In his Edweek blog, Classroom Q&A, Larry Ferlazzo addresses readers’ questions about issues facing educators. For a post on how to help student-athletes succeed both on and off the field, he sought out the expertise of three Motivate Lab members. Lab Director, Chris Hulleman; Director of Special Operations, Stephanie Wormington; and PhD student in the Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science program at the University of Virginia, Miray Seward share three suggestions for how teachers and coaches can help student-athletes integrate these two important aspects of their identities and thrive in both spheres of their lives.

The content below is an adapted excerpt from Larry Ferlazzo’s blog post, “Ways to Help Student-Athletes Achieve Academic and Athletic Success.” Read the full blog post here.

In response to the question, “How can teachers and sports coaches best work together to support students in achieving academic and athletic success?” Chris, Stephanie and Miray offer the following ideas.

“What it takes to make a touchdown; all the hard work, all the practice, and the dedication ...;is as valuable off the field as on."

- Pete Carroll, Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks 

The quote above is one of many examples that conveys a common belief: Sports help players develop skills for the field, classroom, and office. However, it may be more difficult for student-athletes to integrate their identities as students and athletes than commonly thought. Fortunately, intentional scaffolding from teachers and coaches can help. Below are three ways for adults to help student-athletes achieve academic and athletic success. The same strategies can apply to other adult-student relationships and can be the first step toward supportive adults actively working together to support student-athletes.

Reframe Your Role

With student-athletes, it is common to talk about developing the whole person. In practice, sports and school are often treated as separate spheres; many teachers and coaches focus solely on bettering students in school or sports, respectively. By only investing in one dimension of student-athletes' lives, we miss an important opportunity to help student-athletes recognize the connections between their strengths on the field and in the classroom. Instead of remaining siloed, we can work together to help promote student-athletes' development in all areas of life. Asking questions that prompt students to reflect on the similarities between sports and school is a powerful way to do this. The more we can reimagine our role, from classroom teacher or athletic coach to multidimensional educator, the more we can encourage student-athletes to make connections across their multiple identities and begin conversations with others to jointly support student-athletes.

Mind Your Messages

Words can be powerful, especially when they come from authority figures. For student-athletes, coaches and teachers' messages can communicate whether sports and school are complementary or competing domains. A coach who talks to her players about the importance of doing well in school is communicating that sports and school are complementary domains. A teacher who tells her student-athletes to skip practice so they can study for a test, conversely, is communicating that sports and school are competing domains. Important to note is that the lack of a message is also a message. In fact, the messages that are never said can be more powerful than the ones explicitly expressed. A coach who knows her player is on academic probation but never addresses it is sending the message that she is not concerned with her players' academic well-being. By showing concern for student-athletes' success in other contexts, we can help student-athletes see the connection between sports and school. As an added bonus, helping students make those connections can foster their general motivation and sense of value.

Utilize Intentional Instruction

Applying skills from one context to another is not automatic. As we work to reframe our roles and mind our messages, we must also be intentional about how we go about doing so. This could involve setting up conversations to get to know more about student-athletes, building in activities to help students reflect, or finding time to talk about how lessons from sports can be applied to school or vice versa. It is important to remember that any instruction will need to be tailored for individual student-athletes, who each have different experiences, cultural backgrounds, and needs. To best suit each of our student-athletes' individual needs and experiences, we must be willing to adjust our coaching or teaching styles.

Student-athletes face a difficult challenge: navigating and connecting their athletic and academic identities.This challenge can be even more complex as student-athletes also navigate unique racial, gender, sexual, and other identities. Through intentional scaffolding, caring adults can support students in applying their skills across contexts.