College freshmen have wall to clear

Bob Seggerson

December 11, 2013

Every young man and woman who leaves home to attend college for the first time goes through an adjustment period and for many it can be difficult. But it can be especially arduous for athletes. In the springtime of their senior year in high school, I sat down with many college-bound athletes over my career and tried to prepare them for what lay ahead. My advice came from personal experience and observations.

It really doesn’t matter if the athlete is a scholarship recipient, a walk-on, or a non-scholarship player who has selected a smaller college in order to continue their athletic career. Most of these athletes will encounter a difficult wall that they will have to scale to continue their competitive experience.

Athletes lucky enough to have the opportunity to continue their playing careers in college are hoping to build on the positive role their high school experience played in their lives. Being a leader and impact player on championship teams, dominating opponents at the high school level and gaining affirmative recognition within their high school and community are common rewards for athletes who plan to continue competing at the next level. One of the greatest benefits of participation in athletics is the confidence that many athletes gain through their experience. And most young athletes are confident that their college athletic career will be similar to the one they enjoyed in high school.

But the reality of making the transition from a high school athlete to a college competitor can be sobering. Even though it was several generations ago, my own experience is pretty similar to what today’s athletes go through. When I arrived on the campus of St. Joseph’s College in Indiana as a basketball scholarship athlete I was naturally nervous but confident at the same time that my basketball ability would carve out a similar experience to the one I enjoyed in high school. After all, St. Joe was a division two school and I flirted with a couple of division one programs during my recruitment. Surely everyone would grasp that I was a step ahead as an athlete and my transition to the next level would go smoothly.

The chink in the armor came quickly. All the new freshman scholarship players gathered in the gym a few days after arriving on campus and were joined by several preferred walk-on candidates. You can probably imagine the ferocity and passion of the competition present in that open gym as the players attempted to assert themselves. When the evening was over I was forced to accept several sobering and humble truths. One was that I was not the best basketball player in the group, far from it. In fact, the most impressive player, a young man from Grand Rapids, Mich., was not even on a full scholarship. I was not discouraged and vowed to do whatever it took to close the gap.

That gap was more pronounced when the older athletes began showing up in the gym.

Suddenly I was competing against players who were two and three years older than I was.

The speed of the game, the experience and muscle of the older athletes and the frustration of not being able to play at the level I expected was troublesome to my young psyche.

Adding to my frustration was the fact I was homesick, trying to maintain a long distance romance with my high school sweetheart and not having or taking the time to make social connections with the guys in my dorm. And keep in mind that the friendly, charming coach who recruited me was no longer Mr. Congeniality. The relationship was now very different, as it should have been.

When you add the tremendous amount of time that college athletes must invest in their sport to the picture, the totality of the athletic experience can be very daunting for a college rookie. The basic truth is that you are starting all over again, and in the athletic pecking order of things, freshmen are on the lowest rung of the ladder.

But the good news is that the wall can be scaled and humility is an experience that every athlete needs in healthy doses. Bonding with teammates and bringing passion and work ethic to the challenge lowers the height of the wall. The athletic experience in college will, more often than not, provide athletes with memories and experiences that will be cherished for a lifetime.

They just have to get over that wall.

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