Skip to main content

This Academic-Athletic Life

This Academic-Athletic Life
    By Tom Krattenmaker, Director of News and Information

Can mastery of math or microbiology improve a player's batting average?
Coaches Harleigh Leach and Renee Clarke organized a symposium for student-athletes earlier this semester.
The answer, according to Renee Clarke and Harleigh Leach, is a definite "yes." The two Swarthmore coaches, who lead the softball and volleyball programs, respectively, are helping their teams improve on the field and court by applying to their sports preparation and play the analytical rigor for which the Swarthmore academic experience is renowned.

"Being Swarthmore students, my players want to excel at everything they do, and they expect to be just as accomplished athletically as academically," says Clarke, a former member of the U.S. national softball team who is in her third season as a Garnet coach. "We coaches just need to help them understand how the skills that help them succeed in the classroom are transferable to athletics."

(Read related item: Garnet softball clinches conference playoff berth.)

Clarke and Leach appreciate -- both from personal experience and observation -- that the ability to overcome nerves, self-doubt, and other psychological hurdles can translate into a competitive edge. The coaches encourage their players to think critically and think for themselves during practice and play, expecting them to identify "mental traps" and the best ways to escape them. An important tool the players use to avoid psychological pitfalls on the field is to enlist teammates' help by briefing them on verbal "triggers" that will boost their confidence during a slump or refocus their attention when they're adrift.

Relating the athletic to the academic, and vice-versa, was the focus of a first-of-its kind symposium for Swarthmore student-athletes earlier this semester, organized by Clarke with help from Leach and others. Two national experts, Mike Voight and Dot Richardson, led on-campus sessions, Voight focusing on sports psychology, and Richardson on balancing academics and athletics.

"For so long in our field, coaches have been trying to find specific answers to each student-athlete's psychological challenges," says Leach, who has a master's degree in exercise and sports science and has coached at Swarthmore since 2002. "But the answers are individual. Each of my players has to look at herself. I have a couple of players for whom negative self-talk is a big issue. One thing we came away with from the symposium is the idea of getting everyone on next year's team to write down her 'buttons.' What motivates you? When you're making mistakes what can your teammate say to you to pull you out?"


Volleyball team captain Emily Conlon '06 wrote about the academics and athletics relationship in this article.
Volleyball player Emily Conlon '06, who captained the team the past two seasons, says the analytical approach comes naturally at Swarthmore but can be counterproductive unless properly harnessed. "For many Swarthmore student-athletes, our ability to analyze and comprehend practice and game situations is both our greatest asset and our weakness," says Conlon, a setter from Connecticut. "As natural thinkers, we can digest a lot of information at once. We enjoy grappling with complex tasks and are constantly on the lookout for solutions.

"Thinking through team strategies and game situations in practice is something I have done in the volleyball program for the past four years. But as our coaches are quick to remind us, we tend to over-analyze our mistakes. And when you use your mind too much in athletics, you can easily psych yourself out or take yourself out of the action mentally. Sometimes sports just need to be played physically." (Conlon, a sports columnist for the student newspaper last year, wrote about the academics and athletics relationship in this article.)

Unlike Leach, whose team plays in the fall, Clarke and her players are getting the chance this softball season to apply what they learned at the symposium.

"I've noticed a big change with my team," says Clarke, whose softball squad finished the regular season at 22-15 and clinched the program's first-ever conference playoff berth with a victory over McDaniel in the regular-season finale. "I see it in their ability to focus, their ability to handle adverse situations."


Softball pitcher Alexandra Zelaski '09 closed out the playoff-clincher with 1 2/3 innings of clutch relief.
Pitcher Alexandra Zelaski agrees. "So far, through practice and games, we've stayed positive and haven't given up fighting even when it's been hard," says Zelaski, a freshman from Ohio who closed out the playoff-clincher with 1 2/3 innings of clutch relief.

Another way players can apply academics to athletics, according to Leach, is to approach team practices as the equivalent of classes--as preparation for games, in other words, just as class sessions serve as preparation for papers and exams. Leach, who starred in volleyball and basketball at Trinity College in Connecticut as an undergraduate, also coaches her players to apply rigorous analysis to the task of improving their game--to pinpoint their weaknesses and develop the appropriate practice regimen to improve in those areas.

"Our athletes are already doing these things in the academic arena," Clarke says. "One point of symposium was to help them realize they can do them in the athletic arena as well. They can be just as analytical about their athletics as they are their academics."

Softball pitcher Zelaski sees the relationship between academics and athletics working both ways. "The high level of academics helps us when thinking about situational play," she says. "What are the possibilities when there are runners on first and third? What pitch should I throw with a runner on second?"

The poise and mental strength developed on the pitching mound, meanwhile, has come to her aid during tough exams. Zelaski recalls a recent test-taking experience: "When one problem became difficult, I did not get flustered but sat back and took a deep breath, just as I do when I'm pitching and I've just given up back-to-back doubles. Furthermore, if I've done badly on a test, I can let myself be mad for only five minutes and then get over it just as I do in softball. All you can do is face the next test or the next at-bat-you can't change what's already happened."

Not everything from the classroom applies to sports. Clarke, a softball star at Rutgers University as an undergraduate and a three-time member of the U.S. national team, points out that softball is a sport in which a good hitter bats around .300-meaning she fails seven out of 10 times. For student-athletes accustomed to scoring 90 and above in the classroom through most of their academic careers, that failure rate on the diamond takes a toll. "Perspective is really important," Clarke says. "Hopefully, I can help my players take a step back from the academic perspective and shift it to a place more appropriate for softball.

"Three-out-of-10," she adds with a grin, "won't get you very far in the classroom."

Tom Krattenmaker is the director of news and information at Swarthmore College. His work has appeared in USA Today and Salon. Write to him at