Career Exploration and Student Athletes
It has been a few years since I coached college football. There are lots of things that I miss about it like the first day of fully padded practice, late nights breaking down film, scrimmages and of course, game day. I also miss my players and not just the coaching part. Developing relationships with players creates a bond that is unique to those in student affairs administration. That’s right, I said it, coaches are student affairs administrators; especially at the small, NAIA institutions I used to work at. One thing that I always tried to work with my players on was career development. Many athletes in the NAIA and Division III pay for the education through financial aid and family contributions. Athletic scholarships (if any) cover a fraction of the tuition, room, board and miscellaneous expenses associated with getting a college degree. Most would graduate with significant student debt, making the question: what do you want to do when you graduate an increasingly important one.
The answer to this question is not easy for student-athletes, even those who compete at levels that do not typically lead to professional careers. Across levels, the literature is pretty clear that student-athletes identify strongly as athletes first, and students second (Houle, Brewer, & Kluck, 2010). Moreover, the stresses associated with balancing their athletic schedule with academic commitments leads to the athlete choosing the former in most cases (Brewer, Raalte, & Linder, 1993). These choices, while often a positive factor in retaining student-athletes, can have harmful effects upon the athletes psyche as development in other areas/identities is often stagnated (Watt & Moore, 2001). Two areas that are often underdeveloped are long-term goal setting and career planning (Sandstedt, Cox, Martens, Ward, Webber, & Ivey, 2004; Eiche, Sedlacek, & Adams-Gaston, 1997). When addressing career planning with students there are two important terms to consider: vocational identity and career maturity. Vocational identity refers to strong feelings or identities associated with a particular field. Student-athletes often score high on vocational identity surveys largely due to the fact that athletes often feel that they will either play professionally after college or be involved in a closely aligned athletic profession (i.e. coaching or physical training). Career maturity refers to factors that are broader in nature and are nested in the realistic appraisal of one’s competencies and abilities in a field (Martens & Cox, 2000).
Martens and Lee (1998) provide a model for involvement that is both sensible and beneficial to the student-athlete if implemented. Their three step model involves cooperation with the (1) athletic department, (2) identification of student-athlete goals, and (3) implementation of the program (Martens & Lee, 1998). The first step is the most crucial since the athletic department and specific team control much of the athlete’s schedule. Without a push from the athletic department, administrators may find it difficult to get student-athletes to engage in career exploration. The second step involves breaking down logistical barriers, promoting independence, exploring options and interests, and using the student-athlete’s strong identity as an asset to the job search process (Martens & Lee, 1998). This last point (using the student’s identity) can come in useful in creating “back-up” plans for those who have aspirations of playing professional sports. The final step discusses the implementation of a career development program. Martens and Lee (1998) suggest incorporating career development into the athlete’s schedule. Realistically, incorporation into the schedule or some form of formal endorsement by either the team or the athletic department is essential in creating an effective career program for student- athletes.
The need for career exploration early and often in a student’s academic life is needed if we want to ensure a smooth transition into the workforce; especially during these trying times. Reports indicate that possessing work-related experiences and skills are a chief determinant in employing students out of college (CERI, 2007). These skills and experiences come primarily from internships and co-op placements. Such placements are difficult to obtain during the academic year due to team commitments and depending on the program’s requirements. Such opportunities can also be difficult in the summer if the student-athlete is catching up on coursework or in the case of some Division II, III and NAIA athletes may be working jobs to help cover their school expenses. This can be problematic as many internships and coops are unpaid (the legislative battles currently surrounding unpaid internships is a whole other story).
So what is the solution? Particularly for those who work at institutions that may not have services dedicated specifically to student-athletes or at institutions that may have limited campus services period? The overly- simplistic answer is: anything. Any conscious effort to develop an athlete’s skill set and allow them to further explore their aspirations is a good step. This can be done through orientation programs, specific sessions with campus administrators (i.e. having career services administer surveys such as the Student Athlete Career Services Inventory (SACSI), using resources from the NCAA Life Skills program or a formalized effort from the athletic department itself.
Although student-athletes tend to struggle with long-term planning outside of their sport, they have a plethora of skills and abilities that make them marketable in the post-graduation world. Such skills include teamwork, leadership, ability to cope with pressure, commitment and work ethic. It should be the goal of coach/administrators to ensure that student-athletes can enter the marketplace with these skills in addition to experience and a better sense of what career path they wish to take.
Brewer, B. W., Raalte, J. L. V., & Linder, D. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscles or achilles heel? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 24: 237-254.
Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac (2005-06). College enrollment by racial and ethnic group, selected years.
Eiche, K., Sedlacek, W., & Adams-Gaston, J. (1997). An exploration of leadership characteristic in university athletes. University of Maryland at College Park. Research Report # 6-97. Retrieved March 6, 2010 from: http://williamsedlacek.info/publications/articles/exploration697.html
Houle, J.L., Brewer, B.W., & Kluck, A.S. (2010). Developmental trends in athletic identity: A two-part retrospective study. Journal of Sport Behavior, (33)2, 146-159.
Martens, M.P., & Cox, R.H. (2000). Career development in college varsity athletes. Journal of College Student Development, (41)2, 172-180.
Martens, M.P., & Lee, F.K. (1998). Promoting life-career development in the student Athlete: How can career centers help? Journal of Career Development,(25)2. 123-134.
Sandstedt, S.D., Cox, R.H., Martens, M.P., Ward, D.G., Webber, S.N., & Ivey S. (2004). Development of the student-athlete career situation inventory (SACSI). Journal of Career Development, (31)2, 79-93.
Watt, S.K., & Moore, J.L. (2001). Who are student athletes? In M.F. Howard-Hamilton & S.K. Watt (Eds.), New direction for student services: Rethinking for college athletes. (7-18) New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.