Submitted by Dr. Francois Gravelle, Ph.D., Dr. George Karlis, Ph.D., and Ezechiel Rothschild-Checroune.

Dr. François Gravelle P.h.D., University of Ottawa, School of Human Kinetics, 125 University private, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 6N5. E-mail: Tel.: 613-562-5800 (2442) Dr. Gravelle is also an adjunct professor at the Département d’études en loisir, culture et tourisme” at the University of Québec in Trois-Rivières.

Dr. George Karlis, University of Ottawa, School of Human Kinetics, 125 University private, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 6N5. E-mail: Tel.: 613-562-5800 (2452)

Ezechiel Rothschild-Checroune, M.A. PhD Student, University of Toronto, Department of Exercise Sciences, 55 Harbord St., Toronto ON, M5S 2W6. E-mail:


The challenge of adjusting from secondary school to a new university setting and adapting to the dynamic systems of academic and athletic programs can be overwhelming. The supportive interaction between athletes and coaches may play a key role for academic success. These important considerations encouraged this study to examine the perceptions of varsity athletes toward the “football family” as a supportive academic environment. The intent of this study was to examine the influence of the “football family” – rookies, veterans, and coaches – on academic success. Phenomenological qualitative research was the approach employed to examine the perceptions of 12 first year university football student athletes at a Canadian university toward the “football family” as a supportive academic environment. The results indicated that the “football family” provided a supportive academic environment for the varsity football players. Specifically the results revealed that: (1) rookies share the most experiences with other football rookies at university, (2) rookies engaged academically with each other by going to class and working on academic projects together, (3) rookies vicariously learn from each others’ mistakes, (4) veterans helped rookies with both athletics and academics, (5) veterans’ experience provided unique learning opportunities than those gained from other rookies, (6) veterans acted as role models, (7) coaches were viewed as fatherly figures in the football family, (8) coaches have greater academic influence towards engagement than professors, and (9) coaches acted as life coaches pushing a family first, school second, football third mentality. It was concluded that the “football family” can provide a supportive academic environment for rookies adjusting to university.


School success is a term that should not be solely defined by one’s grade point average or test performance. The process of attending school is complementary to the learning experience. Learning is a humanistic experience that fosters the balanced growth of an individual. Elias, Wang, Weissberg, Zins, and Walberg (2002), stated that to fully understand the outcome of school success, it must be more broadly defined than the scores that students receive on standardized tests. There is a vast array of variables associated with school success, and therefore school success can be reflected in many different ways (Van, Blaga, Postmes, 2014; Zins et al., 2004). For example, a student’s enrolment at university not only focuses on an academic learning process, it becomes a transitional phase into an independent adult lifestyle.

Clearly, schools are to focus on more than the academic performance of a student to judge one’s success. Attention must be given on the social and emotional learning that occurs within the attendance of school to promote the most effective learning experience within one’s community. According to Zins et al., “there is a growing body of scientifically based research supporting the strong impact that enhanced social and emotional behaviours can have on success in school and ultimately in life” (2004: 19). Therefore, the current research focused on factors outside of students’ school materials which can affect academic success.

One of the factors that positively affect a student’s academic achievement is the student’s supportive environment (Klem & Connell, 2004; Solomon, Battistich, Kim & Watson, 1997; Stanton-Salazar, Vasquez, & Mehan, 2000; Ilona, Raili, Lasse, 2010). Adults of significant influence (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, etc.) and peers can create supportive environments to foster engagement in certain communities. Note that engagement may be characterized by behavioural, emotional, or cognitive engagement (Fredricks & Blumenfeld, 2004). Although it takes time to become engaged in certain practices, engagement is not synonymous with the amount of time spent on an activity. Similarly to the way that coaches create a supportive environment for their athletes to play their best and stay motivated towards achieving athletic goals, a teacher must provide a similarly supportive environment for students to believe in themselves, place effort into their work, and remain engaged in their studies.

The academic engagement that is encouraged through a supportive environment is an important factor towards achieving academic success. Connell et al. (1995) outlined a model to understand the roles that psychological and contextual variables play in determining student academic success. School engagement is at the centre of this model, because according to Connell et al., only student engagement has a direct effect on academic achievement, as all other variables (such as external influences and the student’s self-systems) are affected by one’s engagement. Therefore, variables such as teacher context or self-efficacy indirectly influence academic success by undermining or enhancing a student’s academic engagement (Connell et al.; Connell, Spencer, & Aber, 1994; Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Ahmet, 2014). For students to succeed and learn at their full potential, they must be involved in academic communities supportive of such engagement. Therefore, this research focused on students’ academic engagement as affected by their perceived supportive environment.

Varsity athletes are part of a unique community, with tightknit groups that share academic, social and athletic endeavours. A varsity athlete’s supportive environment is impacted by his or her varsity teammates and coaches due to the extensive hours spent together. Student athletes in their first year at university must cope with the transitions of a new living environment, consisting of a new home, school, athletic program, city, etc., that may conflict with the norms of their previous living environment. As such, adapting to new environments may leave these first year student athletes more susceptible to environmental influences compared to established upper-year student athletes.

Carini, Kuh, and Klein (2006) expressed that first year students and seniors convert different forms of engagement into academic success. Miller and Kerr (2002) have found that student athletes aggressively pursued athletic aspirations early in their university careers and later shifted their focus to academics in their upper years. First year university student athletes are unfamiliar with the university setting and must learn how to transition from their prior educational system. Likewise, first year student athletes are also learning how the athletic program functions as they are exposed to the culture embedded within the community. Therefore, this study was interested in examining the academic engagement of first year student athletes rather than those with various years of university experience.

Adapting from secondary school to a new university setting while manoeuvring between academic and athletic programs can be challenging. The supportive networks amongst athletes and coaches may play a key role for academic success. Hence, the purpose of this paper was to examine the perceptions of varsity athletes toward the “football family” as a supportive academic environment. Specifically, the intent of this study was to examine the influence of rookies, veterans, and coaches on academic success.


Phenomenology is a qualitative research method that focuses on “a person’s perception of the meaning of an event” (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005: 139). Moreover, phenomenology “describes the meaning for several individuals of their lived experiences of a concept or a phenomenon” (Creswell, 2007: 57). In the case of this research, the phenomenon of interest was academic engagement, based on the perceptions of first year university football student athletes. More specifically, how the “football family” can influence one’s academic environment.

Phenomenology is best suited when a researcher is trying to understand several individuals’ common experiences with a phenomenon (Creswell, 2007). According to Creswell, data collection in phenomenology often consists of in-depth interviews. Phenomenological research is highly dependent on lengthy interviews of about one to two hours and sample sizes ranging from five to 25 individuals whom have had direct experience with the phenomenon of study (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005). These characteristics matched the current study, as 12 first year student athletes were interviewed at lengths lasting up to 75 minutes.

The 12 students were self selected out of a total of 101 football players from a Canadian university varsity football team. These 12 participants were the only one’s identified that abided by the parameters of the study- that is, being first year student athletes actively involved in the Side-By-Side (SBS) program which is an off-field academic supportive program. The interviews in this type of research usually involve the participant doing most of the talking while the researcher does most of the listening (Leedy & Ormord, 2005) as was the case in this study. The 12 audio recorded semi-structured interviews were later transcribed. Fictitious names were given to participants to protect their privacy and transcripts of the interviews were typed verbatim in attempt to more accurately identify the thinking or emotions of the participant being interviewed (Bazeley, 2007). Nonverbal cues were also noted in the transcription, such as pauses, laughter, mental calculations or deep thinking. According to Bazeley (2007: 45), “emotional tone and use of rhetoric are important to record” as the meaning of spoken words may be influenced by emotions.

Transcripts were then coded using a list of a priori codes (pre-existing i.e., rookies, veterans, coaches, academic, athletic) as well as coding in vivo (derived from the data). Although having a list of a priori codes can be useful, it may restrict the coding of text (Bazeley, 2007) and hence the purpose of allowing in vivo coding. The use of coding allowed for themes to emerge through the analysis process. Those significant themes revolved around the relationships that participants had with others in their communities and will be exposed in the results section below when discussing the “football family’s” influence towards student athletes’ academic engagement. Specifically, three parts of the football family- first year football student athletes (rookies), upper year football student athletes (veterans), and coaches – were examined as distinct units within the football community that affected first year football student athletes’ academic engagement.


Rookies’ and an Academic Supportive Environment

Section Key Points –

  • Participants share the most experiences with those who are in similar positions, such as other football rookies at university.
  • Rookies go to class and work on academic projects (engaging academically) together.
  • Rookies learn from each others’ mistakes.

Each member of the football family plays a different role affecting one another. Newcomers (such as the first year student athletes) to the football program are referred to as rookies. All the participants in the current research were considered rookies at the time of interviews as it was their first year in the football program. Participants were uniquely influenced by other rookies compared to other members of the football program since rookies often go through similar learning experiences together and face equivalent situational challenges.

First year student athletes on the football program were able to create a support system from their football participation that carried over into the academic setting. This research found that first year football student athletes commonly study together (in fact, it was mandatory through SBS). Participants reported that it was common for them to sit together during lectures and work on class projects with other rookies. Rookies not only learn side by side with one another, they also learn from one another, as was evident in the response provided below by Tom.

Tom: Yeah, cause they’re in the exact same position than you are. And to see how they are dealing with it. It gives you like, ‘hey you know what? He’s finding time and he’s first year rookie. He’s going through the same changes you are.’ There’s nothing different. With vets, they know what to expect right? They tell us, ‘hey, you know first year is pretty easy, relax.’ But how am I supposed to relax if I haven’t experience 2nd year, 3rd year, 4th year, 5th year? So, with the guys in their first year, they don’t know what they’re going through either. So…We learn a lot from each other.

Student athletes in similar positions are able to relate to one another and motivate their peers to engage academically. Football “brothers” act as role models when they excel in their practices which motivate academic engagement in other first year student athletes. By mutually engaging with one another, first year student athletes learn how to engage in the practices defining the communities of which they are members (Wenger, 1999).

Every so often, university courses ask their students to work on projects together. It may be more difficult for football student athletes to work on projects with student non-athletes rather than working with other football student athletes. Already knowing the person with which a project will be worked on may provide an advantage towards mutual academic engagement. Varsity students’ schedule may inhibit working with non-athletes. As George stated below, the demanding football schedule is another reason why it may be more difficult to coordinate engaging academically with student non-athletes.

George: We’ll have classes with friends and with guys from the team. But because I ended up in a class this semester, where there’s like ten guys in the class who are on the football team. And we all sit together, we all, when we have group assignments, we all kind of group up together and get it done. Since we have like the same schedule, we all have the same slots where we can get work done. Whereas, if you teamed up with like just another student, I guess they’d get really frustrated with you, because you’re gone so much, you’re so busy, that they’ll want to work a certain day and you’ll be like no I can’t, I’m busy. Whereas, you’ll be with a football guy, you’re both, after practice let’s go do it. Before practice let’s do it. How about Sunday, like when we get back? It’s all because you have the same free time. So you can get work done.

Being able to work with other members of the football community reduces the scheduling barriers that can be found by working with individuals outside of the football community, and thus helps to facilitate the academic engagement of the varsity student community. Rather than jumping back and forth between members of the athletic and academic communities, these individuals were able to engage in an overlapping student athlete community. Engaging with peer student athletes allowed individuals to take part in the practices of both the student and the athlete, without having to transition between the engagements among members of differing communities.

Being able to speak the same vernacular, understanding similar terminology, and having an immediate connection with peers may aid academic engagement. Speaking the same language and being on a similar level of understanding may allow for more efficient studying strategies. Although student athletes may learn important study strategies from other people (including veterans or mentors), it may be easier for them – as is the case with Harry below – to relate to the strategies applied by individuals who follow worldviews similar to their own.

Harry: It’s good to learn from their mistakes but it’s like even study tricks. Like a couple of the guys, taught me an easy way to remember, like if I have a few and I have to remember their theories, there’s ways to relate them to cookies, this guy taught me a way to figure it out. It’s just like different study tricks I guess that I’ve learned from rookies too.

Having to go through obstacles was perceived more difficult when alone compared to going through experiences with a group. The sense of belongingness or brotherhood may be strongest with other rookies who face similar situations as themselves. Although every football teammate goes through similar experiences, the rookies’ experiences were unique when compared to other members of the football program. As the dialogue between George and the researcher shows below, rookies can go through similar experiences that they normally would not go through with veterans on the team or other student athletes from different sport backgrounds.

George: We’re all kind of lost. We’re all kind of, this is sort of new to us. So, we don’t really like understand it. So I guess we’re all just kind of going along together figuring it out. And if somebody’s telling us, we’re just dealing it out together.

Researcher: Do you find it helps that you’re all together doing it?

George: Yeah, yeah. Yeah for sure. Because you feel like, like again, you’re part of a group. Where going around learning something as a group is easier than just walking around campus by yourself lost. It’s easier to be lost looking for something with 5 guys, so you don’t feel as overwhelmed, like, ‘oh my god!’ If you have a few guys with you it makes it better.

Bob: For the most part, just in…, you know, you spend a lot more time with [the rookies]. You sort of help each other along the way as well. But the veterans usually are there to help you, right? They’re there to just, ya know, tell you this, tell you that. But you can teach and learn things from other rookies. You know, how to do this, how to do that. Stuff off the field and on the field too. If that makes any sense. You spend more time with them in general.

Not all of the lessons that rookies learned from other rookies stemmed from positive experiences. In fact participants admitted that you learn what you should do from the veterans and what you should not do from the rookies. Perhaps, football student athletes were able to learn more from other rookies’ mistakes rather than correct examples. Learning from others mistakes was beneficial so that one did not have to experience an unpleasant situation to learn a useful lesson. Seeing the consequences of other student athletes fail a course may motivate peers to avoid similar consequences and therefore may promote their academic engagement to achieve success. Learning from the experiences of others is illustrated in the comments made by Joe and Don below.

Researcher: Do you feel that you’ve learned from the rookies on the football program?

Joe: Um…yes and no. I mean, learn from other people’s mistakes, not your own. That’s how you get ahead in life. That’s something that I learned from football actually. I mean if the rookies made a mistake then, and if I saw it, I’d pick that out and I wouldn’t try to make the same mistake.

Don: Um, some of them…some of them are not in full university mode I think. They’re kind of half-ass in the academic part. But, that’s where I have to know you have to be doing, I just have to remind myself not to be slacking off. Because someone else is doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t do my work. I have to take care of my own stuff and try to disregard any sort of influence like that. Whereas some other guys are really showing, yeah, they’re working hard and it’s, they’re staying on top of it. It’s good.

The lessons that first year football student athletes learned from their peer rookies were unique compared to what they would learn from the veterans on the football program. Rookies spent a lot of time with one another and experienced many events outside of football together including socially, residentially, and academically based experiences. Participants not only learned alongside other rookies, but also from them. Rookies were even able to motivate and support other rookies to engage academically. As rookies were in the same cohort, student athletes who were in the same academic programs often took mandatory first year classes together. Football student athletes in the same courses often sat in lectures and worked on group assignments together since they had analogously structured schedules, used similar linguistic terminology, and already had a bonding sense of togetherness. Since first year student athletes had so many opportunities to be around each other, they had many chances to learn from the mistakes of other rookies. Although the socializing aspect of doing schoolwork with friends or sitting together in class may be distracting for some, being in both the same academic and athletic communities was ultimately beneficial towards promoting academic engagement.

Veteran’s Influences on Academic Engagement

Section Key Points –

  • Veterans helped participants with both athletics and academics.
  • Veterans’ experience provided different learning than from rookies.
  • Veterans acted as role models.

Veterans influenced participants differently than rookies. Veterans were upper year student athletes who had more experience than rookies in both the academic and athletic communities of which they were members. Related to Wenger’s communities of practice (1999), veterans were to old-timers, as rookies were to newcomers. According to Wenger’s theory, newcomers learn how to engage in the practices of the community based on the practices of the old-timers. Rookies can learn from other rookies, but the practice is already defining the community before the rookies arrive at university. As is made evident in the comments provided by respondents below, rookies must integrate into the student athlete communities and often learn from those already engaged in those practices (i.e. old-timers or veterans).

George: Uh, vets for sure. Cause they’ve gone through all the stuff that we’re going through right now. They all went through it. They’re experienced. That’s why they call them veterans. So they know what’s going on. And they can help you with any situation.

Harry: Probably from the vets. Because, they’re really good…they want you to succeed, they want you to do your best, they want you to reach your full potential. So they’ll do, whatever you need help with. They’ll teach you what you did wrong on film. They’ll teach you a new way to study, they’ll teach you a new way to take notes. They’ll teach you anything you ask to do, and they know it, they’ll teach you. It’s a lot easier to go to them, because they’ve already experienced what you’re going through, so they have that life experience that they can relate to you.

Frank: Probably the veterans, but that’s mostly because they have more knowledge on it because they have been there and they’ve done all that.

First year student athletes learned what to do and how to do it, by the engagement with veterans, not simply by observing their behaviours. Studying together at SBS, student athletes engaged in the practices of their communities. Rookies did not simply watch veterans study; they studied with them, mutually engaging in the practice. If rookies needed help, they trusted that veterans were able to provide that for them. Veterans were able to help out rookies through their prior experiences as student athletes as made evident in the dialogue below.

Researcher: Have any of the veterans on the football program influenced your decisions, either as a member of the football program or academically?

Bob: Umm…A lot of the players, there’s a guy on the team, who’s (name protected due to confidentiality), he’s also in side-by-side right now. But he’s like a 4th or 5th year guy. He’s influenced me academically. Cause he…just by the way he does his things right? He focuses a lot on school, you can tell. He’s like a really smart guy. And because of that he makes others like myself, ya know, be smarter and go to classes, take the notes, and stuff. But just stuff like that. Like, they do help you academically, but in terms of the football program, often times, ya know, you see them at the gym a lot. And they’re always talking about, ‘hit the gym, hit the gym’ when you’re not practicing or you’re not doing schoolwork. So a lot of that too. You know, that relates to the football program. So that influences me.

George: Like I; school wise, they teach, like they help you out. Like how to manage it. Football wise, they teach you like techniques, certain things that will help you at the higher level as you’re coming in. And yeah, they do help you a lot. You just can’t be afraid to go up to them and ask them for help.

Although results showed that veterans promoted rookies’ academic engagement, academics were not the only factor influenced by veterans. Athletic engagement outside of the football program is another topic which was influenced by veterans. If veterans influenced participants to “hit the gym” or go over football plays whenever they could, the extra time devoted to football related activities may have reduced the time that could be spent engaged in academics. Likewise, participants’ social activity and time management also appeared to have been influenced by veterans in the same university football community. As Harry iterated below, veterans lead by example and affected first year student athletes in more ways than one (e.g. academically, athletically, socially, psychologically, etc.).

Harry: Yeah, 100% I’ve learned from [veterans]. A couple of the guys … Like I’ve learned pointers of how to take notes at meetings, about my own, like during film watching myself, like learning how to take notes, that stuff. What to take from the coaches like the important stuff they say. Umm, even learned from one of the vets like notes in class and everything. And for like readings, like how to scan them and get the important stuff out of it. Out of like reading 105 pages straight through and getting the important details out of it instead. I’ve learned a lot of academic stuff from them.

Participants learned by direct engagement and by observing behaviours modeled by the veterans. They also learned from the veterans that school is a priority and have gathered a better sense of what needs to be done to keep academics a main concern. Rookies recognized that with enough effort and commitment, they will be able to follow in the veterans’ footsteps. Participants were able to learn how to become successful student athletes by simply observing veterans’ behaviours. The following responses by Harry, Don and Frank provided ample proof.

Harry: Yeah just, one of the offensive linemen, he’s kind of, the way he is, the way he acts, he’s taught me like that, there’s, that school is very important. Like he’s a good football player but he’s always about school first. Like I mean, he’ll come to practice late if he’s got a class running overlapping with football practice. He’s always been about school first and he’s got that kind of work ethic so… I kinda, I’ve learned from that and I guess he’s rubbed off on me like that so…

Don: He’s in biochemistry, most people don’t even know what that is. And I mean, he’s still an outstanding player. But he takes both things seriously. It’s something to look up to I guess.

Frank: Football wise. Like, I’ve just gotten a better sense of what it’s going to be like when it comes around to deciding in whether or not I’m going to be playing football professionally. Or whether or not I might be going off into another field or something like that, and the vets they’re going to help me get a better sense of it. Not by talking to them personally, but sort of like watching and seeing how they’re sort of going about it. It just helps me get a better understanding of what I might be going through later on in a couple of years.

First year student athletes were able to learn from other rookies and veterans alike. As participants pointed out, it was a different type of learning. “I haven’t learned more or less from either I guess. It’s just like a different kind of something to look at” (Don). Although rookies may have had more interactions with other rookies, a veteran provided rookies with someone to look up to and opportunities to gain valuable experienced-based information. In other words, rookies were likely to have a greater amount of engaging opportunities with other first year football student athletes, yet the seasoned veterans provided a trajectory and taught rookies the expected practices of the experienced football student athlete. Participants were able to learn from veterans by engaging with them individually and by observing their behaviours from a distance. Veterans influenced rookies in more ways than one; helping newcomers in many aspects both on and off the football field. Perhaps the significance of veterans’ influence towards academic success is best articulated in the following statement provided by Joe.

Joe: I mean, my veterans are my coaches. That’s what I thought coming out of this season and after the season, I had a lot of time to think about everything. And I’ve thought about all this stuff, but definitely thought that the veterans were my coaches. And whatever they told me, either on the field or off the field, I take it to heart. And I worked on it. If it was a mistake on the field then I can get better, I’ll work on it off the field. If it’s like, academics and I have to go to the library and study and stay in school, then I work on that too.

Coaches’ Influences on Academic Engagement

Section Key Points –

  • Coaches viewed as fatherly figures in the football family.
  • Coaches have greater academic influence towards engagement than professors.
  • Acted as life coaches pushing a family first, school second, football third mentality.

Coaches were a part of first year student athletes’ support network and took the role of fatherly figures in the football family. The football program that was utilized for this research consisted of 20 team staff positions including various coaches and trainers. Coaches on the football program did more than teach and organize how the sport is played. Coaches influenced the way participants viewed different aspects of their life. As a result, pressure to excel in certain domains may therefore influence the amount of engagement spent in particular practices.

Three of the main aspects of a student athlete’s life which coaches influenced were the participants’ perspectives on family, school, and football. Below, Tom provided an example of how coaches have influenced him:

Tom: And coaches. They influence us a lot. To come here. First of all by recruiting us. And then basically, them coaching us; and what they say: Family comes first. Second school. Then football. That teaches us how football is a lot of our life but it’s not the only thing. And we have to remember that we still have school and we still have our family. And also, don’t let school affect how you play football. And don’t let football affect how you perform in the classroom. So we got to leave it all in the field, or leave it all in the classroom.

The less student athletes had to worry about completing their academic work, the more they could remain focused on the football field. It was therefore, in the best interest of the coaches to emphasize completing significant commitments outside of football and staying organized, so that student athletes could have a clear mind when focusing on athletics. Coaches took a humanistic approach when dealing with their student athletes and became “life coaches,” respecting that there was more to life than just football. Coaches honoured non-athletic commitments and in fact promoted engagement in academics according to the participants. The comments left by Bob and Larry below made this evidently clear.

Larry: Like the side-by-side program here, makes you, for the people that do come, like come and do their homework. You’re here for a reason, so you might as well do work. Also just like the coaches always saying, like, “school comes first.” And like you can’t be a good football player if you’re not at school enough. So it does motivate you to keep the marks up and get to class.

Researcher: Have any of the coaches or professors influenced your behaviors at university?

Bob: I’d say, a lot of the coaches for the most part have influenced me to do better in school. Cause in general, they’re there not just as football coaches but life coaches, ya know? They help you off the field and on the field. And when it comes to off the field it comes to also in the classroom, right? So for the most part they have influenced us.

Researcher: So do the coaches emphasize “school first, football second,” or is it the other way around?

Bob: School first, school first. They always talk to us, at the end of every practice we always get together, they always emphasize, ya know, ‘get your schoolwork done.’ And whatnot, stay on top of it. So when you do come to practice you’re focusing on practice, and vice versa, right?

As showcased above, coaches influenced participants to think “school first.” First year student athletes may have learned specific studying behaviours from peer student athletes, but coaches motivated their academic engagement and to focus on studies. Once football practices were completed coaches emphasized to “get your schoolwork done” and complete the other obligations which individuals may have as student athletes.

The closeness of the football family unit imposed a sense of responsibility onto student athletes for them to achieve academic success not only for themselves but also for the football community. The football team relied on its athletes, and being a university team, needed its athletes to be students with certain academic standards who were not in danger of failing courses. According to the participants, coaches helped meet these requirements and guided individuals on the right track towards becoming successful student athletes.

Researcher: Have any of the coaches or professors influenced your behaviours at university?

Frank: Um, yeah, there’s been a coach or two who like, they sort of, they’re sort of like the crazy uncle who like, always keep you on track and like, sometimes I need a good kick in the butt to send me in the right direction, cause I sort of veer off on occasion; so they sort of help me along. They haven’t really taught me too much, but they sort of help guide me a little bit, I guess you can say.

Participants felt that they would disappoint coaches (not only themselves) if they performed poorly in school. They understood that if classes were not passed, they could not play for the football program and would be letting down those expecting the individuals to play for the team. Although this motivation to engage in academics may stem from external sources (i.e., the coaches’ pressure to remain eligible), the perception (of remaining eligible to play) became projected through the individuals’ interpretation of the situation. As made evident below, first year student athletes adapted their worldview to match those of other members in the football program and therefore engaged academically because coaches reinforced its importance.

Researcher: Have any of the coaches, or any professors influenced your behaviours at university?

Brett: Um, yeah. Like the coaches stress, like they do actually stress, um, like studying, and like school first over football. Like some people don’t think…they actually do. Like they’re always telling you to get on…like this week is going to be packed, like especially from Wednesday on, they might say something like that, so you better do as much as you can before so it makes it a little bit easier and stuff like that. They can guide you kind of that way. And they’re always there, like if you need help. We can get you help. Like if we can’t help you, we can get someone to help you.

Joe: Recruiting process, the first thing that coaches asked me was, “what are your grades like?” Right? So I mean like, even though their recruiting you to play football for the school, you still have to have the grades to get in. So one comes with the other. Like I don’t think you could ever separate being a student athlete.

Coaches appeared to promote the academic engagement of student athletes more than professors. This may be due to the fact that professors lecture to many students in large first year courses. The closely bound football family left student athletes accountable for their academic behaviours since football coaches required sound academic performance on behalf of their varsity athletes to remain members of the football program. Because student athletes knew that coaches cared about (and would review) their academic standings, participants were directed towards academic engagement. Perhaps this is best stated in the following statement by Kurt.

Kurt: Like when coach talks about he’s going to see the mid-terms, it scares me. Like you want to do good because, … it’s not that I’m afraid of coach, but like, he has more of an influence on my life now than most of my teachers do. Like a teacher will just throw a number at you, if it’s a good or a bad number, they aren’t going to do anything after that. They don’t care. Their work is done. Like, coach will follow up on that. He’s like the dad of the family. He’ll follow up, make sure you get it done, make sure you get it right the next time. So you don’t want him on your back. So you make a bigger effort to get your marks done, so you can be…so he’s satisfied with it, so that you’re taken care of like that.

Coaches presented expectations for student athletes to be committed to the football community (training camp, knowing the plays, showing up to practices, training at the gym, reviewing film, traveling with the team, etc.), but they also aimed at establishing a balance between family, school, and football. Although there may be perceived pressure from the coaches to excel in football (leading to student athletes taking time away from academics), coaches also influenced their student athletes to stay on top of their schoolwork and promoted their academic engagement. Coaches were viewed as fatherly figures to some of the participants in the football family urging that school should be a priority over football. They were able to guide student athletes’ lives on a track towards remaining eligible to play football. Ultimately, coaches promoted academic engagement by motivating student athletes to enrol in university and maintain a grade point average which would allow them to play for the school.

Discussion and Conclusions

The process of attending a school is indeed a fully humanistic learning experience that fosters the balanced growth of an individual. According to Connell et al. (1995), only student engagement has a direct effect on academic achievement, as all other variables influencing achievement act through engagement. Students with a supportive environment have higher levels of academic engagement (Klem & Connell, 2004; Solomon et al., 1997; Stanton-Salazar et al., 2000). Student athletes’ relationships with others (e.g., peers, coaches, teachers, family, etc.) are able to influence their academic engagement (Lipsitz, 1995; Noddings, 1992; Stanton-Salazar et al., 2000; Valenzuela, 1999; Ilona, Raili, Lasse, 2010). Significant adults (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, etc.) and peers can create supportive environments to foster engagement in various communities.

Three significant influential populations within the football community were presented as affecting first year football student athletes’ academic engagement: other first year football student athletes (rookies), upper year football student athletes (veterans), and coaches.

The study’s participants were in the same position as most other rookies. Rookies were new to the university’s football program, and most were also new to the university’s academic programming. Rookies were able to learn with and from one another (including learning from their mistakes). Rookies who took academic classes together were able to create a group of student athletes who could engage in the same academic and athletic activities together. First year student athletes often teamed up with other members of the football program when working on projects for the same courses and got together to study for exams. Football student athletes were even there to make sure their teammates made it in to class on time. Friends from the football family want each other to succeed both on and off the field and do what they can to help one another. During times intended to focus on academics, student athletes may have end up using their time for other purposes (such as socializing with friends, or discussing football practices) rather than remaining academically engaged. However, group projects were often successfully completed in collaboration with one another, and likewise, study groups became proficient, as rookies worked around the same demanding football schedule, used similar linguistic patterns, and worked towards accomplishing mutual objectives.

Football student athletes often reported that being around others going through similar situations as themselves was helpful. A practical implication would be to implement study groups, which may utilize the knowledge of student athletes in similar programs or even better, who are in the same classes together. Student athletes may benefit, and learn more from one another if they engage in multiple communities of practice which are the same. On a general scale this may be presented as individuals who are both students and both football players engaging together. To maximize the benefits of mutual engagement, one may pair a Social Science student and offensive lineman with another Social Science offensive lineman. This process may occur naturally, but to recommend a buddy system to this extent may prove more beneficial than pairing a wide receiver in Engineering with a linebacker in Human Kinetics for example. Pairing similar micro-communities together (e.g., at SBS), may create a competitive nature spilling over into academics (besides the competitiveness on the football field), leading to more proficient academic engagement.

First year student athletes on the football program were able to create friendships and a support system from football which was carried over into the academic setting. The rookies who participated in this study were able to learn unique lessons from veterans. The lessons that first year football student athletes learned from their peer rookies were different than what they learned from veterans on the football program. The veterans’ level of experience was well respected by rookies. Rookies must integrate into the student athlete communities and often learned from those already engaged in those practices (i.e., veterans). Rookies looked up to veterans as role models who exemplified how they should behave at university and how much commitment should be given towards various practices. Participants were able to learn from veterans’ examples that achieving success in both academics and athletics was possible. Veterans also provided participants with studying advice and pointers as to what professors may be searching for in assignments or projects. Besides occasional pressure to party with teammates and to hit the gym whenever possible, there was not much evidence supporting the notion that veterans harmed participants’ academic engagement. Overall, interactions with other veterans on the football program helped the academic engagement of first year student athletes.

Since it was found that the participants in the current study learned a considerable amount of valuable information from veterans on the football program, it is therefore recommended that academic study group sessions be mentored or co-supervised by veterans who are also in the same academic program as the rookies. Veterans most likely have already taken the courses in which rookies are enrolled and could share their experiences, to the benefit of first year student athletes. Aside from strengthening interpersonal relationships, rookies will also be able to look up to the veterans as role models and realize that student athletes in the same academic programs can simultaneously manage the challenges of school and football. Veterans are also able to pass down helpful study strategies and warn rookies about unproductive habits, which may take away from productive academic engagement. Maximizing the engagement with successful, experienced student athletes, who were once first year student athletes themselves, may help newcomers overcome transitional barriers and integrate into the academic and athletic communities effectively.

Coaches of the varsity football program appeared to have significantly affected participants’ academic engagement. Participants claimed that coaches promoted their academic engagement more than professors. Coaches pressed for more than athletic success, as student athletes believed that coaches also pushed for academic success. Coaches held their student athletes accountable for their actions with tangible consequences for poor academic performance. Student athletes in danger of failing academic courses were also in danger of terminating their football careers. Participants understood that coaches would look at their grades once courses were completed, and if their marks were too low, they could not remain active members of the football program. Participants stated that coaches pushed for family first, school second and football third; helping to organize the priorities of student athletes. The demanding features of the football program, such as pressure to know the playbook, attending practices, and training, may give the impression that these are the activities where coaches would like to see their student athletes excel, rather than excelling academically; however, coaches provided a strong sense of support towards academics which ultimately enhanced student athletes’ academic engagement. It is recommended that coaches continue to reinforce the importance of being academically successful, since players who are academically organized and do not need to worry about their academic standings can focus on their athletic achievements. It is also recommended that group academic study sessions for varsity teams are a requirement for all varsity rookies and those with a poor academic history (i.e., low grade point averages); while being a strongly recommended option for veterans who have a record of being in good academic standing. In conclusion, young student athletes in their first year of university may find it challenging to simultaneously balance success in their athletic and academic endeavours, but having a supportive football family including the leadership of coaches, experience of veterans, and mutual peer support of other rookies, newcomers to university will be able to engage with a supportive academic network that can lead to success both on and off the field.


For any varsity football program to loose athletes because of poor academic performance is costly. Any student entering a new academic program has to face numerous challenges. For student-athletes these challenges are even bigger as they have to combine the requirements of both athletic and academic programs. This article provided insight on how the athletic (football) family can team up with the coaching staff in orienting recruits on a path leading to both academic and athletic success.




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