Creating a Successful Student-Athlete: Discipline, Focus and Hard Work Are Just a Few Attributes, Says Advising Expert Dr. Ruth Darling

By Hamilton, Kendra | Black Issues in Higher Education, April 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

Creating a Successful Student-Athlete: Discipline, Focus and Hard Work Are Just a Few Attributes, Says Advising Expert Dr. Ruth Darling


Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education


Critics' of big-time college sports have been working for decades to control the rampant rise in commercialization on campus--and to hold the line on academic integrity. But the balancing act is a difficult one--as 2003, a year that saw academic scandals at St. Bonaventure University, University of Georgia and Fresno State University, to name just a few, amply attested.

Black Issues interviewed one of the great champions in this area: Dr. Ruth Darling, president of the board of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) and member of the NCAA academic, eligibility and compliance cabinet that advised a sweeping new set of reforms put in place in fall 2003.

Darling is also associate provost at University of Tennessee-Knoxville and director of the school's Thornton Athletic Student Life Center: The university has produced standout scholar athletes like Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback who graduated with a No. 1 ranking in his speech communications major, and Kara Lawson, named last year's female Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar by Black Issues In Higher Education.

BI: What do you think the challenges are in the current academic advising environment for the student athlete?

RD: We have to remember that the student athletes are extraordinarily passionate about their sports, and that is why they have chosen, in many cases, to attend a given institution. Research shows that they connect with the coach, are drawn to the facilities, are attracted by the number of times they will appear on television--these are all very important issues to a Division I athlete, especially one who is thinking about a possible pro career. Academic advisers must consistently integrate the student's athletic passion with the goals of learning in a higher education culture.

What does it mean to be a successful student? What does it mean to be a successful athlete? It requires the same set of skills and abilities. It demands discipline; it demands focus; it requires setting goals and meeting those goals; it requires being able to face adversity, and it requires meeting challenges aggressively and with integrity. Successful student athletes approach their sport in this manner and must approach their studies and degree progress in the same way.

There are a number of institutions that are moving their academic support programs, as the University of Tennessee has done, from the athletic department into an academic affairs unit. This is an important reform that was recommended by the Knight Commission. The NCAA supports this change. Academic support programs need to be placed within an academic affairs unit, the unit ultimately responsible for student learning and development on college campuses.

BI: What do you feel is the secret to motivating young people to see themselves as student-athletes rather than just as athletes?

RD: I've worked with a number of student-athletes over the years who would say, "OK, I'm going to be a psychology major. But I 'm really going to play pro or compete professionally. So it doesn't make any difference" (what I do or how I perform in school). I'll suggest, "Let's think about this a minute, about what this major will teach you about being that pro football player. You're going to learn about motivation, you're going to learn about persuasion, you're going to learn about figuring out how people think. All of these skills and the knowledge will help you out on the field. And whether you end up on the field or coaching or in the corporate world, you will take this knowledge, this degree with you. …

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