Part 1 – The tribulations and triumphs of collegiate athletics

Fall semester at Bates College is just getting into full swing. Olivia glances around at the foliage as she walks to the Davis fitness center. A forward on the basketball team, Olivia has a mandatory weight lifting session twice a week. She is hoping her hard work will correspond to more playing time this season. Olivia hits the weights and then grabs lunch in Commons with some of her teammates.

After her 2:40 class, Olivia finishes her calculus problem set and then gets ready for pickup at 7:00 with the rest of the team. Olivia has been playing basketball ever since she could walk, and genuinely loves the game. She can’t imagine what she would do without the sport in her life, but occasionally she feels all the time she puts in is a waste. It’s still the offseason, and she’s already beginning to feel a little burnt out. During the season, this schedule will get even more rigorous. Upwards of three hours a day will be spent on the court, not to mention travel and additional commitments. This will be especially hard to get through if she doesn’t get a lot of playing time again this year.

Olivia now lays in her dorm room at midnight. She flips through her snapchat stories. A five second video pans a room full of her friends playing poker. The next story is a shows a packed Olin hall as a talk is given. Olivia laments the fact that she doesn’t have a lot of time to improve her computer coding skills, something she is passionate about. She runs her hands acros her basketball, just before she falls asleep.

This hypothetical scenario depicts a dilemma that many Bates athletes face. Although they love and are committed to their sports, it’s easy for athletes to start thinking about all of the other activities they are missing out on while spending time in the gym or on the field. This crisis often informs athletes making the tough decision to stop playing the sports they love.

“After going abroad a lot of my priorities changed and being abroad and away from Bates made me rethink what makes me happy, what is important to me, and want I wanted to accomplish my last year at Bates.” wrote Gabby O’leary ‘17 in an email to The Student. O’leary competed on the volleyball team for three years, before deciding to stop playing this past fall. “When I came back, I made the very tough decision to stop playing volleyball and focus on writing my two theses, community work, and trying new things at Bates.”

An anonymous athlete who also stopped playing their sport expressed similar feelings, “When the season picked up, I couldn’t go to VCS, couldn’t go to Pause, couldn’t hang with other friends as much on weeknights and weekends. I was sleep deprived because most of my time was filled with an activity I didn’t find particularly fulfilling. This led to my consistently feeling down,” they said in an interview.

College is about balance. Sleep, academic pursuits, exercise, extracurricular activities, social events; they are all jam-packed into the supposedly greatest four years of one’s life. There are only 24 hours in a day, which means that students must pick and choose between activities. Having to make priorities sometimes can make an athlete realize they do not value their sport as much as spending time with friends, learning new skills, or engaging more with their academics and extracurriculars. This is especially true with the plethora of opportunities at a residential liberal arts college like Bates.

Lacrosse coach Peter Lasagna, echoed this statement in an email to The Student: “I have never and will never talk any student out of quitting. Life is too short. College is too short to spend one minute working hard on something that you’ve lost love for,” He wrote. “If there are pursuits out there that motivate you more, are more meaningful to your present and future than going to practice, lifting, watching film, sacrificing all that one has to sacrifice to play, be honest with yourself and make a hard decision.”

Lasagna’s supportive sentiment aside, coaches are still looking for players in the recruiting process who are willing to commit four years to their team. But this can be challenging because of a unique aspect of DIII and NESCAC athletics; there are no scholarships awarded to student-athletes. These atheletes play only for the love of the game, and not because of a binding financial agreement. This makes it hard for coaches to guarantee that players will play all four years, but offers athletes flexibility and agency to do what they want during their college experience.

“You are supposed to be in this because of the experience, because of the enjoyment. it’s supposed to be able to complement what you are doing academically, and reinforce that.” Athletic director Kevin McHugh, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, said in an interview. “And at some point if you are just not getting that, at least you are not throwing away a scholarship.”

The NESCAC has unique rules governing athletics to try to compensate for the fact that the member institutions feature rigorous academics. The NESCAC mission statement is rife with references to the primacy of academic rigor and excellence at member institutions. The resultant stipulations for NESCAC schools include shorter seasons, limited time coaches can spend with athletes, and emphasis on in-season competition.

This theoretically makes it easier for Bates athletes to balance athletics and the rest of their priorities. Regardless, there is no question that it is hard work being an athlete at Bates. It takes discipline, time management skills, hunger, as well as unwavering support from friends and family. Darrius Campbell ‘17, a squash player who has played all four years wrote in an email, “I think the biggest reason why I completed (four) years of squash (at) Bates was simply because my friends and family back home told me to never give up.”

Part 2 – Student-athlete retention in the class of 2017: a case study

McHugh shared with The Student in an interview that Bates’ athletic department does not keep hard data on athlete retention. He indicated that retention is considered holistically by the athletic department in their evaluation process for head coaches, a subject The Student reported on last year.

“We haven’t had that discussion,” McHugh said. “For me it would be a red flag, if we were losing upperclassmen in large numbers relative to how many they carry on the team, and there was unhappiness reflected in the evaluations and also reflected in how well we were able to compete.” McHugh’s comment highlights a tension for liberal arts schools like Bates; trying to establish competitive athletic teams while also ultimately being interested in the well-being of a student-athlete’s experience, regardless of whether they complete four years of varsity athletics. Low retention is then often identified in the criteria for evaluating coaches as a symptom of other problems a student or team might be facing, not a problem in itself.

“There is not a hard and fast (criteria), but I think it is written into the expectation that the experience that is being provided is a positive experience that kids will want to be a part of,” McHugh said.

The Student collected data from Bates’ athletics website for student-athletes in the class of ‘17, over the course of their four years at Bates. The website includes roster information for each team during that period. Here are some important nuggets from the case study:

– Of Bates’ 709 student-athletes on 2016-17 rosters, 145 are from the class of ‘17, or 20 percent of all current Bates student-athletes.

– On 2013-14 rosters, the class of ‘17’s first year at Bates, there were 215 student-athletes, compared to 145 this year, a 67 percent retention rate from first year rosters to senior year rosters.

– Of Bates’ 29 varsity teams, eight demonstrated perfect retention rates for the class of ‘17: Women’s Alpine Skiing, Women’s Basketball, Women’s Cross-Country, Women’s Golf, Baseball, Women’s Lacrosse, Men’s Lacrosse, and Women’s Squash.

– Of those eight teams, only one, Men’s Lacrosse, had double-digit athletes (13) in the class of ‘17.

– Only two teams demonstrated a retention rate of zero percent for athletes in the class of ‘17: Men’s Alpine Skiing and Field Hockey.

Part 3 – Implications

When it comes to individual circumstances, there are certainly advantages and disadvantages that come from quitting a sport. Not playing a varsity sport gives athletes more time to branch out socially, intellectually, and emotionally. The anonymous athlete who quit their sport reported improved mental health after their decision, more time to focus on academic work, and has become more politically oriented. On the other hand, they have found it tough to watch games from the sideline, and miss being competitive. With all this extra time, procrastination has been a challenge.

On a team wide scale, there are also consequences. Low retention can compound the work a coach must do for their team to be successful. Without a strong cohort of upper-class leaders, a coach might struggle with team chemistry and leadership. A steady stream of athletes failing to compete for a full four years will require a coach to bump up the amount of recruiting they need to do to field a team. “When you are recruiting someone who is in 12th grade coming in as a first year, your expectation is that they are going to be with you for four years because you don’t want to put in all the time and energy into somebody that is only going to be around for a year,” noted McHugh.

There are a few further investigations and questions that we have. First, it would be interesting to test how certain factors determine retention rates on teams. Win percentage, size of team, and season would be interesting variables to control for. Secondly, it is unclear if the 67 percent rate we found for the class of 2017 is high or low for DIII or NESCAC athletics. It would be interesting to do a comparison of Bates’s retention rate from class year to class year, and to other NESCAC schools. This would help contextualize the 2017 class case study that we have collected. At this point it is unclear whether there is a happy medium for a desirable retention rate; the important thing appears to simply be that Bates students are fulfilled by their collegiate endeavors.