As the academic year gears up (this year, in fits and starts thanks to the path of Hurricane Irene), I am immersed in the cliché-ridden language of over-used sports metaphors. Sports seem to naturally creep into our vocabulary as we try to focus our students on things like winning, success, and persistence. We say things like “Get back in the saddle,” or “It’s the bottom of the ninth,” or “It’s only the first quarter — there’s plenty of time left on the clock.”
Here at Seton Hall, we have a new initiative — Academic Coaching — for students who are struggling or lacking confidence. Working with our new “coaches” has thrown me in to the ring, so to speak. It was boxing’s “Greatest” Muhammad Ali who reminded us that success only comes to those who work. “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” It worked.
I’m no hockey fan, but Wayne Gretsky’s explanation of greatness is easily translated into a metaphor for academic success. “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” Surely, great students anticipate and infer where the professor is taking them and find ways to get there at the front of the class.
Olympic runner Jesse Owens, whose participation in the 1936 Olympic games created an international incident but helped chip away at America’s prejudices, observed about his sport, “A lifetime of training for just ten seconds.” Surely, our students dedicated to careers in nursing, medicine, and other health professions can apply his wisdom to the life and death situations that just could arise in their work. They may never need the knowledge, but they must be prepared.
Football’s Aristotle, the late Green Bay Packer Coach Vince Lombardi, had a lot to say about being a winner and about attitude. “Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing,” he quipped, words of thought for students who get in the habit of doing poorly.
Tennis great Billie Jean King also had words for our students who are beaten down by failure: “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” I regularly remind students that Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team.
And then there’s baseball, my own special love. It’s a sport “where a curve is an optical illusion, a screwball can be a pitch or a person, stealing is legal and you can spit anywhere you like except in the umpire’s eye or on the ball,” to quote journalist James Patrick Murray. I love baseball because, aside from its beauty, it is a metaphor for life. It’s a sport where athletes who fail 70 percent of the time make the Hall of Fame; it’s a sport that has a lot of tedium and routine, punctuated by moments of breathtaking splendor; it’s a sport where the athletes look like the kid next door and the manager dresses up in a uniform that never gets dirty. It’s a sport that gave us the wisdom of Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. It was Casey who observed the value of humility in sports (and academics): “If we’re going to win the pennant, we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as good as we think we are.” And Yogi, who says he never said half the things he said, tells our procrastinating students who are unable to plan ahead, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
Baseball legend Hank Aaron’s advice works for students who have struggled with a poor test grade or a failed course: “My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
Here at Seton Hall, former baseball coach Mike Sheppard, also a retired professor in our College of Education and Human Services and now one of our new academic coaches, reminds all students, not just the players, “Never lose your hustle.”
Our own Freshman Studies Associate Dean, Robin Cunningham, herself such an outstanding athlete that her jersey hangs from the rafters in Walsh Gym, works with our summer bridge program, the Seton Summer Scholars, to provide an extra boost of studying and academic preparation before classes begin. She adopted the motto, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish” to inspire her students.
Through our newest initiative from our Academic Success Center in Mooney Hall, we have mandated academic coaches for students on probation and we are offering the service to other students who are tentative about their work habits and time management. The concept applies the techniques of one-on-one athletic coaching to the academic arena. Seton Hall employees volunteered to go through two days of training to provide our students with a free service that parents could pay up to $60 an hour for privately.
I was working one-on-one with a student the other day to help him plan for a better semester than the one he had just completed. We talked about course options, we strategized about time management and I gave him some advice about communicating with professors. “Gee, I get the feeling Seton Hall really wants me to be successful,” he said as he was leaving. I told him to go hit one out of the park.
Students interested in working with a coach this semester may visit the Academic Success Center in Mooney Hall, Room 11, or call (973) 275-2387 for an appointment.
~Tracy Gottlieb, Ph.D.