Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Being an Athlete not a Jock


College sports seasons loom on the horizon. Talk radio hosts count down days to football; no one talks about the seven other fall college sports which is sad but predictable. I think it is a good moment to remember why athletes can be considered students and why student athletes often struggle to grow into the role as a student athlete and move beyond their socially anointed role as jocks. I think one of the keys lies in the need to shift identity from being  jock to becoming a real athlete

Tim Manson is a trainer who helps mentor college student athletes. He speaks about the journey many  young athletes must traverse to make sense of their entry into the world of college sports and being a student athlete from the world of high school and elite club teams where being a jock displaces being an athlete.

"We talk about how you can either be a jock or an athlete. When a jock loses something like that, they've lost their identity They put all their hopes in the football bucket, and then when it's gone, they look in the mirror and don't know who they're looking at. An athlete, when he loses something, it doesn't define who he is. An athlete makes adjustments. An athlete overcomes."

These comments capture a fundamental challenge for college athletes but especially in football and basketball. Young football and basketball  along with others have clawed their way out to succeed in football or basketball. Many believe they will be pros.


These young student athletes have invested everything in their identity as "jocks." Their parents and followers and fans and recruiting gurus do the same. Everything of value in their life and their future hinges upon being a successful jock. Yet to grow up and succeed in life, these young men and women have to grow into a different identity beyond that bestowed by being successful at sports at the high school and club level. Their real futures lie elsewhere.

Jock is a social role that becomes a way of being in life. The word speaks for itself, an old English slang for male genitals. As a role, being a jock defines how you should relate to yourself and the world.


Jocks swagger and succeed by physical prowess. They disdain study and disdain most culture because to be a jock is to be worshipped for the success gained by sheer physical achievement in all its most infantile manifestations. Jocks don't need life, they have sport.

The world young successful jocks. Jocks get girls; jocks get scholarships; jocks get passed through grades; jocks get under the table rewards in high school. Over time the young men internalize this role. Almost anything of value in their life and all their self esteem grows from being a jock. So the young men internalize the worst caricature of themselves as physical specimens who can win, drink, get laid all due to their status as jocks. Most jocks disdain study and grades because these activities dominate other subcultures like nerds and beside, being a jock will get them to college if they wish.

Take away the jock, and the person collapses. 


Jock-hood defines a social role, when the role is gone, everything disappears. People who peak at 18 from physical success have no future; they have no friends; they have no reality.All their relations are mediated by their athletic status, take that away and the relationships melt away. Like the pixillated hero of Bruce Spingsteen's Glory Days, all they have are memories, they could have been contenders.

Athletes are different. Athletes are not jocks. 

This picture of a discus and a javelin thrower captures what it means to be an athlete. Athlete derives from the Greek  ideal of contest. Athletes are human beings who master skills through struggle, effort and thought. Discus and javelin are born of war skills as were most original Olympic sports. Both required intense practice to master a complex form and technology.


The beauty of line in the picture and Greek art emphasizes athletic endeavor as not just physical activity, but rather actions imbued with form, discipline and practice. In the Greek and Olympic tradition athletes combine qualities of spirit and character--self-discipline, intense focus, reflective practice with characteristics of the mind. They intellectually mastered the form of the activity. The practice of an athlete manifested the beauty of the form.

Successful athletes embody character and form in achievement. An athlete masters the form through knowledge, practice and self correction. The form emerges in the crucible of competition where individuals watch other athletes compete.Loss can teach as much as victory, sometimes even more because losing demands an emotional and intellectual challenge to get better.


This is why athletes are not jocks.


The social role of being a jock internalized by young competitors confers social status and rewards but limits whom they can become. As a role its worth depends upon external perks and validation, winning, praise, adoring fans and groupies. A jock embodies a wrong headed masculinity based upon sheer brute strength. Being a jock as a social status grants privileges and excuses failures. All it depends upon is visibility in sport carried over into social dominance in other domains.

Good athletes study their craft and game. Good athletes need to be learners, one of the very activities reject by jocks. 


Success grows from learned mastery or patterns and skills and integrating them into team play and surprise and uncertainty of competition.  This is really the challenge of college athletics (not sports) to help the young men who enter as jocks to grow into being athletes.

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