A Systems Approach to Understanding and Counseling College Student-Athletes

By Fletcher, Teresa B.; Benshoff, James M. et al. | Journal of College Counseling, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

A Systems Approach to Understanding and Counseling College Student-Athletes


Fletcher, Teresa B., Benshoff, James M., Richburg, Melanie J., Journal of College Counseling


Student-athletes have unique challenges as they confront pressures to perform both athletically and academically. The authors present a systems approach that will enhance the conceptualization skills that counselors need to intervene more effectively with college student-athletes as well as address counselors' own stereotypes and biases about student-athletes.

Colleges and universities vary considerably in philosophy, size, emphasis, and specializations, and their athletic programs differ as well. College counselors who have not participated in college athletics may not be familiar with the unique challenges that are imposed on colleges by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the college/university itself, the athletic department, and the school's team. The purpose of this article is to provide information to college counselors that increases their knowledge and enhances their conceptualization skills so that they can work more effectively with student-athletes; the information will also encourage these counselors to examine their own stereotypes and biases about this student population.

Systems That Influence the Student-Athlete

Like other college students, athletes can present to counseling centers with normal developmental issues, such as developing autonomy or establishing identity (see Chickering, 1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Valentine & Taub, 1999). College athletes must also cope with additional influences that affect their cognitive, social, moral, educational, and psychosocial development during college (Ferrante, Etzel, & Lantz, 1996). For example, student-athletes' success in college and their emotional well-being are linked intimately with success in their sport; thus, success is often defined as winning and playing at a consistently high level. Athletes experience significant disappointments and fears when their team has key losses or when they perform poorly; among the athlete's fears are the fear of losing the opportunity to compete because of injury, fear of being cut from the team, or fear of being forced to retire from sports (Baillie, 1993). By gaining a greater understanding of the multiple systems within whic h college/university athletes must function, college counselors can more effectively help student-athletes negotiate the many challenges they may face. Athletes must function within a multilevel system that includes NCAA rules and regulations, university policies, athletic department standards, and team dynamics. To facilitate counselors' awareness of their own biases, we discuss each of these key systems and subsequent issues in this article.

The NCAA

The majority of 4-year institutions that have athletic programs are members of the NCAA, which requires member institutions to abide by specific policies, procedures, and bylaws. The NCAA is organized into five divisions: Division III, Division II, Division I-A (schools that have major football programs), Division I-AA (schools whose football programs are smaller than those in Division I-A and whose programs are classified according to stadium size and average paid attendance), and Division I-AAA (schools that do not have football teams). Divisions share some guidelines (e.g., eligibility of athletes), but they also have their own unique policies. For example, whereas Division I, I-AA, I-AAA, and Division II athletes are eligible for athletic scholarships, Division III athletes do not receive such assistance. Not all colleges/universities choose to become members of the NCAA some schools choose to belong to the National Association of Inter collegiate Athletics, the NAIA.

In addition to requirements for the institutions, the NCAA also has various requirements for the student-athletes themselves. The athletes must, for example, maintain full-time student status, earn minimum grade point averages, and take a minimum number of course hours each semester. In certain circumstances, athletes are prohibited from seeking outside employment to assist with their college expenses.

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