Dumb Jock Myth Dispelled: Academic Success Helps Fuel Football Team’s National Championship Run

I’m writing this article as the Lenoir-Rhyne University (LRU) football team prepares for an NCAA Division II National Championship game against Northwest Missouri State University on Saturday, December 21, at noon (EST).  The game will be televised live on ESPN 2.

You’re probably thinking: Good for them. Now what does this have to do with learning or The LearnWell Projects?

As many of you know, I am an associate dean at LRU, and much of the initial development of The LearnWell Projects took place at Lenoir-Rhyne.  You may have seen videos or participated at webinars in which I applied the ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram to academic disciplines such as chemistry, English or math or academic tasks including writing, reading comprehension and studying.  However, I’ve used the diagram, along with other major concepts of The LearnWell Projects, with our student-athletes for the past few years.

In July 2011, I was tapped by a group of faculty and administrators to lead the university in transitioning from a decentralized student-athlete study hall model that was managed entirely by the athletics department to a centralized model that included collaboration among athletics, student affairs and academic affairs.

This decision was made in part due to the perpetual rift between faculty and coaches over institutional priorities. In addition to structuring the study hall program, I saw this as an opportunity to improve the academic performance of our student-athletes and perhaps ease the tension between professors and coaches. (At a later date, I hope to compose a follow-up article detailing some of the specifics of the program.)

I conducted academic workshops with each athletic team. But these were not your typical time management, study strategies and learning styles workshops. These workshops were uniquely tailored to fit each respective team’s interest and identity. I used the ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram as a framework to help our student-athletes understand the stages of thinking and learning that they’d been using in their sport.  I then helped them realize how these thinking skills were actually creating the conditions for their athletic performance. A team of trained peer-tutors and I reinforced the workshops by providing direct explicit applications throughout study hall.

What was the impact?

For the past two years, LRU has led the 14-member South Atlantic Conference schools in student-athletes who make it onto the Commissioner’s Honor Roll (3.30 minimum GPA).  The football team actually has doubled the number of players who achieve the honor of being on the roll for two straight years.

Even more impressive: this past year the entire student-athletes’ cumulative GPA surpassed the general student population’s GPA!

What does this have to do with Saturday’s National Championship game?

If you happen to tune into Saturday’s game, you will quickly notice a substantial size disparity between the two schools.  The Lenoir-Rhyne Bears are much smaller than the Northwest Missouri Bearcats. This has been the case for most of the Bears’ games, particularly in the playoffs.  If LRU wins, we will be the first private institution to win the Division II National Championship.

In addition to being gifted athletes and being coached by wonderful mentors, the Bears have been playing with another surprising advantage throughout the season. They have learned how to use their thinking skills to enhance their athletic performance. Here are a few of the skills that the Bears have developed:

  • Reading Comprehension Each football player receives a playbook before any football equipment.  A player’s success depends largely on his ability to comprehend the playbook. Using the ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram as a framework, football players have been able to expedite their learning both in their sport and in their academic classes.In their sport, players deliberately use their thinking skills to more efficiently navigate from basic memorization of plays and formations to understanding the formations and schemes and finally to evaluating the various conditions and situations that they will face during games. One of the most powerful achievements we hail is the moment in a player’s learning when he transitions from only thinking “backwards” to remember plays to being able to see plays in operation and ultimately to predicting plays.
  • In learning situations, players are able to call upon these same thinking skills to progress in their academic work.  For example, they begin to recognize when they are working to memorize math formulas. (This is the shallowest type of learning, represented by the top level of the ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram.)  They then move to applying the formulas to various problems. (The middle part of the diagram.) In the end, they are able to discern the most efficient path to solving sets of problems. (This type of deep learning is reflected at the bottom of the diagram.)Because we explicitly work to help student-athletes increase their metacognitive awareness and skills, they are developing critical thinking skills while preparing for both games and exams.
  • Knowledge Development – Most students enter college as experienced knowledge acquirers, but few know how to take what they acquire and develop it into deeper types of understanding. Football players typically arrive a week or two before the fall semester begins.  During this time, they are flooded with new plays, formations and football concepts.  They spend considerable time working to acquire this information. They then build upon this foundation throughout the year and over their entire college football career.  The point of emphasis is that this football knowledge-based doesn’t change, but their depth of understanding and the outcomes they can demonstrate with the knowledge evolve.We help athletes transition this experience to the academic context by showing them how to develop their class notes and textbook information to increase their depth of knowledge.
  • Faster Play – LRU has not just won 13 straight games. They actually have dominated their opponents.  In fact, the most common comment from opposing coaches after playing LRU is how fast the Bears play.  Allow me to clarify: The opposing coaches don’t mean that LRU has faster players. They are referring to how quickly the Bears process what is going on and seemingly predict what the opponent wants to do. This processing ability is a function of very deep critical thinking skills.  Specifically, the LRU players are able to analyze what they are doing along with what their opponent is doing and then make split-second judgments with this information.  This seamless thinking process enables the Bears to play much faster than their opponents.
  • These valuable thinking skills have academic value as well.  We share with athletes that when they are studying effectively, they will be able to predict what will be expected on their academic tasks. They quite frequently affirm this experience by noting that they recognize when they transition from relying on memorization approaches to analyzing the most important information and predicting what they will be expected to demonstrate.

These are just a few of the ways we’ve worked with LRU football players and coaches to impact the players’ academic performance.  We are excited that these student-athletes are indeed being students and athletes in the fullest sense of both terms! So, even if you don’t have rooting interest in the game on Saturday, pull for the Bears anyway as they are doing great things both on and off the field.

Win or lose come Saturday, the bears will leave the field even more convinced that academic success and athletic success go hand-in-hand!


1 Comment

  1. leonard.geddes@lr.edu

    Update: Well, the Bears lost this one. NWMS was a formidable opponent. Unfortunately, the Bears had to make an 11th hour quarterback change due to a freak injury. I would have liked to see this game with our starters able to play. Maybe our fortunes will be better next year!


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