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Athletes quit over academics and strained rapports with coaches

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Though Swarthmore prides itself on its academic pedigree, the college isn’t all about churning out class after class of intellectually inquisitive scholars. The college catalogue explicitly states the promotion of a well-rounded, valuable societal asset is best supplemented by a varied program of “sports and other extracurricular activities.” In other words, well-balanced individuals are what a liberal arts education aims to produce and participating in our varsity sports teams are one way students can successfully achieve this ideal. So then, if sports are specifically stated by the college as a means for students to meet this well-rounded model of excellence, why do our varsity student-athletes quit?

“I think athletics is really bad for this campus, I really do,” said John Lim ’16, who, after spending his first three collegiate years as the catcher of the baseball team, ultimately decided to quit the team this fall.  “I think there’s a paradigm in this world that Swarthmore wants you to be very critical of. It encourages us to read scholarly works and critique them and say what’s wrong with them. But the relationship on the field between the player and the coach is very much whatever the coach says, you do. You don’t question it and it’s not good for people intellectually.”

Before starting college, Lim’s life was baseball. After joining a team of five year olds at the age of four, Lim continued playing baseball well into his high school career where baseball served as his main extra-curricular commitment. Upon entering Swarthmore as a member of the baseball team, Lim immediately became involved in even more extracurricular activities and is now a member of multiple groups on campus like RnM or Sixteen Feet, works for admissions, and has been an RA for the past two years. Although Lim has been able to successfully juggle an assortment of activities and become an active member of the Swarthmore community, he felt that this was unappreciated and even discouraged by his coaches.

“The coaches had this idea that I wasn’t dedicated [to baseball] because of all of the other things I was doing and I think that really colored how they viewed me. I remember when I told them I had just started RnM, they were upset,” Lim explained. “Sports should support what you’re doing on campus and be something that supports your learning here in order for you to become the type of person Swarthmore wants you to become, and it wasn’t.”

Sammy Greenwall ’18, a former forward on the men’s basketball team, had views similar to Lim’s about how competing on a varsity team began to compromise his involvement with academics and other activities on campus. Specifically, Greenwall faced the inability to choose the courses he wanted to take due to pressure from coaches about not selecting times of courses that interfered with practice.

“I thought the whole idea of coming to Swarthmore was to expand your academics and intellectual intake, and I thought that was totally getting compromised,” he said. “Generally speaking for all athletes, I think this makes them gear toward the side of taking easier classes that fit into their schedule because they have this athletic mentality — they don’t have to stress about classes as much but they prioritize the sport at a DIII level more than academics.”

Luke McCartin ’17, a former guard on the men’s basketball team who also quit this past fall, echoed Greenwall’s sentiments.

“That’s why I specifically wanted to play at a DIII school, because I always thought that we were going to be working hard on the court but that classes always came first,” he said. “But it felt like everyone needed to make way in their schedule for the practices.”

Olivia Cheng ’17, a former member of the women’s tennis team, also cited the dichotomy between the coaches’ and athletes’ perspectives as one of the main reasons why she left the team.

“I think there was a conflict of incentive,” Cheng said. “I think the coaches have to realize that it’s a DIII sport and that they’re not coaching people who get recruited to DI schools. These players got recruited to Swarthmore which means that [sports aren’t] the most important thing coming in. The players who go to Swat don’t focus on [sports] they focus on academics and that was a conflict in itself.”

The discrepancy between what players and coaches wanted from one another was echoed throughout the ex-athlete community. However, while they were present, active members of the team, the athletes felt uncomfortable raising their voices and bringing up issues they had with how their coaches ran practices and those who did, often saw no change.

“I know some of the other girls brought up things with our coach but there was never really change,” Cheng said.

Oscar Leong ’16, a former pitcher on the baseball team, also found his experiences with the coaches problematic. Specifically, he thought that the coach’s views differed from his own and others’ on the team.

“My coaches believe in certain philosophies that very few people in the country believe in and when we tried to voice our opinions about it, they basically said ‘You should just listen to us,’” he said. “I felt like I was forced to do something I just really didn’t believe in and that made it so much harder to stay on the team and want to play.”

Clara Obstfeld ’16, former member of the softball team, also faced problems with her coach and the athletic department as a whole. Last season, she experienced one of the softball team’s worst seasons yet as they were forced to forfeit their last three conference games due to a lack of players. Since the start of school year, five players had quit for various reasons, drastically limiting the team’s numbers. Despite attempts by the team’s coach to recruit new players — including some who had never played softball before in their lives —, the team concluded their conference season 1-11.

Although they were able to recruit new yet inexperienced additions to the team mid-season, many of the returning players were still forced to play positions that they didn’t know how to play. While playing third base during one of their games, a position that was not her own, Obstfeld broke her hand but continued to play in subsequent games despite her injury.

“I feel like our situation was handled really irresponsibly by both the athletic department and the coaching staff. We had people who were working through chronic injuries who needed time off but weren’t afforded the space to say that they needed that,” she said.

Despite the fact that winning seemed like an impossibility, the team continued to push their limits and attempted to finish the season, leaving Obstfeld upset and confused as to why their coach had waited for so long to stop.

“I really disagreed with a lot of our coach’s styles and approaches to people,” Obstfeld continued. “She really couldn’t wrap her mind around the academic rigor that some people had, she wasn’t responsible with how she treated injured players, and I think she had a very single minded attitude.”

Lim commented on the softball team’s performance last season which led him to question why their head coach had not been replaced and why major changes to the team had not been made. “The thing I want the most is for coaches to be held up to the same standard that our professors are, and I think there are teams that follow this model, like the men’s tennis team. They’re been nationally ranked for years and they put academics first.”

“As a coach, I try and make reasonable training schedules,” head coach of the men’s tennis team, Mike Mullan, said. “I try to remain flexible and understanding when students have class and labs or other projects of personal value that temporarily take them away from the courts,” Mullan explained.

However, he declined to think his coaching methods were different from his colleagues’. “I don’t think my approach is that different from coaches on campus and we coaches struggle with the issue of retention of players on our varsity teams.”

Director of Athletics Adam Hertz also believed that striking the balance between academics and athletics is a difficult one to make but that the current athletic department has successfully found this balance.

“I think that the students and the coaches and the faculty all do a really good job of balancing the commitments of the students and the priorities and the passions that allow students to engage in any number of activities throughout the year and do so successfully,” he said.

Lim, on the other hand, completely disagreed.

“We’ve consistently been seeing that athletics are not meeting the needs of students,” he said. “People are quitting teams because of it. I think the whole system needs to be reworked and I think that starts with the coaches. And if we’re not getting new coaches because the athletic director isn’t going to hire new coaches, then we need a new athletic director.”

Leong agreed.

“I think Swarthmore athletics is sustainable as long as we have coaches that understand the culture of Swarthmore,” he said. “If you have a coach who’s purely focused on the success of the team and not necessarily the success of the students, then it’s not sustainable.”

Although there are definite problems problems in how athletes, students and coaches interact, these ex-athletes remain optimistic that greater communication between these parties will spark the change that will restore athletics to what the mission statement of Swarthmore aims for it to be.

“I’m hopeful that things can change,” Lim concluded. “People that naturally wonder why things work or why we have to do things are the types of people that come to Swarthmore. We’re one of the most progressive, forward thinking schools in the country and it’s not good enough for us to just have an average athletic department that isn’t good for our students.”

 

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6 Comments

  1. I hope you’re going to write a follow-up article on how student-athletes balance their work loads, extracurricular activities, and athletic schedules.

  2. “My coaches believe in certain philosophies that very few people in the country believe in and when we tried to voice our opinions about it, they basically said ‘You should just listen to us,’” he said. “I felt like I was forced to do something I just really didn’t believe in and that made it so much harder to stay on the team and want to play.”

    WTF does this even mean? In a strikingly biased piece (maybe try interviewing one of the coaches being criticized?), this quote stands out as the most astounding. “I felt like I was forced to do something I just really didn’t believe in…”. What exactly is it that you’re referring to that you don’t believe in? Working hard? Being a teammate? Making sacrifices?

    Parts of this article come off as a megaphone for a small minority of former athletes disgruntled by the fact that Swarthmore athletics do not mirror the openness of the Swarthmore class and are instead closer to a microcosm of the real world.

  3. As a recent graduate who was a student-athlete throughout all four years at Swarthmore, I respectfully counter the ideas in this article. I disagree with the concepts that generally paint the coaches at Swarthmore in a way that suggests an attitude of indifference or, even worse, resentment, towards student-athletes who strongly focus on their academic endeavors. I can only speak from my experiences, but during my four years on the women’s tennis team, Jeremy Loomis consistently emphasized the focus on academics and his flexibility in regards to our needs to miss practices, workouts, or even matches for the sake of academic commitments. From the first day of practice, Jeremy’s mission was clear: to develop his players simultaneously as athletes AND students. While things may not have been perfect throughout all four years on the team, Jeremy was consistently working to improve his understandings and responses to his players in ways that were fair, consistent, and empowering. When a general sense of pressure did develop, perhaps from the nature of participating in intercollegiate athletics at the varsity level, Jeremy was willing to meet, discuss, and work through challenges of academic conflicts or work-related pressure.

    To add, I feel as though the increased challenge of finding a balance between being a student, athlete, and involved citizen while at Swarthmore has enabled me to be more successful in the workplace and to maintain a higher-level quality of work in my career. While some priorities in sports and academics may be mutually exclusive, the benefits reaped by learning how to compete, how to cooperate with a team, and how to manage my time and energies, has pushed me to be more successful post-college.

    Again, speaking only from my experiences as a student-athlete at Swarthmore, I cannot help but post in order to support and iterate my gratitude for those who molded my athletic and academic career at Swarthmore. While the experiences of others may support the idea that there is a distinct conflict of interest between athletics and academics, I would urge individuals to seek opinions that demonstrate another side of the world of athletics at Swarthmore before dismissing every coach and team in the general sense.

  4. It is clear that the issue is not isolated to one individual or team. Academics must be the first priority at Swat. If coaches and the athletic department are unwilling to recognize this, it would be in their best interest to move on to an institution where sports come first and academics come second. I further question if the coaches, while attending school, had similar academic demands placed on them as Swat student athletes.

    These men and women have already acheived remarkable success in the fact that they are attending a premier educational institution. It is unfortunate for some that a draconian dictatorship style of coaching is tainting that 4 year experience and is equally discouraging that an athletic department could sit idly by and accept it.

  5. The situation described here seems like nothing more than a taste of the real world. Furthermore, this article reads as very one-sided. I would have liked to hear opinions from some coaches and some student-athletes who did not quit. This would have been particularly helpful in understanding the situation involving the softball team.

  6. I would like to respectfully comment on the contents of this article based on my experience as a four-year, three-season varsity athlete at Swarthmore College (Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor track every year, minus 1 indoor season the winter of 2011-2012). In no way am I suggesting those who are quoted are falsifying their own experiences; I merely wish to juxtapose theirs with my own positive experience as a student-athlete at Swarthmore. While I hope that many of my past teammates also see their time on the cross country and track teams at Swarthmore in a positive light, none of my statements below presume to ‘speak’ for all members of my teams and certainly not for all of Swarthmore athletes, past and present. To do so would be a gross mistake, as ultimately, our experiences were and are our own, and whether positive, neutral or negative, are unique in at least some small way.

    “But the relationship on the field between the player and the coach is very much whatever the coach says, you do. You don’t question it and it’s not good for people intellectually.” J. Lim

    -Coaches Carroll and Noon of the cross country and track teams were very much willing to listen to my input and ideas for my own training and sometimes for the team as a whole. I witnessed them show the same respect for the input of many of my teammates who also took our team and sport seriously. In fact, I sometimes wish they had been a bit more forceful in their own ideas (as I certainly made a lot of training mistakes over the four years), but my experience working with my coaches at Swarthmore and being allowed to make my own mistakes as well as to take responsibility for my own successes has proven invaluable to me in the ‘real world’.

    “The coaches had this idea that I wasn’t dedicated [to baseball] because of all of the other things I was doing and I think that really colored how they viewed me.” J. Lim

    -My coaches were always very respectful of my academic and extracurricular schedule outside of running. I was part of various music ensembles throughout my time at Swarthmore, and my coaches understood and accepted my need to either run early or leave practice early in order to make it to those commitments. I was also an honors Political Science student at Swarthmore and often had to change my running schedule in order to make it to seminars on time. It is true that my Senior year, when captain, I tried to reduce the need to miss practice as much as possible, but this was entirely my own choice.

    “Generally speaking for all athletes, I think this makes them gear toward the side of taking easier classes that fit into their schedule because they have this athletic mentality.” S. Greenwall

    -I was not only ‘allowed’ but encouraged to participate in the honors program and take harder classes at Swarthmore by my coaches, as were many of my teammates. My coaches were also very understanding of my situation while undergoing honors exams, and did all they could to reduce adding sport-related stress to the academic pressure I was feeling at this time. This quote cannot be “generally [applied to] all athletes,” although I do not mean to challenge that this was Mr. Greenwall’s own, personal experience.

    “The players who go to Swat don’t focus on [sports] they focus on academics and that was a conflict in itself.” O. Cheng

    -As detailed in my previous comment, this was not true in my case (and I have been told by others it was not true in theirs, but will not speak for them here). I was very well able to find a healthy balance between academics and sports at Swarthmore, with the support of my coaches. In fact, I know that personally I would not have performed as well as I did academically without my three seasons of competitive running to balance out the stress from schoolwork. I’ve needed that balance as long as I can remember, and it held true at Swarthmore. This quote, again, should not be applied to all athletes at Swarthmore.

    “I feel like our situation was handled really irresponsibly by both the athletic department and the coaching staff. We had people who were working through chronic injuries who needed time off but weren’t afforded the space to say that they needed that,” C. Obstfeld

    -Coaches Carroll was always adamant that injured athletes took the proper time and attention to recover from injury. In my case, I had several chronic injuries while at Swarthmore and learned, as instructed by Coach Carroll, to take the time to go to physical therapy and cross train instead of running when necessary. I missed an entire indoor track season due to a chronic, not particularly severe injury but felt I needed to take the season off from competition and was supported in that decision by my coaches.

    “The thing I want the most is for coaches to be held up to the same standard that our professors are, and I think there are teams that follow this model, like the men’s tennis team. They’re been nationally ranked for years and they put academics first.” J. Lim

    -I feel that coaches Carroll and Noon held themselves to high standards, and it is a fact that the program has produced many nationally-ranked athletes who were also nationally-recognized scholars (Fulbright awardees, Rhodes Scholars, etc.).

    “I think Swarthmore athletics is sustainable as long as we have coaches that understand the culture of Swarthmore,” he said. “If you have a coach who’s purely focused on the success of the team and not necessarily the success of the students, then it’s not sustainable.” O. Leong

    -I agree. My coaches were focused on my success as a student, an athlete, and as a person. I not only learned with their help to love my sport again by the end of my Senior year, but really managed to greater value life during my time at Swarthmore: a lesson learned largely through my experiences on the cross country and track teams.

    Sincerely,

    Emma Saarel ’14

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