Dr. Sheila Kennedy
8 December 2022
Overcoming Obstacles and Creating Solutions:
Working to Find a Calling as a College Student-Athlete
Athletes at the collegiate level experience the spotlight when it comes to funding and recognition at their university. The supportive coaches, the best friends as teammates, and the fun travel all seem to give a clear upper hand in a college lifestyle. With all the support, the four or five years may seem like a breeze that rushes by. In the end they are bound to have everything figured out for a fulfilled life with a successful job in hindsight. However, research and personal experiences highlight the grueling and mostly unheard of obstacles for college athletes finding a calling in life. As an athlete the dedication to a sport for four years takes away the time that they should be searching for a purpose in life. Collegiate athletes have a significant disadvantage in finding a purpose in their college careers. They spend much of their four years focusing on the sport that generally isn’t continued after they graduate. But after that, they must find a calling beyond training and competing for their sport. Their hyperfocus on a sport leads to not being set on a career path they feel confident in. This struggle is seen all throughout college athletics and can be improved. At the collegiate level, solutions can be created to help these student-athletes overcome the obstacles that hinder them from finding a true calling.
The word “calling’ stirs up a lot of debate, as to what it actually is and how it is found. Purpose and meaning are a big part of the definition of calling, according to Adam Christopher in Calling and Career Counseling with College Students, “purpose refers to an individual’s sense of striving toward an achievement of various life goals…”(Steger 2009, as cited in Christopher 15); and meaning is “defined as the extent to which people…see significance in their lives, accompanied by the degree to which they perceive themselves to have a purpose” (15). Understanding the definition of calling is one thing, but people also have to know how to find it. Throughout 3 Reasons it's so Hard to “Follow your Passion,” Jachimowicz informs that the significant barriers between people and their found identity includes: people having to develop their passion, people struggling with sticking with passions over long periods of time, and people forgetting the limits our passions can take us. The biggest issue is that people try to find fixed passions, when in reality they must be developed. A Deloitte survey in Jachimowicz work showed that out of 3,000 workers, only 20% were truly passionate about their work. This leads me to believe we have an issue, overall, in our society, with finding an identity in our lives. Overall, a calling develops overtime while including the molding of one's identity with finding their purpose and meaning. This definition of calling is a key element to helping student-athletes improve their quality out of four to five years in a college sport. College is the place where students can learn and discover new parts about themselves. In an article How Shall I Live? Constructing a Life Story in the College Years, written by McAdams and Guo, they cite William James “in a lecture he regularly gave to Harvard College students in the 1890s…[arguing] that human ideals confer deep meaning and significance on a life, and college should be designed to promote the exploration of ideals” (15). This truth still confides much of our understanding of what the purpose of college should be; however, certain obstacles are preventing college athletes from attaining those “human ideals.”
When it comes to balancing additional responsibilities beyond education, student-athletes often encounter worsening mental health issues and packed schedules that don’t leave room for finding a purpose outside a sport. When a sport is incorporated, it is a large part of an increased stress level. The anxiety and stress arise from the pressure of performance, conflicts with coaches or teammates, and expansive schedules that take up their time. These additional responsibilities athletes carry take away from them being in the right mental place to find a calling. Karagiorgakis, Aris, and Blaker state in their research, throughout The Effects of Stress on USCAA Student-Athlete Academics and Sport Enjoyment, that they found “NCAA student-athletes may have higher stress and anxiety levels, a higher chance of depression, and may be more likely to feel more secluded from their social groups” (Steiner et al., 2003; Sudano et al., 2017, as cited in Karagiorgakis et al. 430). These standings are created by the athletes’ devotion to practice, conditioning, traveling, and competitions, which add onto their workload of assignments. All of their time is spent participating in these activities, meaning they have no time for themselves to find an interest outside of their sport. Without the time for other extracurricular activities or without the time to find a true identity, athletes are struggling to find their calling.
Extracurricular activities are crucial to a young adult's life in high school and college. It is proven that engaging in more extracurricular activities may lead to better life satisfaction for young adults. According to Extracurricular Participation, Collective Self-Esteem, and Academic Outcomes Among College Students, “participating in extracurricular activities during college has been linked with positive peer relations and academic success” (Astin, 1984; Stuart et al., 2011, as cited in Knifsend et al. 318). This success is parallel with the life satisfaction of having more of an identity as a college student. However, when you have an athlete, who focuses on one sport for most of their life, it can really affect what purpose they can discover. Without a wide range of experiences, people don’t know what they may enjoy in different outlooks of life. This is demonstrated by the famous quote: “You won’t know unless you try.” However, it’s not as simple as just cramming in a bunch of extracurriculars into an athlete’s already packed schedule. Karagiorgakis, Aris, and Blaker reiterated that student-athletes “who spent 10 or more hours per week in athletic activities had lower GPAs than non-athletes”(Aries et al. (2004), as cited in Karagiorgakis et al. 431). They also did further extensive research to prove that the worsening GPA was due to the extracurricular activities, not the sports performance. Therefore, while extracurricular activities help these young adults branch out and find a calling they may also be causing the anxiety and stress student-athletes face on a daily basis. Adding more clubs and programs to athletes’ schedules doesn’t help them find a purpose like it would for a common student. The number of activities led to less enjoyment in a sport, stress, and a lowering GPA (431). This conclusion adds to the importance of finding a new and improved way for athletes to experience more opportunities in college to find a calling. These complications pile up around student-athlete’s working to discover that passion besides a sport.
Another big obstacle is actually disguised as a support system for student-athletes. Athletes are given guidance throughout their college experience when choosing majors, picking schedules, and passing classes. This guidance is 100% a benefit; however, the college athletic system is failing to see the disguised detrimental impact. Athletes are allowing their lives to be shaped and controlled for them. Specifically, throughout Lessons from Graduate(d) Student Athletes: Supporting Academic Autonomy Siduri highlights two journalist, Hardin and Pate, to define important lessons from a graduated student-athlete who discovered the “problematized the revolving, rather than evolving nature of academic and time-management support athletes receive”(96). As technology and school support systems improve, athletes are stagnating when it comes to their academic abilities in school. Athletes are receiving a support system regarding academic advising, major clustering, study tables, and even at higher levels, pressures from coaches to teachers. The help they receive is useful but denies athletes from taking control of their academics. Academic advising is a big part of this lack of control because advisors tend to complicate the support athletes receive by overstepping when helping them maintain eligibility. Academic Advisors I personally have had discuss giving me easy credit builder classes and suggest a 15 over 18 credit-hour schedule, as to not conflict with my basketball schedule. That is how Academic advising consistently funnels into the problem by allowing a sports schedule to override any major or class priorities. Advisors make it more difficult for these athletes to be challenged into discovering more about different career paths and other hobbies. This fosters these athletes into young adults with little personal development and little understanding of academic integrity. Research has been done on “major clustering (e.g. when large percentages of athletes on a team are clustered into one major)...and athlete’s general academic socialization process” (Siduri 95). Also, scholars noted that when they reached out to athletes being recruited that certain benefits were given such as academics being “handled” so that athletics can be the main focus (Jayakumar & Comeaux, 2016, as cited by Siduri 95). All of these examples lead to the lack of control athletes have in their own life choices. Cutting corners like this for athletes stands in the way of them finding their calling. Without adequate emphasis put on academics, an athlete really has no way of finding a purpose outside of their sport. When the athletic programs work to put athletics over academics, it creates a lack of focus on academics and extracurricular activities. So, with the blurred sense of priorities, an athlete is unable to find a meaningful calling in life throughout their collegiate athlete years.
In order to find out more about the struggle for athletes to find their vocation in college, I interviewed Kiesha Newell, my college basketball coach. She went through a very similar process as a college athlete herself. Newell also had the perspective as a coach for 12 years, in which she’s seen athletes struggle over these exact hurdles I’ve outlined thus far. Newell played four years of women’s college basketball; one season at the University of Southern Indiana and three seasons at Loyola University. However, the rule was that if you transferred colleges, you had to sit out a season before playing. Therefore, her second year of college basketball was viewed from the sideline. When interviewing her, I learned her major was Business with minors in Marketing and Sports Management. She stated how she “knew she wanted to do Business from the moment [she] got to college.” She further explained that having a broad business major could help her explore many options outside of college for a career. However, due to the broad scope of opportunities in the field of business, she struggled with finding the right calling. She opened up about how after her four years, “as [she] was approaching graduation, [she] didn’t know who she was outside of basketball.” She struggled to find her identity outside of her sport and didn’t know what her calling would be without a sport to train and practice for. Newell labeled this time period as being scary and she is thankful it all worked out, but also wished she had more guidance in that process. I questioned her about what led her to know she wanted to coach basketball after her four years in college. She remarked that during her second year of playing, while she sat out, she envisioned her first moments of clarity in finding her calling. The new perspective from filling a new role on the team led her to follow the path of coaching. It’s intriguing to know that the singular year that her priorities were not hyperfocused on basketball stressors, was also the year that she developed a true identity in her future career.
Right out of college, Newell began her coaching career; she learned more about the struggle athletes face in finding an identity outside of their sport. Newell first became the director of basketball operations at Loyola in her first year out of college, which led to her position as their assistant coach for three more seasons. She continued her career of coaching as head coach of Roosevelt University for four seasons, and Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School for three seasons, and has now landed the head coaching job at Lewis University in her first season. These experiences have allowed her to have a plethora of knowledge about student-athletes’ lifestyles. She has seen these athletes pour so much of their energy into their sport. She highlights the struggle of athletes, when they do get free time, to exert more energy into any other activities.
Similarly to me, she wants to see improvement in these areas for athletes to arrive at a solution for clearer career paths after college. She strongly believes in the importance for coaches to be role models when it comes to helping their athletes figure out their worth outside of their sport. With their experience in finding an identity in life, coaches can explore the journey of their athletes growing and changing in college. There’s so much to be taught from experience when it’s about finding purpose. Newell has specifically shown me the importance of caring deeply about your passion. This can be emphasized and can become a more common ordeal with any collegiate sport. As I spend everyday with her, I have seen the amount she cares about her job and her athletes as well. Newell has a great love and compassion for the athletes she’s mentored, and she wants to see solutions put in place in colleges around the world.
Athletes need effective solutions that not only help them find a career, but more importantly, help them find a valued purpose. As proven earlier, throwing additional extracurriculars into a schedule is not going to make the beneficial impact we want on a collegiate athlete's life. There are a plethora of successful solutions that can be provided to college athletes at all levels. Newell pointed out that by being a role model to each of her players, she is able to help each one of her athletes succeed in a life outside of their sport. She wants each and every coach to be a support system to their athletes. Coaches can equally help student-athletes in their athletic and academic lives. This would benefit athletes who spend so much of their day in the gym with the coaches that they trust and appreciate. We can create a new environment for athletes, enabling them to sit down with coaches in meetings about a future after college or about what vocation could be right for them. Newell also suggested adding a class geared towards athletes finding a calling before stepping foot into the real world. As a team or individually these students could learn about a multitude of career opportunities pertaining to their interest. The goal I am striving for is to not just throw these athletes into a career, but rather to guide them towards an engaging and fruitful purpose that will help them transition out of being an athlete. These classes would allow athletes to explore more of their passions. Jachimowicz generalizes throughout his article that a passion can only be discovered; and for it to hold any substance, it has to be something meaningful. Athletes can be guided along a better path to finding a passion outside of their sport. They can be encouraged to develop a plan that can take its course after their four years as collegiate athletes.
I’ve done extensive research on the success of workshops for collegiate athletes. After Newell suggested a class geared toward athletes and callings, I found a multitude of studies done that highlighted their purpose. One specific study, done in Calling and Career Counseling with College Students: Finding Meaning in Work and Life on career counseling and workshops, included two different controlled workshops: a standard career group and calling-focused career group. The workshops were only two sessions long and each had different components to helping students find a career. The calling-focused career group were supported in discerning vocations, and they were provided with psychoeducational activities. The different learning styles given to the second group helped them better understand callings when looking at their occupations. The conclusions of the experiment found that both workshops improved students' success in discovering the best fit career. However, the second workshop group had a better understanding of calling and felt more engaged in their careers after a survey was done (Christopher 70). The results are exceptionally important to the main point of athletes finding their purpose. I don’t want us as a society to just work to help these athletes find a job; I want them to find a passion that makes life worth waking up for. This can be achieved based on the results pertaining to the students being more engaged in a career after the calling-focused workshop. An additional study's conclusions found by Adam Christopher on career satisfaction suggested that “when an individual perceives him- or herself to be engaged in a calling, his or her objective work successes” positively correlate (69). So, athletes can benefit highly from this new brand of workshops where they can learn more about themselves and find a true purpose in a career that satisfies them completely.
An important question that can be asked to athletes during the calling-focused workshops is found in Alan Watts’ inspirational video “What if Money Was No Object?” Throughout this video Watts asks a question similar to “What career would you pursue if money wasn’t a factor?” I think this question can be geared toward a student-athlete by asking: “What passions would you pursue if your time was devoted mostly to your sport?” An athlete's daily schedule, as we I’ve previously dissected, revolves around their sport. So, if these priorities weren’t in the pictures it begs to differ what interest they might develop. Student-athletes need the accommodating solutions to enable this to become a reality. They can enjoy life as an athlete, while also putting care into their future. A workshop filled with all types of difficult questions like this one might improve student-athletes’ chances of finding a calling.
Finally, I wanted to find one more meaningful solution that I knew would benefit any student athlete with little to no failure. Since I, myself, am a student athlete, I found it fitting to explore different ideas that would encourage athletes to know themselves and their identity before leaving college. My coaching staff has done an incredible job taking time to care for our team's mental health. I feel comfortable enough to walk in their office at any time to let them know where my head is at. However, there are so many athletes that sadly don’t have this benefit. The encompassing of mental health awareness in the athletic world has been improving, but we are not finished fixing that problem. In the first five months of 2022, up to four female collegiate athletes have died from suicide. This issue is bigger than any conference championship or NCAA title game. Athletes are more than their sport and more than their value on the court or field. A small step towards a solution could be a weekly mandatory mental health check-in with a counselor for athletes. This way athletes can set aside meaningful time to discuss any bumps in the road or develop solutions to defining themselves outside of their sport. Throughout “Happiness among athlete, artiste and non-athlete/non-artiste college students,” Mamen and Alka said it best when discussing happiness and mental health: “In a world where stress has dominion over human life and has become an obstacle to development, the importance of happiness is emphasized. Happiness is a crucial ingredient of well-being and the most valuable goal of human life (46).
I believe that with the stress put on athletes to perform every single day, they just simply don’t have the time or energy to think about the future. Every single day is a battle with blood, sweat, and tears for athletes. There are a few that can manage every obstacle as a student athlete. But, overall, they deserve a chance at success after college, where they can develop and grow into an individual, not just an athlete. Student athletes have the ability to excel in finding a calling when these solutions are implemented to mediate the overflowing schedules, the negative aspects of extracurriculars, the barriers placed by academic advisors, and the struggles of finding an identity outside of a sport.
Christopher, Adams. Calling and Career Counseling with College Students: Finding Meaning in ...
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Mamen, Jesline Maria Martin, and V. Alka. “Happiness among Athlete, Artiste and Non-Athlete
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