In most schools across America today over 50% of students participate in interscholastic athletics. These student athletes enjoy a variety of benefits from sports, including physical training and confidence development, and unique school excusals and travel considerations for sporting events. Along with the benefits of being a student athlete, however, come many expectations and responsibilities that not all student athletes immediately recognize. Specifically, student athletes are expected to conduct themselves as role models, and make decisions that go beyond their personal interests but instead reflect the overall image of the school.
Student athletes are easily visible
Unlike students who participate in most school clubs and activities, student athletes are often quite visible in their schools and communities because of the athletic gear they regularly wear. Team letter jackets, hats, sweatshirts, and bracelets are just a few examples that quickly let others know that they are on a school sports team, and it is from this type of overt team display that onlookers quickly make judgements and impressions. For example, if a student who participates on the school chess team uses coarse language at the local pizza shop, chances are slim that onlookers will immediately know that individual is a chess team member, much less make a blanket judgement about the chess team. On the other hand, if a football player uses inappropriate language while wearing a school letter jacket, odds increase that judgements will quickly be made about how student athletes from the local school conduct themselves.
Is it fair that kids from non-sport clubs might fly under the radar more than student athletes do? No, but it’s also a reality that commonly occurs. While all students should act in responsible ways, there does seem to be an added layer of expectation placed on student athletes, and when student athletes goof up they are regularly held to a different and higher standard than their peers.
Student athletes as ambassadors
An ambassador is defined as “an authorized representative or messenger.” In the case of student athletes, it’s easy to make the argument that they are indeed informal ambassadors representing their schools, as well as their communities. It is important to remind student athletes of the importance of their role in this capacity, and to be explicit when discussing the consequences (good and bad) for their behaviors. For example, when student athletes volunteer their time to a school or community issue or concern, their leadership will generally be praised and admired. Conversely, when student athletes make poor choices, the opposite occurs and often negative blanket perceptions are made about the individual, team, and possibly even the school.
Tips to help
- Talk about privileges and expectations of being a student athlete. It is important to not assume that kids understand the magnitude of their decisions, or that they fully understand the visibility of being a student athlete. Be sure to talk about the benefits of being a student athlete, but also what it truly means to be a role model and how their actions have influence over others.
- Model pro-social behaviors. If you are a coach or sports parent, make sure that your words and actions are what you would want (and expect) from your kids. Are you using appropriate language, modeling integrity, and going above the call of duty to help with school and community issues?
- Build for the future. Student athletes should also be reminded that being a role model shouldn’t be viewed as a burden, but instead as a great learning opportunity that can be used for future life success. Identifying and solving problems, working with team members, overcoming adversity, and instilling pride in the school and community are all great life experiences that will help kids develop as better people, not just better athletes.
From my direct experiences working with student athletes I find that many do not realize just how important their actions are, and how quickly others judge athletes (fair or unfair) based on what they see athletes do. We need to remember we are talking about kids here, and that it may be the exception rather than the rule when we see student athletes fully understand all that comes with being a student athlete today. Get engaged in the process, model positive behaviors, and teach student athletes how to maximize their ascribed status as “role model” to the fullest.