When Joseph Cooper’s career on the junior varsity basketball team at UNC Chapel Hill came to an end, he felt lost. Being an athlete was all he knew growing up. Once that part of his life was over, he didn’t know where to go.
“During the conclusion of my athletic career, during my young adulthood, I experienced an identity crisis,” Cooper, now an assistant professor in sports management at the University of Connecticut, said. “I began to critically reflect on why I felt this way at this point in my life. I was young, I was in college, I felt like I had a lot of positive things going for me but I felt this deep depression related to my athletic career coming to an end…My self-worth was very much tied to my athletic ability.”
After earning his Ph.D. in Sports Management from the University of Georgia, Dr. Cooper’s goal is to prevent today’s student-athletes from feeling the same way. In 2014, he helped found Collective Uplift with a group of five student-athletes on the UConn football team and his research is centered around improving the overall student-athlete experience.
The goal is holistic development, as Cooper calls it. Instead of young men and women being brought up as athletes, being an athlete is simply a part of a balanced life enriched by personal, academic, and professional pursuits.
“We feel like it’s important to cultivate holistic development,” Cooper said. “Using sport as a way to connect with the youth but understanding that sport isn’t the end goal, it’s a means to accomplish a broader aim, which involves the collective uplift of the community.”
Most athletic departments use a blanket method of support for all student-athletes, regardless of their background or the problems they are facing. Dr. Cooper’s research shows there is a greater need to offer more tailored approaches to each individual’s problems.
“We all have multiple identities and intersecting identities that exist within society and within the spaces that we occupy and it’s important to have culturally responsive programming that’s in tune with those unique identities and experiences,” Cooper said. “When you talk about how to prepare for an interview, resume, all those things, without taking into account their unique identities, ultimately it limits the effectiveness of that support.”
Omari Faulkner, the author of Athlete For Life, agrees with this sentiment.
“No two journeys are the same,” he writes. “You have to work toward the establishment of your very own legacy.”
The lack of this type of support from athletic departments is part of the reason Dr. Cooper has conducted his extensive research and authored a book on the matter. By making the academic-based case for holistic development, he narrowed down the most critical areas where schools need to improve.
“Through our conversations it continued to grow and expanded in terms of providing multifaceted support around mental health, financial literacy, career exploration, relationship building, professional etiquette, and a range of skills that are important for human beings to be exposed to as they navigate the world based on their unique identities in relation to society,” Cooper said.
Dr. Cooper’s research found that most athletic identities are built in middle and high school. He believes helping student-athletes at that age will help them better understand that being an athlete doesn’t need to be their whole identity.
Once they get to college, student-athletes don’t have the same freedom as typical students. That’s what makes holistic development from an earlier age important.
“If you’re in college for four years, where a number of peers are exploring their identities, being involved in different things,” Cooper said, “Study abroad, internships, changing your major…For student-athletes, who don’t get those experiences, no doubt once your career ends there’s going to be a period of challenge.”
In Athlete For Life, Faulkner provides practical advice for finding your areas of interest outside of sports. This can be a huge challenge for athletes, who are typically focused solely on sports from a very young age. Many of these kids are told, either directly or implicitly, that their minds are not as valuable as their bodies.
In order to break free of that harmful stereotype, student-athletes must be deliberate in finding their academic balance, just as they would be in addressing a weakness in their game.
Faulkner introduces this mode of self-discovery as “finding your music” in Chapter 5 of Athlete For Life:
“That moment I found my academic tune at Georgetown was the moment I lifted myself from being a student-athlete who attended a university to a student-athlete uplifting the university.”
He offers these simple steps for finding your tune:
- Start early
- Ask questions
- Use your academic advisors
- Build relationships
- Try something new
Ask yourself, what brings you joy in life? What subjects do you care enough about to ask questions, or dig further on your own? What are some issues facing your hometown or your neighborhood? How can you make a positive impact in those areas? This level of personal motivation is a powerful tool for discovering your academic passions.
You are much more than your athletic ability. The things that made you great on the field will make you great off of it, but nobody will do it for you. Dr. Cooper outlines the importance of developing yourself holistically, and Mr. Faulkner shares his advice from the challenges he has endured and overcome. These are great examples of the resources available to you on your journey.