The Role of Education in Athletics

Monday, Dec. 9, 2013

The USSA considers itself an "educationally based and athletically focused" organization, referring both to sport education (for parents, coaches, athletes, clubs and officials) and the academic education of its elite athletes.  Academic education for the USSA's elite team athletes has long been supported by the Borgen-Swartz education endowment, which was initiated by USSA Trustees Erik Borgen and Jim Swartz to provide tuition reimbursement for elite team athletes pursuing a college degree during their elite sporting career and during the years immediately after their retirement.

Following the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the USSA made a strategic decision to place significant additional emphasis on the role of academic education and career preparation in elite performance by establishing an Athlete Career and Education (ACE) program, making it unique among both national governing bodies in the U.S. and the world's national ski federations.

This decision initiated a significant build-out of academic and post-athletic career preparation programs targeted at the USSA's elite team athletes.  The USSA has in place a Director of Athlete Career and Education to provide motivation, counseling and direction to elite team athletes in continuing with their education and preparing for their post-athletic careers.  Through this program, all rookie athletes are assessed for educational status, and counseled in setting and following through with an education and career plan.

Those athletes who are still in high school are served by the USSA TEAM Academy, a high school for the USSA's elite team athletes located inside of the Center of Excellence.  This program was initiated to address the needs of the growing number of high school-aged athletes in elite teams, and the challenges they face in completing a quality high school education due to the training and travel demands placed on them.  The proximity of the school allows these athletes to take full advantage of the USSA's elite coaching and high performance programs and facilities, and the model of the school is designed to facilitate uncompromised training and competition schedules.  Using a "blended model" of learning, the TEAM Academy utilizes the best aspects of both the traditional classroom and of modern technology to foster both academic excellence and the flexibility required by these elite athletes.  The athletic and academic benefits of this program have been thoroughly demonstrated, and the graduates of the program have moved directly into college studies – some within days of graduating high school.  Whereas in the past it was typical for elite athletes to delay college enrollment for 8-10 years after high school (and in many cases never making the return to the classroom), the TEAM Academy is proving to be a strong asset in facilitating stronger and more seamless participation in the academic pipeline.

In addition to tuition reimbursements available for elite team athletes wishing to attend any accredited college or university, the USSA has also maintained a strong partnership with Westminster College in Salt Lake City.  Through this partnership, any elite team athlete choosing to pursue a degree at Westminster may do so for free during their time on the team, and for the three years after they retire from the team.  Westminster's proximity to the Center of Excellence provides athletes with an excellent opportunity to study and to train full-time in USSA's elite athlete programs.

Additionally, the USSA recently established an alliance with Utah State University, through which two university classrooms have been established inside the Center of Excellence.  Utilizing cutting-edge technology, USSA elite team athletes can literally train at the Center of Excellence and then walk upstairs to attend live interactive degree-oriented classes.  And for those athletes wishing to take university classes primarily online, a partnership with DeVry University provides access to their courses at no cost to elite team athletes.

For those elite team athletes ready to begin their preparation for their post-athletic careers, the USSA offers a mentoring program through which athletes are aligned with a mentor working either in their desired career field or within their geographic location.  In addition, professionals are invited to take part in group mentoring sessions at the Center of Excellence, where highly successful individuals in specific professions speak about career pathways and networking within that industry.  Career preparation seminars dealing with developing a career plan, networking, resume-writing and job interview skills are also available to the athletes.

When an elite athlete is finally ready to enter into the workforce, there are also resources available to assist them.  Post-Sochi, the USSA will host a "transition camp" for its athletes, providing career transition and networking opportunities with prospective employers.  And the USSA recently established an alliance with Sales Athletes Group to team elite athletes with prospective employers.

All of these programs are in place to support the USSA's Vision.  The USSA believes that a strong commitment to elite athlete education and career development can enhance athletic performance in the following ways:

·         Longer athletic careers – athletes do not need to make the choice between pursuing elite sport or career and education.  If taken as an integrated approach, athletes can use a long athletic career to fully prepare themselves to enter the workforce when the time is right for them, alleviating the perceived need to finish university studies in four years, enter the workforce at an early age, etc.

·         Improved focus on athletics – when career and education are effectively integrated into an athlete's performance plan (in a way that does not compromise the athlete's performance), a sense of confidence and wellbeing about the future after elite sport can alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with the uncertainty of what happens after elite sport.  A 2001 survey of over 400 Olympians and hopefuls revealed that 67% fear an emotional letdown following their elite athletic career due to concern that their athletic commitment delays their long-term career aspirations and advancement.  This fear is not unfounded – the survey also reveals that 43% of those athletes actually experienced trouble entering the workforce following their athletic career.  Additionally, a 2003 study submitted to the IOC noted that the most common needs of elite athletes to maximize "personal and performance development were maintaining balance in life, career and education opportunities".  Eighty-five percent of those interviewed for the study cited the importance of career and education programs for elite athlete development.

·         Diversion from sport – at certain points of each year, and within each Olympic cycle, elite athletes have time to do something outside of sport.   Providing athletes with a diversion such as education or career development can refresh an athlete's motivation for sport.

·         Reduce the stress of injury – when an athlete confronts a major injury, they may be left with significant unoccupied time, which can be productively filled with education and career development, thereby reducing the stressors of lost time and worry about recovery.

·         Better understanding of how to manage a professional athletic career – the demands of a professional athletic career require excellent time management, networking and speaking skills, and evaluative skills which, if enhanced by career and education development, will provide for more fruitful athletic careers.

·         Parent engagement – parents are naturally concerned about their child’s future.  Oftentimes parents may view career and education as being more important than elite sport.  This can often lead an athlete to an "either – or" decision, or lead them to dedicate a shorter period of their lives to elite sport.  If parents are re-assured that education and career development can co-exist with elite sport, they may be more likely to encourage their children's participation in sport both at the grassroots and elite levels.  Furthermore, some studies correlate physical exercise and learning ability, meaning that active athletes are more capable of effective learning while they are training than after they stop.

Not only are these education and career development resources valuable assets for the USSA's elite athletes and alumni, but they are also important to the short-term achievement and long-term success of the organization.

-Luke Bodensteiner, EVP Athletics

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