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University athletics: an excellent training ground

With a focus on teamwork, leadership and discipline, being involved in sports is an excellent training ground for a successful career.


Governor General David Johnston recently got a firsthand look at how much varsity hockey has changed in the 50-plus years since he starred as a defenceman for Harvard University’s men’s team. “The players are so much bigger and faster now,” says the former law professor and former head of both McGill University and University of Waterloo, who saw his old alma mater play – and lose to – archrival Yale in Boston in November.

Back home in Ottawa two days later, he had the occasion to reflect on the many timeless qualities of a different kind that university student athletes possess. That day at a ceremony in Rideau Hall, he was presenting the Governor General’s Academic All-Canadian Commendation to eight recipients. These “top eight” individuals are selected by Canadian Interuniversity Sport and its four regional associations from among the 2,500 of Canada’s 11,000 student athletes who maintain an 80 percent-plus average during the academic year while playing on their school’s varsity team. The honours have been given out since 1994 but it was under the initiative of the Governor General starting in 2013 to add his commendation.

“They are all outstanding leaders who are disciplined, set and meet goals, and are passionate about things and people other than self,” says Mr. Johnston, who spent four years at Harvard on a hockey scholarship in the early 1960s and played on three championship teams. His playing days ended when he chose an offer to study law at the University of Cambridge over an invitation from the Boston Bruins to attend their training camp in 1963.

“I’m a great believer in the benefits of sports at all levels,” says Mr. Johnston. “But I think university sports provide a unique opportunity to develop mental ability and physical fitness, and learn valuable life skills.”

He’s not alone. As universities increasingly promote the value to students of extracurricular activities, many advocates, both inside and outside the postsecondary education system, herald the life-long benefits of one of the oldest extracurricular activities on campus: varsity sports.

“The stereotype of the dumb jock is laughable,” says Pierre Lafontaine, until recently chief executive officer of CIS. “Student athletes are the brightest young people you can meet. Their ability to multitask amazes and inspires me.” A former CEO and national coach of Canada’s Olympic swimming program, Mr. Lafontaine also admires the discipline and commitment of student athletes to train many hours a day, year round, in addition to their academic studies. “On top of all that, they are tremendous ambassadors for their schools,” says Mr. Lafontaine.

A past president of CIS, Leo MacPherson agrees. It’s a big reason why he now spends much of his time promoting what he believes are the highly marketable qualities that student athletes bring to the world – and the workplace – after graduation. “I spent 16 years at the management level in the private sector,” says Mr. MacPherson, “and I can assure you that any organization would love to hire employees with many of the traits student athletes bring to the table.”

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault.
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault.

A former varsity basketball player at St. Francis Xavier University and now director of its small but renowned athletics and recreation programs, Mr. MacPherson spearheaded the creation of the StFX Athletics Leadership Academy in 2012. About 90 of the university’s 300 varsity athletes are currently enrolled in the program, which aims to help them develop their leadership and team-building skills.

Affiliated with the U.S.-based Janssen Sports Leadership Center, the Athletic Leadership Academy notably includes a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Top 40 Marketable Traits of StFX Student Athletes.” Among the qualities listed are: focused, driven, passionate, coachable, dedicated, honest, loyal, prepared, positive, competitive, organized, disciplined and resilient.

“Employers who hire a former student athlete get a well-rounded young person with a great skills set,” says Mr. MacPherson. “They also get a team player who doesn’t put their interests ahead of others, someone who has been knocked on their butt and had to face hard truths at times, from tough losses and bad performances to being sidelined by injuries or reaching the end of their careers. But they have learned to get back up and keep going.”

And the challenges for varsity athletes are not just on the field. Balancing the requirements of their sport with school-related responsibilities is stressful at the best of times.

“Student athletes today live in a very different era than those of the Governor General’s era,” observes Peter Crocker, a researcher in sports psychology and professor in the kinesiology department at the University of British Columbia. Today, student athletes train for their sport “year-round, 24-7. There is very little down time for them.”

Frédéric Touchette knows all about that. The former member of Canada’s national men’s cross-country ski team is in his second year of an undergrad program in administration at Université Laval and now races for the Rouge & Or varsity team. “We train about 18 hours a week, which is less than on the national team, but the competition is actually harder,” says Mr. Touchette.

“It’s tough juggling sports with all the schoolwork you have to do. But I find that the daily training helps to relieve the stress of studying. It’s the same for the other team members. Our priority is on getting good grades and having fun.”

Rebekah Sass is a long-distance runner with the University of Manitoba Bisons cross-country running team and an Academic All Canadian. “It takes months of hard work, time, energy and training to shave off just a single second per lap. But I know that by doing that, I have the chance to win a race or a championship, so it’s worth it, and that drives me.

“The same is true for academics. I put the same dedication and determination and drive into school because … I know that to get the best results I have to put in the time.”

For some, though, the expectations can be too much. Although statistics on the subject don’t exist, UBC’s Dr. Crocker says “a significant number” of varsity athletes feel overwhelmed, causing them to quit sports and even school. “It’s hard to tell if they leave for positive or negative reasons,” he says. “Some might be thinking about a career and decide to focus on school. Some fail. Let’s face it: university is hard.”

Ms. Sass, for her part, says she gets support from her family and teammates. However, “I definitely see some student athletes who underestimate how much time and effort it takes to succeed at this level. You have to take three courses to be on the team, and some very talented athletes have dropped out because they couldn’t manage that kind of workload. Some teammates even have jobs in addition to sports and school.”

So where do former student athletes end up? Human resources expert Phil Wilson says many eventually find themselves in senior management positions. “Teamwork, accountability and trust are strong core values that translate very well into the business world,” says Mr. Wilson, a former swimmer with the McGill Redmen who has spent the past 30 years working at the highest levels of the human resources field in Canada (he’s currently chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association, based in Toronto).

Some former student athletes follow the lure of politics. As in the United States, where six of the past 11 presidents were student athletes, several former varsity sports figures have reached the highest ranks of political office in Canada. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was a hockey star in the 1920s at the University of Oxford, and two Alberta premiers – Peter Lougheed and Don Getty – shone in varsity football for the University of Alberta and Western University, respectively.

“It’s not surprising,” observes Ian Gellatly, a professor of organizational behavior and HR management at U of A’s Alberta School of Business. “In politics you need to marshal collective efforts to accomplish goals. Exposure to a team environment inculcates that notion: you win together, you lose together.”

Politicians, he adds, “also need to set goals, marshal resources, identify problems and constantly assess and adjust in order to succeed. There is something comparable there to sports, like a team that has a rough first period, and the coach juggles lines and exhorts the players to work harder and find a way to win.”

Tenacity and resilience were certainly among the life lessons that Rob Wesseling learned on the gridiron at the University of Guelph. “It’s tough when you fail in a moment that is important to you,” says Mr. Wesseling, a former star offensive tackle for his hometown Gryphons and now an executive vice-president with The Co-operators national insurance company. “But you learn from it. If and when I screw up on the job now, it doesn’t impact my confidence, it just makes me want to get back up and do better.”

Other lessons Mr. Wesseling picked up were time management and the need to prioritize. “You can’t be successful otherwise,” he says. “When you’re spending 40 to 50 hours a week on your sport and 30-plus hours on school during the season, you have to weed things out. You tend to gravitate to people with similar levels of commitment.”

For varsity sports coaches, witnessing the metamorphosis of nervous first-year rookies into poised graduating veterans can be rewarding and uplifting. “For most of them, university is their last chance to push themselves to be the best they can be as athletes, to find out what they’re made of,” says Linda Marquis, a former player and the head coach of Université Laval’s women’s basketball team for the past 30 years.

Being regularly pushed out of their comfort zone helps the athletes strengthen their character and learn how to deal positively with pressure and adversity. “It’s the same thing in real life. If you have a setback, say you miss that buzzer beater, you have to keep in mind that at least you tried. We always want to win but it isn’t always possible, even if you try your hardest. It’s the fact you tried that’s important. That’s the real life lesson in sports.”

Athletes as mentors

A program now in its seventh year partners inner-city elementary school students with student athletes at the University of British Columbia. The kids tour the campus with participating athletes, then head to the court for a basketball skills clinic. The program, called “I’m going to UBC,” gives the student athletes a chance to share their passion for sport and become positive role models for the kids involved.

The program, a partnership between the Centre for Community Engaged Learning, UBC Athletics and Recreation and the Vancouver School Board, has opened the doors to more than 2,000 inner-city students since it began. More than 250 UBC students have taken part, many returning year after year to participate.

“After one of the schools was leaving at the end of the night, a little girl came up to me and told me she wished that all my hopes and dreams come true,” said Ross Hilliam, speaking to UBC News. Mr. Hilliam, a UBC football player, has volunteered with the program for three years. “It was one of the biggest highlights for me of working with the program.”

Mark Cardwell
Mark Cardwell is a veteran journalist and author based in the Quebec City area.
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