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3 ways to reduce freshmen athlete woes (and help you keep valuable recruits)

blog Aug 05, 2014

Every year, coaches have a brand new class of incoming freshmen. They look at these kids and hope that their athletes can make the transition to college. They’ve invested an enormous amount of time recruiting and yet we all know that some of these athletes won’t make it. Maybe they drop out or you lose one or more seasons as they adjust. There are a few simple things coaches can do to improve the chances that their athletes will successfully transition to college.

"Hope is not a strategy." - Vince Lombardi

The transition

While today’s athlete (sometimes referred to as Milennials, the Global Generation, or Echo Boomers) is far different from athletes of old, there is one aspect of their experience as student-athletes that is no different—they are in the midst of perhaps the most transition-filled time of their lives. Consider all the changes experienced by incoming athletes:

  • New friends
  • New freedoms
  • New surroundings
  • Higher academic expectations
  • Higher athletic expectations
  • Financial pressures
  • A loss of proximal connection to parental figures and familiar peers
  • Heightened pressure to succeed (both internally and externally)

The list goes on. While some athletes likely do not experience all of these changes, almost all athletes experience some of these changes.

So what? I’m stressed too!

I once heard the perspective of a very prominent coach whose response to his athlete’s pre-race nerves was: “Pressure? You feel pressure? Come to me when you are driving home from work, your wife is pregnant with your 3rd kid, you have a mortgage and you just lost your job. THAT’S pressure.” He’s right. Except of course, when you look at the research behind how the brain develops.  That coach’s brain is fully developed, better enabling him to handle the stressors he encounters.  The same cannot be said of a younger athlete.

When it's the last straw...

How many times have you had a freshmen completely melt down after something relatively insignificant happens and you wondered WHY?  Stress is additive, meaning stressors add up, they accumulate.  And transitions are the most stress-filled times in our lives! Something that may not have previously triggered a second thought suddenly becomes too much! When life is filled with the stress of transition, even small insignificant things can put an athlete over the top.

Why do my athletes seem so unprepared for college athletics?

 1. Transitions Abound Transitions can be some of the most stressful times in any of our lives. Even good transitions are filled with stress: purchasing a home, being promoted in your profession, getting married; these are commonly perceived as positive changes in one’s life yet, there is stress attached to these changes. The same goes for your athletes. Many freshmen or transfer athletes are disrupted even a small amount by the changes of:

  • Sleeping in a new bed
  • Different people around them
  • Food
  • Workouts
  • Challenging class schedules/Academic demands
  • Going from being one of the best in their sport to arguable one of the worst
  • Being away from their support system
  • The uncertainty of playing time/role on team

Not only do incoming student-athletes face an inordinate amount of transitions, but it is also at a time when they are not fully developed, making them more susceptible to the stressors they encounter, which brings us to the second reason your athletes may experience more stress than you.    

2. Their Developing Brain The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is in charge of emotion regulation, inhibition (i.e., not doing something), planning or strategy formation, and our ability to focus, is not fully developed until ages 18-24, depending on several personal factors, including gender (females typically develop this part of the brain earlier than males). Given this state of student-athletes’ brain development, they:

  • Are more susceptible to the stress they experience during transitions (underdeveloped emotion regulation),
  • May be more likely to act out in response to stressors (underdeveloped inhibition),
  • May not learn plays or concepts or follow directions as expected (underdeveloped ability to focus),
  • May make poor choices in the face of peer pressure or other stress (underdeveloped planning or strategy formation, not truly understanding the magnitude of the consequences of their choices).

[Tweet "Don't let stress get the best! Normalize, be alert, breathe. #athlete #sports "]


The action plan

  1. Normalize, Be Proactive: Talk about it. Validate it.  Let your upperclassmen talk about their freshmen adjustment. Lessen the worry that will result from these athletes’ experience of the unfamiliar by letting them know that what they are experiencing is common and to be expected.  By doing so, you lessen the “OMG” factor experienced and empower your athlete because they will anticipate the challenge.  They also won’t feel the thought of, ‘What’s wrong with me? I’m struggling which means I must be less mentally tough than everyone else,’ which inevitably makes their stress worse. Everyone assumes they are the only ones struggling. If that thought arises, they will be able to say, “Yup, I saw ya’ comin’. I’m ready.” If those challenges don’t arise, they can say, “I got this. So far, so good.  I’m just going to do my thing and carry on.” (If the latter is the case, be aware that adversity is inevitable and to be expected—help your athlete persevere, it will improve.)
  2. Be alert: If you have an athlete who is behaving in a manner different from how you have come to know your athlete, don’t become upset, instead become curious.  “Why is my player acting this way?”  Take the time to connect with your athlete to learn what is the matter.  Often individuals experience distress when they know they are not meeting expectations (virtually the definition of stress). Therefore, if you encounter uncharacteristic behavior of your players, consider the possibility that there are circumstances driving that behavior and that your athlete does not have the tools (or perceive to have the tools) to handle those circumstances. The easiest way out is to assume your athletes are lazy, have an attitude problem, or are uncoachable. It’s possible they are uncoachable, but it’s just as possible that they just need some extra support and might not have the self-awareness to know it themselves. Click here for a free download on measuring uncoachability.
  3. Practice Makes Perfect: An effective way to offset the experience of stress is to get away from the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” part of our brain functioning by breathing deeply and slowly—slower out than in (see our BRAVR Guide).  Slow deep breaths in through the nose with the chest expanding, hold…..slow exhale out through the mouth—slower out than in.  Breathing in this manner reduces the blood flow to the limbic system and allows the prefrontal cortex to take over.  Practicing breathing techniques at the beginning of practices and games and discussing the benefits on the field and off the field (e.g., emotion regulation, increased focus, better decision-making) when in the face of stress will give your athletes a tool to draw on during moments of adversity encountered in their daily lives as well as during critical game situations. Remember, even the best athletes in the world require a degree of emotional stability and resilience in their non-sporting lives to be successful in the face of adversity.  Sometimes unfamiliar adversity (such as that experienced off the field of play) can be the most disorienting and disruptive—compromising their optimal performance.



As a coach, you can help your athletes learn to perceive stress, adversity, and unfamiliarity as opportunities to grow, not struggle—thrive, not just survive—thereby developing a resilient mindset. You can do this now, as your freshmen are transitioning into your program.  In the end, it is easy to let transitions overwhelm and debilitate us. However, with the right tools and support, transitions can be a good game changer.

Remember, be proactive: normalize anticipated stressors; be aware that these challenges may underlie out-of-character behavior of some of your athletes; and practice breathing techniques to help your athletes manage their emotions and optimize their decision-making and performance.

Have a specific issue or concern with your incoming freshmen?

Post a comment below and we will get back to you.


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