lower and allow "D" passing grades, Pavlik holds his students to a high standard. Regardless of whether a student is passing a class, there have been situations in the past where he did not play a person for not meeting academic expectations and falling behind on homework. This approach has had impressive results off the field. According to Pavlik, "Last year on my soccer team the number one kid in the senior and the junior class both played soccer."
Coach played soccer at Bates College
"Our school is an academic school," agreed Joe Leone, math teacher at CCHS since 1973, CCHS football coach since 1975 and baseball since 1985. "Let's make no mistake. You go to Acton-Boxboro and maybe even Lincoln-Sudbury and Westford, athletics comes before academics. Not so here. Being a coach here is difficult. You are trying to coach kids who believe that academics come first — because their families believe academics come first and their teachers believe academics come first. And teacher/coaches like me always instill in them that academics come first."
Athletics over academics
Eleven years ago Leone came to teach at the high school, where his favorite class is freshman honors geometry. He also teaches algebra and advanced trigonometry. He was a multi-sport athlete at Burlington High School where he played football, basketball and baseball before attending the University of Maine. He continued playing sports, and freely admitted that he preferred athletics to academics. His love for sport led him to coaching and subsequently education.
"Usually the kids who are successful on the playing field and in the classroom have a strong desire to be successful at everything they do," Leone said of CCHS students. "They know who they are and that everything they do is a reflection on them. Kids that find success in one area and not the other tend to feel they have to quickly choose: 'I'm going to focus more here.' It's imperative as a coach to instill in kids that they don't have to choose.
At the high school today, training for a sport can take two to four hours a day. It depends on the sport and the coach. On game days, the workload can be great, and the athlete does not have time left for much else. "You get some pretty high-powered kids that will not go to bed until 1 o'clock because they have four hours of homework," admitted Leone. Nonetheless he agrees with Pavlik that the off-season can actually be more difficult for the student-athlete.
"It is hard to find that balance in the off-season," said Leone, "especially when you don't want to go home and do homework. It's easier to stay on task when you have to be disciplined. An athlete not used to free time — in a situation when not playing — can delay and things tend not to get done."
Developing the young athlete
Back to the crowded Hunt Community Center, where Dr. Naylor met with 67 attendees. Naylor's credentials are impressive. He currently teaches at Mt. Ida College as well as Boston University and has consulted with Olympic and professional athletes. Naylor also acknowledged that most athletes do not play at the professional level, and he offered many tips and advice for developing the best in athletes to maximize their sports experiences. As some of the attendees in the audience were volunteer coaches and devoted side-line fans of the Concord/Carlisle youth athletic programs, the pointers were applicable in improving town youth programs.
"The only necessities in youth sports are injury prevention and fun," said Naylor. He related that parents and coaches often worry too early about whether or not emerging athletes get enough training, earn enough playing time and compete at high-enough levels. He quoted industry literature and data to conclude, "In mixed skill-level groups, the one who benefits the most is the most skilled athlete" who learns how to teach and lead others in the group.
"Did you win?"
"Winning does not matter until age ten," said Naylor about young athletes. Unfortunately, the first question from a parent of a kid coming home from a game is often "Did you win?" He suggested better questions:
- How did you play?
- What were the highlights of the game?
- Would you tell me about your pains, bumps and bruises?
- What did you learn?
- Did you have fun?
Naylor listed three key attributes that youth coaches should focus on: commitment, respect and teamwork. He identified the two characteristics that parents should nurture in their children, "Without passion and persistence, an athlete drops out," and he added another reason for early burnout: early specialization in a single sport.
Naylor, a former multi-sport athlete himself, believes the primary benefits for competing in multiple sports is that an athlete reduces the chance of repetitive and stress injuries and develops skills more slowly and more consistently than the single-sport athlete. He or she typically peaks at the age of 18. The athlete will be at his or her best to gain admission to the best college possible versus specialized athletes who might peak at 14 or 15. Playing college sports, said Naylor, may represent the highest goal that most athletes can realistically achieve.
For Naylor, academic achievement seems to be represented by gaining admission to a top college or university and appears to be the result of strategic athletic participation. For local athletes, their families, and CCHS coaches, however, the strategy of emphasizing academics comes first.
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito