For the love of the game
A survey of what makes athletes walk away from the games they love
Sports have a long and storied history at the College and to this day make up an enduring component of campus life with around 25 percent of the student population participating in one of the 35 varsity intercollegiate teams. As members of the Ivy League, students have the unique opportunity to compete at the Division I level, while challenging themselves with rigorous academic opportunities off the field. Balancing the dual dimensions of being a student-athlete comes with its fair amount of challenges and rewards; however, not all those who begin their college careers as athletes finish them as athletes. A number of athletes decide to step away from their sports for a multitude of reasons including injuries, divisive team cultures, lack of playing time and general burnout. This week The Dartmouth will look into why some athletes quit their sports and the overarching themes that apply to their decisions.
Academics and Other Opportunities
Participating in a Division I sport is extremely time consuming. The National Collegiate Athletic Association caps weekly training time at 20 hours a week while in season, and most sports will utilize this time fully. In the Ivy League, athletes cannot receive any scholarship assistance based on athletic performance. Therefore, every student-athlete essentially takes on a labor and time-intensive job that is unpaid. Combined with academic demands, the life of a student-athlete can become stressful and chaotic quickly.
One study published in 2013 surveyed 229 active and inactive athletes in a Division II program in the western United States. Athletes in Division II programs, though different than those at Dartmouth, share some similarities. Division II athletes often receive lower scholarships than those at Division I programs, and Ivy League students receive none. The study found that “there might be more of an intrinsic motivation to play when given less funding and/or when there was less of a chance to earn substantial money playing in professional leagues after graduation... It also seems plausible that some Division II student–athletes feel burdened by time constraints that prevent them from earning money that is necessary for them to pay bills and to purchase necessities.”
The importance of outside priorities, such as employment and academics, is a common theme among athletes.
Patrick Kang ’17 noted the intense demands on Dartmouth student-athletes he has seen as a swimmer and for other athletes. Kang quit the swim and dive team early into his sophomore year after suffering a back injury in his rookie season. He later tried to rejoin the team his junior year but was unable to gain a spot until senior year.
“There were a lot of different factors [that led to my decision to quit],” Kang said. “I think one was that my expectation was that it would be very similar to high school. The academics would be easy enough that you could just focus on swimming, but the thing was that swimming was definitely tougher than it was in high school — I’d never had morning practices — and so going to morning practices and then following that up with a bunch of classes was hard. I didn’t do as well as I wanted to.”
In addition to a difficult mix of athletics and academics, student-athletes often find themselves wanting to try new activities, often in the process finding new interests. Alex Wolf ’18, a former Big Green basketball player and Connecticut Boys Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year noted being able to experience more of the College in his time away from the sport after injury.
“When the off season came around it felt so nice not to have 6:30 a.m. lifts and four hour practices everyday,” Wolf said. “Just to get to be a regular student and experience the school because that was something I really just wasn’t able to do really my freshmen fall or winter.”
Wolf cautioned any athlete in quitting simply to pursue an “easier” lfie. He stated that while someone may have more free time as a non-athlete, becoming one while not pursuing other passions is unwise. An athlete considering the transition, Wolf said, should explore other interests during his or her offseason.
“If they find or already had something that really excites them and inspires them to wake up in the morning and their sport is prohibiting them from fully diving into it, then I think not playing anymore can be justified,” Wolf said.
For Wolf, stepping away from basketball meant more time to dedicate to new interests like computer science and the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network.
Team Culture and Coaching Shifts
Athletes often cite the community their sports teams provide as a key factor to their continued involvement and love of the sport. While the some environments may keep athletes on their teams, others can also prompt the decision to leave. Some athletes find their team environments to be divisive and toxic. Coaches play a tremendous role in fostering team cultures, and at times conflicts with them can prove a turning point more than conflict with peers, as was the case with the women’s lacrosse team. A number of players cited a culture of distrust, bullying and emotional abuse that they claimed was prompted by head coach Amy Patton and at times other players. Other players, however, denied this culture and came out in support of Patton as a coach.
“If you don’t get along with the coach that’s a big problem because if you don’t get along with them you probably don’t believe in him or her, and if you don’t believe in them you have almost no motivation to put in the work necessary to succeed, so you’re going to be frustrated all the time, and you’ll probably end up leaving pretty quickly,” Weatherley-White said.
Some sports on campus have a thriving walk-on membership, and each year those teams rely on these athletes to make up their teams. Men’s and women’s rowing, as well as women’s rugby, are prime examples. Over the past few years, these programs have seen some of the lowest retention rates on campus. Part of this could be the implications of having waves of walk-ons trying the sport, often with no prior experience.
“[Walk-ons’] reasons for joining are they want to see what it’s like to compete in a sport at the D1 level, and they want to see how well they can do in a new sport,” said Cortland Weatherley-White ’17, the team’s commodore and a first-year walk-on. “A lot of time they figure out the answers to those questions are they don’t really like being in a D1 sport, and they’re not quite as competitive as they thought they might be able to be. They decide that their time might be better spent on things where they have more natural ability. And that is a pretty logical decision. I would say that is the reasoning for the bulk of people that leave.”
Women’s rugby, a recent addition to the college’s varsity sports lineup, has also seen low retention rates for its athletes. The team’s statistics are not included in the data, as the team is only in its second year as a varsity sport; however, the team has had its fair share of player losses. Like the rowing programs, many of the team’s players are comprised of walk-ons.
After years of dedication to a single sport, many athletes face an inevitable burnout. Even if athletes are relatively new to their college sport, the combination of academic and athletic rigor can dismay many.
“I wouldn’t say [basketball] was my absolute passion,” Wolf said. “I definitely enjoy it, and I really loved it at points in my life, but when you play a sport for so long… it kind of reaches a threshold of fun, and becomes a more of a burden and commitment.”
Injuries are an unavoidable part of sports and often propel athletes to reevaluate staying on their teams. Some players find their college sports careers unexpectedly cut short, suffering season-ending or career-ending injuries. Others find that their injuries are severe enough to warrant taking a step back, and rededicating their time and energy elsewhere.
“I had a back injury, which got worse through my [freshman] year here,” Kang said, “My sophomore year, when I decided to take harder classes and my back still wasn’t better, it just got to the point where I didn’t see myself enjoying the process anymore because I knew I’d be stressed by academics. Even if [the injuries] are not clearly visible, they still hurt us in real ways.”
For Wolf, injury proved to be a crucial component to his reason to step away from a sport that had dominated his life.
“It kind of wasn’t really my decision to quit,” Wolf said. “I fractured my back, so I kind had to stop playing. My type of injury was one where I could have made a full recovery, but I played on my injury my whole freshman year. I should have listened to my body.”
Doctors continually told Wolf that he was fine, leaving him unsure of how to cope with the pain and wanting to please those around him who expected great things from his play. He received pressure from coaches to keep playing or risk falling behind and potentially face a cut; therefore, when his freshman season came to a close he found himself questioning if he should stay. Ultimately, he made the decision to step away after a season of little playing time due to pain, and the new passions he discovered off the court.
Concussions, which the National Institute of Health said account for approximately 10 percent of injuries, also play a crucial role in Ivy League athletes’ decisions to play or not play. While sports like football have taken measures to curb concussions in practice by means of the Mobile Virtual Player now in use by some college and NFL teams, the risk of head injury can never be fully eliminated. A 2014 NCAA publication on self-reported concussions among NCAA student-athletes found that 19.4 percent of male athletes and 13.1 percent of female athletes, from a pool of approximately 20,000 athletes, reported at least one concussion. The study also found that 3.2 percent of women and 6.1 percent of men reported more than one concussion.
Concussions, according to the NIH, can cause physical, cognitive, sleep dysregulation and emotional symptoms. Students in particular may find their regular responsibilites dramatically impacted, and the NIH suggest that “educators should understand that recovering students may not be able to meet the usual expectations for class participation and homework completion until symptoms have cleared and neurocognitive function has returned to normal.” Injuries with a clear connection to the ability to complete schoolwork provide a barrier to play for student athletes in recovery.
For athletes, returns on the time they invest may come in the form of individual or team success, or even something as simple as playing time. Upon coming to the college, however, many athletes will find that their once lengthy time on the court has been cut short. For athletes that never even make it into the game, this can become even more frustrating. With an unequal input to what they are getting out of their athletic experience, some people will decide to step away from their sport, and pursue other activities.
“[If you’re] not getting the kind of reward you hoped to get from it, you’re going to search for that reward elsewhere,” Weatherley-White said.
Sean Oh ’17, a lightweight rower who walked on to the team freshman year, also noted that for many not making it into the top boat is a deciding factor when leaving the crew team.
“Most walk-ons don’t make it to the 1V,” Oh said. “So if you think about it practically you’re like ‘well why am rowing if there’s no point, I’m not rowing for the future,’ so I think a lot of people wager ‘should I be spending all this time rowing?’”
Some players will leave athletics through no choice of their own, but rather because they are cut. Teams operate with travel rosters, and players that don’t make the travel roster are not always the victim of cuts, as can be seen with Dartmouth’s largest team, football. However, other sports with smaller operating budgets often have to winnow their numbers.
An article published on the National Federation for State High School Associations’ website discussed the “necessary evil” that is necessitated by budgetary constraints. Mark Rerick, an athletic director in North Dakota since 2006, wrote in 2015 that “As much as we’d like to base our entire program in just meeting our three department goals (having fun, learning how to compete, and learning the sport), the reality of an athletic department is that all of our stakeholders — athletes, coaches, parents, public — still expect us to be able to compete with the intent to win games.”
Cuts can also occur as coaching staffs hope to make more room on the team for coveted recruits, once again having limited resources to hold more players on the roster than necessary. Football at Dartmouth remains an anomaly having over 100 players on their roster, many of whom never take the field.
With so many obstacles and drains that come with being a student-athlete, one questions why so many even stick with a sport throughout college. Many athletes cite the sense of identity the sport provides, the welcoming team culture, supportive coaches and an undying love in the sport. Whatever, the reason may be, the decision to be a student-athlete comes at a price, a price which some are willing to pay.
“At the end of each year I’d ask myself if it was worth staying on… I didn’t get recruited here there was no [prior] commitment,” Oh said about being a student-athlete from freshman to senior year. He noted rowing has provided him with a strong community at the College.
“I’d say 50 percent of the reason I stay is because of the team, and another reason is that I really respect the assistant coach that I had… For him to take the time to build us from freshmen year all the way up, I feel like I owe it to him to give back all the effort he put into me and put it back into the team,” said Oh, adding that he feels the more regimented style of in-season helps him do better academically as he is more focused.”
Kang cited similar aspects upon reflection of his time on and off the swim team. He began swimming again at the beginning of his senior year.
“To be with the ’17s one last time, for one last swim means a lot to me,” he said. “I also loved the sport a lot, and walking away wasn’t easy. I think when I had some time off I just realized how much the sport meant to me, and I think senior year was a great time to come back.”