April 9, 2012

A Professor in his Student's Sneaks

Below follows an excerpt from "Riding the Bus: Professor Hits the Road with Student Athletes" written by Dr. Jeffrey Byrd, Professor of Biology, and published in the College's The River Gazette (October-November 2007, Volume 7, Nr. 5).  For the complete article, click here.

No, please, not one more question!  I had a bus to catch but the students wouldn’t let me go.  I quickly picked up my stuff, ran to my office, dumped it, grabbed my backpack, and darted for the exit.  It was 12:15 and the bus was leaving at 12:20 sharp.  Coach said they would leave without me (or anyone) because the team couldn’t be late for the game.  It really wouldn’t have mattered to the team if I missed the bus but the rule also applied for players and coaches, so every one rushed from their previously appointed duties.  Coach said we would forfeit if late and the bus was leaving at the last possible moment so that the students could attend their 10:40 class.  We are headed to the Baltimore area and with no lights on the field the game has to be completed by 6 pm.  With a minute to spare I boarded the bus and got settled in my seat – yes, coaches and visitors sit in the front.  I look around to see who was on the bus and noticed one of the defenders missing.  She had to participate in a discussion in class that afternoon so she couldn’t play.  It was a long afternoon on the left side of the field for St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Thus began my journey into the world of the student-athlete.  Over the course of the past two years I have had the pleasure of shadowing most of our NCAA sports teams to an away game (sailing isn’t an NCAA sport so not under my purview).  As the NCAA Faculty Athletic Representative (FAR) for St. Mary’s, I wanted to get a look at what our student-athletes go through to play their sport.  When I was scheduled to travel with the team I attended the grueling practice the night before the contest to learn the strategy that was to be employed, rode the bus with the students (which was tight if you had a team of 25 - 35 players, 2-4 coaches, and all their gear), attended the pregame coach’s talk, chased down balls during practice, sat on the bench, ate the postgame meal with the team (an adventure when you have a bus full of hungry players descend on a Chipotle at 9 pm), and rode the bus home.  I was the student under the tutelage of the athletes and coaches.

The journey mentioned above didn’t end until I got back to my house at 11 pm.  It just so happened I had a class at 8 am the next morning.  Like the students in my class I was tired but was excited about the contest the previous day.  Now I understand why my student-athlete’s faces light up when I ask about their game from the day before (try it and you’ll see that glow).  What about studying on the trip you might ask?  Every team is different.  This trip most of the students were studying, including those that were reading for my Genetics class the next morning.  For the first hour the bus was quiet and studious until everyone fell asleep for their pregame nap. As one of my students put it “there is something soothing about the mix of bus ride and DNA recombination that lulls you into a blissful slumber.”  I think she just put in the bus ride portion to make me feel better.  Many of the bus trips included video of either a previous St. Mary’s game or of the opponent for that day’s game.  On the bus trip home everyone is usually tired and is sleeping, studying, or watching a movie.  Most confessed that they were going to be up a few more hours after they got home to finish their papers or assignments.

So I’m sure you are asking yourself what I learned from the experience other than that I don’t miss traveling on a bus or that the view from the sideline isn’t always the best view of the action.  That is answered in one word – respect.  Respect for our coaches and a new found respect for our student-athletes.  Coaches spend many more hours of a week with our students than we ever can (10-12 hours per week not counting travel or individual meetings).  From what I saw, they also get more out of our students given the interactions that occur during practice and at games.  I love watching the coaches during practice.  They have a minute-by-minute plan for each and every practice thereby commanding the full undivided attention of each athlete for 2 hours.  Teaching at its best!  Bottom line, many of the student-athletes picked St. Mary’s because of the coach (sorry colleagues).  Along with each coach’s ability to teach technique and game-planning goes their ability to motivate.  The pregame talk, where the coach reminds the players of their roles and the overall game plan, was often inspiring and made me want to pick up my cleats again.  I tried a pre-exam pep talk and motivation session.  The look on their faces said “What is crazy old Dr. Byrd doing?”