Educating Elite Athletes


In the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics, “the stories” of a few, carefully selected athletes will dominate our memories of the event.  Yet, in all but a few cases the details of their education were not part of these stories, despite the fact that most athletes are of school or college age.  NBC said that Gabby Douglas had only seen her mother four times in the past two years because she moved to Iowa to train with her coach.  Little, if any, mention was made of how this move affected her education.  While most Olympians had friends cheering for them from home, Missy Franklin’s classmates were featured on NBC because she chose to remain in her parochial high school as a regular student and she succeeded as an athlete, which is widely recognized as an anomaly for an elite athlete.  But no mention was made of how the school accommodated Missy’s demanding schedule and time away from class for training and competition.  The Times (8/3/12, p. B14) published an article on 22 year old Kayla Harrison that focused on the sexual abuse she had overcome to achieve a gold medal in judo.  In the final paragraphs, almost as an after thought, it mentioned that she “wants to go to college and lead a normal life, having missed out on all the standard parts American youth while she was grappling her opponents into submission on the mat.”  And quoted her as saying, “I think it would be pretty cool to be a kid.”

“Just don’t victimize athletes,” said Army Captain Brett Walker who played rugby for West Point for four years and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Shaking his head, he continued, “I hate it when people talk about the sacrifices made by athletes or soldiers.  A lot of good comes from being an athlete, just as it does from being a soldier.”  He began to enumerate: perseverance, focus, dedication, coming back from injury, friendship and pride of achievement made all the greater for representing our communities back home.  Frank Worrell, professor at the University of California, Berkeley and head of the Academic Talent Development Program, pointed out that attributes of athletic success are conducive to academic success, but rarely acknowledged.  As a result, even if it is no longer politically correct to refer to athletes as “dumb jocks,” many are treated in universities as physical phenoms without scholarly or intellectual potential.

How should the education of elite athletes be handled?

Education is a gift of an advanced industrialized society to the next generation.  It should not be bartered, sacrificed or compromised, regardless of the prize.  Without education, our future is limited as individuals, as a nation and a global competitor, especially in a time of economic morass and environmental upheaval.  Schooling is not simply preparation for college, it should stimulate curiosity, connect what is known with new knowledge and provide young people with the confidence to begin to tap their intellectual potential.  Every child has this potential, regardless of how fast he or she can ski, run, or swim or how well he or she can perform these feats under pressure.  Athletes, not only those at the Olympics, but teenage athletes in general, have been given opportunities that are unprecedented in the history of mankind.  In many sports athletes travel widely, meet people and train with coaches from countries that include former enemies of the United States, and even beginners have access to the products of advanced technology in their sports.

Yet, there has been no similar advancement to education despite the availability of on-line courses, SKYPE, and tutorials, such as Khan Academy.  As an independent college counselor who specializes in working with athletes, dancers, artists, musicians and students who devote the majority of their time to something other than school, I have been sorely disappointed by the low standard of education that is currently available to these young people.  Most students want to have the option of attending the best colleges for them, but in practice, many seem content as long as they earn high grades, regardless of whether or not they have actually learned the subject material. Sadly, while most parents pay lip service to the importance of education, too often  I see that the opportunities to stimulate their children’s curiosity and to connect learning to what they are spending most of their time doing has been sacrificed for the sport.  At least this is the case with ski racing where top level athletes travel around the country and the world, yet have little or no engagement between their locations and the study of history, environmental science, or languages, for example.  Repeatedly, I am told that specialized education that travels with athletes is too expensive.

Frustrated, I asked Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions of Harvard College, if I was crazy to start the Olympic Valley Academy (OVA), a supplemental program dedicated to raising the academic standards of ski racers who travel.  Bill said,  “No you are not crazy at all.  Just promise me one thing, that you won’t limit OVR to ski racers.   Athletes from all sports need academic encouragement.  Athletes at Harvard flourish here precisely because they have taken full advantage of every academic opportunity available to them during their formative years.”

Frank Worrell, the faculty director of the Academic Talent Development Program at the University of CA, Berkeley, said, “elite athletes are gifted students and we must accommodate their special needs, just as we need to accommodate the needs of all gifted and talented students.”  This statement harkened back to the work of Howard Gardner whose theory of multiple forms of intelligence identified bodily-kinesthetic, or athletic, intelligence. Worrell is involved in ongoing research of gifted and talented students – including those with mathematical, scientific, musical, and athletic proclivities.  The early findings from international research indicate that gifted and talented students who succeed academically have three things in common.  They were supported by their families and/or communities.  There is a caring adult in their life.  And they believe in the future.  I was struck by how similar these findings were to those of a study of Cambodian orphan children conducted in the Thai refugee camps, where I worked for three years in the 1980s.   Conquorgood found that orphans who were well adjusted psychologically, despite the atrocities of the Pol Pot period, could remember having been loved and had found a relationship with a caring adult, even briefly.  In my own work, I found that these patterns held true across groups, not just for orphans, but like Worrell ( et al), I also found that those who survived mentally had faith in something and optimism about the future, regardless of the traumas they had endured.

When I described these parallel findings to Captain Walker, he nodded.  These findings rang true for soldiers as well.  So if, indeed, the memory of a supportive family and/or community, the existence of even a single caring adult however briefly, and the hope and belief in a better future contributed to the success of gifted and talented students across the spectrum of fields of endeavor, enabled war orphans to adapt psychologically, and also applied to soldiers of war, would it not benefit others to have a supportive community, a caring adult, and reason to believe in the future?  While the potential of these findings bends the imagination, let us not lose sight of the importance of education – for everyone, including athletes.

According to the College Board, the arbiter of the SAT, Subject Tests and AP exams, and hence, the gatekeeper to most colleges,  “Teaching and learning through key concepts enables students not only to master facts but also to create meaning and make connections across historical contexts.”  Convinced that elite athletes should have the opportunity to connect what they are doing with new knowledge inspired me to found  the Olympic Valley Academy (OVA), a blended program of online learning and experiential learning with face-to-face teachers and community involvement.  The mission of OVA  is:  “To enable our children to achieve the gold standard academically while competing at their highest levels.”

Not only as an educator, but as a mother of athletes, I want to know not just how each athlete fulfilled their high school requirements, but if they are prepared for college and the future beyond their sport.

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