Friday, November 15, 2013

Educating the Whole Athlete: The Georgetown University 'Hoyas Lead' program

I'm often critical of intercollegiate athletics in these posts; however, as a former student athlete I do recognize the contribution that college sports can make to a student's development.  The problem is that most large Division I institutions are not as strategic and intentional about creating athletic programs that facilitate this growth as they could be.  There are, however, some notable exceptions.

One institution that seems to have gotten it right is Georgetown University.  Now in its second year, Georgetown's Hoyas Lead program is a very intentional, organized, and well-supported attempt to make good on the institutions philosophy that athletics should, ultimately, be focused on achieving developmental outcomes for participants.  The existence of the program isn't all that noteworthy because virtually every Division I athletic program has some kind of program, initiative, or council whose stated mission is to support the overall development of student athletes.  What is impressive about Georgetown's program is it's comprehensive approach, its scalability, and the high level support it has received on campus.  Indeed, there are a number of things about Hoyas Lead that set it apart from the myriad other programs which seem to only pay lip-service to their missions.

Visible, public, and financial support from the Univ. President.  President John J. DeGioia created and funded (from his own budget, not athletic monies) the assistant athletic director position with responsibility for overseeing and administering the Hoyas Lead program.  If nothing else, this is a symbolic gesture that conveys a message of urgency and importance to both the athletic department as well as the rest of the campus community that he's serious about providing a certain kind of experience to student athletes.  And, because he has financial skin in the game, he's likely to be more interested in what's happening in the program and following up to ensure that they are achieving their outcomes.

The right leader.  Hoyas Lead is led by +Michael Lorenzen, Georgetown's Assistant Athletic Director for student-athlete leadership and development.   Lorenzen brings a unique background and set of experiences to his role that position him to have credibility with stakeholders both in and outside of the athletic department.  He's a former Division I head coach (and was very successful when judged by traditional measures of athletic success), which earns him credibility with coaches at GU;  ran a consulting firm for college athletics administrators, which means he understands the administrative realities of NCAA athletics; and has a PhD. in leadership education and is a well respected scholar in that field--a tremendous asset when it comes to interfacing with faculty members and administrators at GU who don't live in the fieldhouse.  It's this last credential that makes Lorenzen most unique.  Very rarely does an athletics department hire an "academic" to fill these kinds of roles.  The fact that they have isn't just savvy, it means that Lorenzen has a philsophical and research-based approach to his work.

Bridges across campus.  Although Hoyas Lead is administered by the department of athletics, it brings together colleagues from athletics, academics, and student services (a rare feat in the academy).  Not only does this mean that its visibility is elevated, but by bringing together experts from all three of these areas, GU is able to provide a much better service to student athletes.  Compare this to the typically insular attitude and approach that "athletic success centers" typically take (case in point:  I have sent probably 10 emails to the director of my instition's "Student Athlete Academic Center" over the last year to notify him of first-year students that are struggling and, in every case, the response has been give or take a few words "Thanks, we'll take care of it."  No additional questions, follow-up, or requests for support from the academic side of the house).

A multi-faceted approach.  While Hoyas Lead does include the traditional orientation and leadership coursework that is found in a lot similar programs, it also includes co-curricular components (e.g. field work, mentoring, opportunities to teach, and service).  Even more notable is the fact that Lorenzen spends a good chunk of his time consulting and interfacing with individual head coaches and athletes.  He observes teams "in the field" so to speak by attending practices, games, and team meetings to get a sense for team culture.  Then, meets with individual coaches and athletes to integrate the more formal parts of the program to the unique needs of individual teams.  The most important by-product I can see from this approach is that he now has relationships with coaches and athletes.  And, relationships are vehicles for change.

The right not to participate.  I've written before (quite adamantly at times) about the need for institutions to require more of students.  And, I still assert that for the overall campus population, requiring students to engage in a small number of practices that clearly lead to positive outcomes is a good practice.  However, in this case, I think Lorenzen has been wise to shy away from requiring every student athlete to participate.  The first and second year curricular component is "required," but technically isn't mandatory and Lorenzen doesn't hunt anyone down who doesn't register for the coursework.  While this is potentially problematic because it leaves students wondering what the term "required" really means, it's not a bad approach to have an expectation that everyone will participate in the low-level introductory aspects of the initiative.  Once student athletes reach their junior year, their participation is completely voluntary.  This means that Lorenzen can devote the most valuable resources and impactful aspects of the program to those students who are truly committed to and invested in growing as leaders.  And, in reality, without a voluntary buy-in to things like service, mentoring, and the like, students aren't likely to grow anyway.  The key is in developing a culture and expectation among new students that carries through to these later years.  That way, it's understood that "Hoyas lead," and there's some social pressure to participate, but ultimately it's up to each individual to take up that opportunity.

Georgetown has provided a great model for the rest of the NCAA to follow.  Maybe the women's hockey teams at Ohio State and Bemidji State should pay attention.

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