Why do athletes decide to compete at the collegiate level?

Fewer than two percent of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) student-athletes go on to be professional athletes. With that in mind, what drives people to participate in athletics at the collegiate level?

The Athlete

Men’s Swimming and Diving team captain senior Tyler Young began swimming when he was just a toddler. The Winchendon, Massachusetts native said about making the decision to swim competitively, “I do remember it was my idea, when I was seven, because I used to see the swim team come in after my lessons and I was like, ‘I want to do the swim team’ and [my parents] were like, ‘Really?’”

“I don’t remember really what it was, I was just kind of drawn to [swimming],” he added.

When deciding if he should continue competing in college, Young said that he knew he wasn’t done with the sport. “I feel like I had more potential to accomplish. I think especially as I became a junior and senior in high school, I saw swimming as a part of my life and it kind of gave me a sense of purpose,” he said.

Young said that he didn’t think being a professional swimmer was in the cards for him. “So, when I was like eight, I met some Olympians that came to my club team, and they gave a whole inspirational talk, and I think they did it again when I was 10. That was my first introduction into the professional world, and I think maybe for a little bit I was like ‘Oh, that could be a possibility,’ but I think as soon as I got to be about 11 or 12, I didn’t necessarily want that for myself. I just saw swimming as more of a passion that I had that I just wanted to get better at,” he commented.

Young said it takes a special kind of person to compete throughout college. “I think most swimmers would agree it’s a love-hate relationship with the sport. You know, you have to love it enough to stick with it because it is really hard and it’s really hard mentally.” Is going pro just a dream for athletes, or could it be made reality? Young said, “I wouldn’t say it’s unrealistic. I think if you have the dedication, the skill, and the passion, then go for it.”

The Coach

Women’s Volleyball head coach Bob Weiner has been coaching at the collegiate level for 32 years. Weiner has held the position of head coach at numerous schools, joining the Keene State College team in 2005 and being named full-time coach in 2011. In other words, he’s had a lot of experience coaching and getting to know college athletes.

Weiner said that he thinks athletes decide to compete at the collegiate level because it’s an integral part of their identity. “As they grow up and as they go through high school, you’re known as ‘that volleyball girl’ or ‘that basketball guy’, and it becomes a significant part of who you are. You don’t want to lose that when you’re going to a place where, really you have the ability to change identities and go to college and everything can be different if you don’t know people, but it’s a part of you that you know works so you want to stay with it,” he said.

“What is the percentage of the 150 athletes we graduate every year who’ve made it to [the professional] level? Well, it’s one percent or less than one percent. I don’t think going to the next level has anything to do with why athletes play,” Weiner added.

With KSC being a Division III institution, Weiner said that many athletes decide to compete without the expectation that they’ll continue with their sport after college. “I don’t think that’s what this is all about. We are here specifically as the carrot for the donkey, we are leading them through their college experience, so they have something that they love while they get educated, and we get to do additional socialization exercises,” he said.

Weiner said that leveling up within athletics gets tougher the higher up an athlete goes. “When you get to college to play, all the people around you were the best high school players, and suddenly you’re not the best in your group, you’re suddenly one among an entire group. If you got to play professionally, think about that, that’s the best of the group of college people that you could find, so therefore you have to step up your game to that level,” he said.

If any KSC athletes rise to the occasion and get to the big leagues, Weiner said he hopes they keep in mind what got them there. “At that point if you can ever be paid to play sports, the time has come to give something back. You are genetically and intellectually lucky and what you need to do at that point is find ways to give back to the community, to the people that you’re with, when you’re done, to help other people try to get to where you are,” he commented.

When athletes leave Keene State, Weiner said he’s sure the thing they won’t remember most is the actual games they played. He recalled a story once told to him about the conversation between the KSC softball team members at an award ceremony. “…Not once did they ever talk about an actual softball game. They talked about bus rides, and parties, and things that happened in the dorms, and friendships, and relationships. Ultimately, that’s what this is about,” he said.

The Athletic Director

Phil Racicot, Director of Athletics and Recreation, began his tenure at KSC in the spring of 2019; however, he has nearly 30 years of experience in athletics under his belt.

Racicot said that athletics can be seen as a blessing to communities and individuals. “It’s something that touches the lives of many people. I think competing at the Division III level, or any level, the whole concept of competing athletically beyond high school is really about, at that point, following your passion and developing your potential… It’s really the opportunity to continue that part of your identity,” he added.

When it comes to what KSC athletes take with them when they graduate, Racicot said he hopes that they’ve learned the necessary life skills to thrive in society. “It’s really the potential to develop a ton of other skills that come along with athletic participation, really valuable life lessons on teamwork, discipline, dedication, perseverance, resiliency, and leadership. All those things can carry on well beyond your sporting life,” he said.

“The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not necessarily what people think it is, and the odds of getting that pot of gold so to speak aren’t that great either, so it really does have to be about wanting that well-rounded experience where you can go get your education, have a great academic experience, and compete athletically at a really high level,” he commented.

Racicot said that he thinks the Division III level is set up for athletes to play solely for the love of the game. He said, “The great thing about Division III is that it really is a pure model, in the sense that you’re competing for the love of the game and there’s no obligation of scholarship tied to it, there’s no conflict of interest, so to speak, associated with it. You really are pursuing it for the love of doing what you do on a daily basis, the love of being around your teammates, it’s a really unique opportunity.”

“Athletically speaking, you don’t win every day, so what [competing in college sports] does help you to do is develop some resiliency, and so when you carry that into the work world, that’s a characteristic that I look for when you’re looking for people you want on your team,” he said.

Women’s Basketball forward player first-year Samantha Lee did not respond to a request to comment.


Piper Pavelich can be contacted at ppavelich@kscequinox.com

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