Passionate Players, Whole People

Ask any Kenyon students to name the most rewarding experiences they've had at the College, and most will mention professors, courses, class projects, perhaps study abroad. If the students are varsity athletes, however, they will also--invariably--talk about their coaches and teammates.

The value of sports for Kenyon student-athletes goes beyond the exertion on the field or court. The commitment and discipline demanded by sports, the mental challenges they entail, the relationships they foster, and the personal growth they provide are integral to the students' sense of who they are.

Dana Halicki, a junior from North Royalton, Ohio, plays both basketball and softball for Kenyon, while pursuing an ambitious academic program as a mathematics major and physics minor. Sports help her stay organized, because she has to plan her day around practices. "It's easier to get things done on time," she says.

Equally important are what she sees as the "life lessons" imparted by participation on a team. "You learn to make a commitment; you realize that you have to put a lot of time and effort in. You learn responsibility. And you learn to do things hard, to focus. For a two-hour block of time in practice, you really focus on one thing."

Carlin Shoemaker, a first-year student and football player from Graham, Washington, refers to the "mental toughness" that sports confer. "You know you can get something done, and that carries over into classes. If you have a paper to write or a project to do, you know you can do it."

Sports can provide stability. Alexander Neuman, a senior from Northbrook, Illinois, an international-studies major, and a basketball player, recalls the difficulties of readjusting to Kenyon last fall after a semester in Chile. He found that he depended on "the constancy of going down and being with the guys, just playing basketball and working on getting better. That was important when everything else was in transition."

All athletes talk about friendships as one of the great benefits of sports. "Relationships within the team are a very large part of my life at Kenyon," says Halicki. "My teammates are the people I spend the most time with and have the closest relationships with." Those relationships, she adds, frequently transcend differences in background. Because she plays basketball and softball, she has become friends with people whom she might previously have never bothered to get to know.

For athletes, the influence of coaches is every bit as important as--and often more profound than--the influence of professors. Anne Huntoon, a senior history major from Wenham, Massachusetts, who plays both field hockey and lacrosse, speaks of Robin Cash, her coach in both sports, as a teacher, a role model, and a touchstone. "She's always a very rational force, if you need a dose of reality," says Huntoon. "She's very put-together, very composed. If I'm stressed out about something, she's aware of it; she'll sit down and talk with me. She'll talk about family issues, classwork, anything. I've learned more about life and how to deal with other people from Robin Cash than from just about anyone."

Kenyon students appreciate the fact that, as Division III athletes at a college which stresses academics above all else, they can play sports without being consumed by them. Gregory Carr, a senior neuroscience major from Providence, Rhode Island, and a member of the baseball team, had to miss two late-winter practices to visit the University of Michigan, where he is considering a Ph.D. program. Kenyon coaches perfectly understand such absences. "At schools where sports are more serious," says Carr, "it would be hard to do that."

Nevertheless, sports at Kenyon are not "just for fun." For one thing, the time commitment is formidable. Claire Larson, a senior English major and anthropology minor from Louisville, Kentucky, plays tennis for the Ladies. The season is in the spring, but the responsibilities are year-round. There are fall practices and workouts for about two hours a day, in addition to a fall tournament. During the winter, the team plays indoors for two hours a day. Spring break brings a week-long trip to play tennis in either Florida or California. Then the season gets under way in earnest, with two-hour practices daily and matches twice a week or more, some of them hours away.

The situation is comparable for other sports. And the nominal two- or two-and-a-half-hour practice period often stretches to three hours or more, because the students sometimes have to go to the training room early to get taped or receive therapy; and there may be game films to watch after practice, or a half-hour weight-lifting session.

To say that Kenyon athletes play "just for fun" misses the seriousness with which they and their coaches take the commitment and work, the drive to compete. This seriousness helps explain why students and coaches alike assert that, while sports at Kenyon aren't "about winning," winning is important; and why the students in perennially losing programs can become demoralized.

Neuman recalls the dismal season that the men's basketball team suffered through in 2002-03, when it seemed that in most games the players knew from the outset that they didn't have a chance. "You shouldn't be thinking about how I'm going to cope with losing," he says. "That's the definition of what a loser is. It doesn't breed a good mentality. It's good to realize that winning isn't everything. But keeping a winning mentality is really important. You have to believe you can win each game, or at least most of them."

When women's basketball coach Suzanne Helfant arrived at Kenyon in 1995, she defined success as being able to compete for a conference title every year. She has since broadened her definition. She knows that the players' experience and growth is important, win or lose. "But winning is still incredibly important," she says, "because I see what it does for these kids when they succeed. I see the confidence they exude, and how it carries over to other aspects of their lives. There's nothing like the feeling of winning: to compete, and succeed, and know that you've contributed to a positive effort."

Ultimately, for athletes at Kenyon, even though sports are "extracurricular," they are inseparable from the totality of their experience. They are about being whole people. Sports are about physical effort, but also about relationships and about inner strength, a sense of well-being.

Perhaps that's why Anne Huntoon says that during the off-season, when she's playing neither field hockey nor lacrosse, she feels a sense of loss. And why, looking ahead toward graduation, she says, "Athletics have been such a fixture in my life for four years. It's been great. I'm dreading my last game."

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