Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology


The Freshman Experience: High Stress – Low Grades

Z. Papanikolaou, D. Nikolaidis, A. Patsiaouras & P. Alexopoulos
University of Thessaly
Trikala, Greece Banner


The purpose of this article was to discuss the overall stress level experienced by freshmen athletes and to delineate the specific stressors that operate to make the athletic and academic transition particularly difficult for most freshmen student-athletes. The contention of this article is that stress and its effects may in part explain the poor academic performance of freshmen athletes. The information presented in the article is based on the authors’ experiences, observations, and research. The information relates most specifically to the experience of student-athletes who participate in a revenue producing sport, but much of it is also applicable to student-athletes in general. More specifically, the authors analyze the athletic and academic stressors, along with ineffective coping mechanisms in an attempt to show how stress may in part explain the poor academic performance of freshmen athletes. Some of the specific conditions were discussed that create stress for student-athletes and how their inability to effectively cope with the stress results in self-defeating behaviors, which in turn lead to poor academic performance.


      The freshman year of college is typically described as one of adjustment and emotional turmoil, and most agree that it is an important, but difficult year for most students. Because of the complex problems regarding intercollegiate athletics it is the contention of this article that athletes experience even more stress than the average college freshman. The pressure to excel in a changing and demanding academic environment and to develop and perform to their greatest athletic potential in a society that applauds winning is exceptional. Consequently, student-athletes have been identified as a population having special needs and unusual pressures (Berry & Sorensen, 1981; Harrison, 1981; Johnson & Renwick, 1983; Lude, 1983; Remer, Tongate & Watson, 1978; Schubert & Schubert, 1983).

      While student-athletes are probably academically inferior to the average freshman college student much attention has been given to the poor academic performance and subsequent low graduation rate of student-athletes (Edwards, 1983; Meggysey, 1983; Spivey & Jones, 1975; Wittmer, Bostic, Phillips & Waters, 1981). Numerous reasons, such as questionable recruiting practices, the admission of academically unqualified and under prepared students, eligibility curriculums, the time commitment of a particular sport, and the general finding (Carnegie Report, 1986) that more and more young people emerge from high school ready neither for work or college are often mentioned when explaining this phenomena. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has acknowledged the problem and responded to the dilemma by passing a law (51J) designed to address the admission of academically unqualified and under prepared students and to ensure the academic progress and thus the graduation of student-athletes.

      Stress occurs when an individuals appraises the demands of a situation to exceed his/her available resources under conditions where failure to meet demands is perceived as having negative consequences (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Competitive stress can be experienced prior to competition if the athlete anticipates an inadequate performance, and during competition if the ongoing performance is perceived to be inadequate and following competition if the performance is interpreted as inadequate (Scanlan & Passer, 1979). Stress is neither considered to be merely an event or response but rather a complex system of interdependent constructs and interrelated processes (Gill, 1994). Of importance is the individual's perceptions and cognitions which function to mediate the relationship between the stressor and subsequent "frequency, intensity, duration and type of psychological and somatic response" (DeLongis, 1988, p. 487). Consequently, any stimulus, which causes either physiological or psychological arousal beyond what is necessary to either accomplish the activity or deal with the situation, is regarded as the initial source of stress or stressor (Franks, 1994).

      Selye (1956; 1974) has defined stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it and concludes that any major change in one's life can lead to stress. Barrow and Prosen (1981) describe several types of conditions known to produce emotional stress and include any emotional disruption stimulated by change, threat, frustration or conflict. More specifically they support that whenever a person's self-esteem is in some way perceived to be under attack, when the attainment of a desired goal is blocked, or when one is faced with a decision making dilemma that the person is apt to experience stress that can be psychologically disruptive (Barrow & Prosen, 1981).

      While stress is an ongoing part of everyday life and therefore can not be avoided, it is also generally agreed upon that overly high and/or prolonged levels of stress may produce undesirable consequences (Barrow & Prosen, 1981; Selye, 1956; 1974). Holmes and Rahe (1967) developed the Social Readjustment Scale to show the relative weight that can be attributed to stress producing changes. They concluded that a score on their scale of 250 or more indicated a high level of stress and suggested a major life crisis. When their scale was modified to more closely fit the experience of student-athletes and administered to freshmen football players an average freshman football player scored 630 points (Roberts-Wilbur & Wilbur, 1985). This certainly supports the premise of the authors that freshmen student-athletes experience a lot of stress. When this finding is considered along with the contention that high levels of stress are not conducive to the type of rational, systematic thought mental tasks demand (Cohen, 1978; Wine, 1971), it seems reasonable to conclude that stress may interfere with the academic performance of student-athletes.

      Other researchers (De Meuse, 1985; Garrity & Ries, 1985; Lloyd, Alexander, Rice, & Greenfield, 1980) in an attempt to explain the academic performances of college students have focused on the effects of a psychosocial variable, life events stress, which has been defined as individuals' psychological reactions and adaptations to the occurrence of major life events (e.g., marriage, death of a close friend). Lloyd et al. (1980) found significant negative relationships between life stress and GPAs taken at subsequent 1- and 2-year intervals. No relationship between life stress and GPA were found for the third year after the stressor. Garrity and Ries (1985) reported that life stress predicted students' first-year GPAs even after controlling for gender and academic readiness (i.e., ACT scores). Although these studies demonstrate the negative effects of life stress on undergraduates' academic performances, they are limited in their failure to consider the potential influence of other psychosocial variables or the impact of minority status. As Russell and Petrie (1992) noted, professionals may be able to most accurately predict college students' academic performances by considering multiple non-academic variables, such as life stress, trait anxiety, or locus of control, in addition to more traditional academic variables, such as ACT/SAT scores.

      Although the studies described previously have been conducted with the general undergraduate population, researchers recently have become interested in examining the academic performance of a specific subgroup of college students, and athletes (Ervin, Saunders, Gillis, & Hogrebe, 1985; Kiger & Lorentzen, 1988; Lang, Dunham, & Alpert, 1988; Sedlacek & Adams-Gaston, 1992; Sellers, 1992; Walter, Smith, Hoey, Wilhelm, & Miller, 1987; Young & Sowa, 1992). A major reason underlying this increased attention concerns recent decisions by the NCAA that limits student-athletes' participation in athletics during their first year of school by setting admissions standards based solely on traditional academic measures. To be eligible during the first year, an entering student athlete must have a high school GPA of at least 2.0 in specific courses and a combined SAT score of 700 or an ACT score of 17. If student - athletes do not meet these academic standards, they are not allowed to practice or compete with their sports team, lose a year of athletic eligibility, and forfeit any financial assistance from the athletic department for that year (NCAA, 1993).

      Females and non-athletes are more likely to be “stressed” (Hudd, 2000). “Stressed” athletes are less likely to practice healthy behaviors and more prone to practice bad habits. Students under greater stress also exhibit lower levels of self-esteem and reduced perceptions of their health status (Hudd, 2000).

      Student-athletes are in the position (unlike other freshmen) of having to make a dual transition during their freshman year. Not only are they expected to make the transition academically, but they are also required to successfully negotiate the athletic transition. Both the academic and athletic demands of college are very different from what freshmen expect them to be. However, most freshmen seem to expect college life, both academically and athletically to be a continuation of their high school experience. Consequently, they are more often than not, unprepared for the overall experience and the concomitant emotional impact it will have on them.

The Athletic Transition

      While most freshmen are accustomed to being treated as special and have had this reinforced during the recruiting process, the reality for most of them is that few of them will have the opportunity to participate and even fewer will come close to maintaining their star status during their freshman year. Thus, even though the athletic transition is seldom mentioned or written about it is something that involves change, threat, frustration, and conflict for freshmen and is thus a major source of stress for most of them.


      First of all, the average freshman athlete experiences the loss of their "star status." For the first time in perhaps four to six or even eight years, they no longer receive the attention and status they are accustomed to getting from fans, fellow students, coaches, and family. While this may seem like a small thing the experience of not travelling, participating, or for that matter even dressing for an athletic event is almost insurmountable for some and difficult for most. Regardless of the realities of the situation most freshmen think of themselves as the exception and thus expect to participate during their freshman year. When this doesn't happen many of them have difficulty dealing with the stress that it creates.

      Second, the relationship that most athletes have with the head coach changes. Many of them are used to being special (since they are stars) to their high school coach and expect to be treated in a similar way by their college coach. This notion is often reinforced during the recruiting process and they are thus unprepared for the limited contact they will have with the head coach once they arrive on campus. They tend to personalize this change because they don't understand how much of a coach's time is spent in other activities that take them away from their athletes.

      Finally, many freshmen for the first time are aware of being perceived as "dumb jocks" rather than as someone who is "looked up to." Athletes, who arrive on campus expecting to be looked up, are often shocked when they realize that some professors and other students actually think less of them, and may even make jokes about them because they are athletes.


      A number of things happen during the freshman year that can threaten an athlete's self-esteem. This is particularly true for any freshman who is planning on a professional athletic career, or who has little identity beyond that of an athlete. An image is often portrayed to student-athletes that a lucrative professional career is theirs for the taking. While a few star athletes sign million dollar contracts and realize their dream of becoming professional athletes, the overwhelming majority of student-athletes (92%) never become professional athletes and must face the reality of "life after athletics" at the end of their athletic eligibility.

      In addition to losing their star status, athletes also very quickly learn that they are easily replaced, subject to injury that can end their athletic careers, and forced to compete with others who may be as good, or even better than they are. Finally, the overall experience leaves them physically and emotionally exhausted, and even a minor injury can prove a major assault to their self-esteem. For the first time in their athletic life, they may be forced to begin to deal with their physical limitations and this comes at a time when they are unprepared to do so.


      Most freshmen athletes are verbal about their frustrations. It is common to hear them complaining about everything from coaches, to being treated unfairly, to the food they eat. Freshmen athletes also express frustration because they don't feel they are given the chance to prove their athletic abilities. Their frustration is reality based, because they don't participate in athletic events. If they are red-shirted this feeling is intensified because they know they will have to wait another year before having the opportunity to prove them selves. Another thing that often frustrates freshmen athletes is that they don't receive the material things (cars, money, clothes, etc.) they think they will get. Instead, many of them find themselves in a position where they have no spending money, no way to get home, etc. Therefore, because they are prevented from obtaining their short-term goal of becoming a "star" college athlete, which in turn blocks their long-term goal of becoming a professional athlete, they end up feeling very frustrated.


      In addition to interpersonal conflicts with the head coach and/or a position coach, many freshmen athletes experience an interpersonal conflict during their first semester of college. Because the reality of being a student-athlete is different and more difficult than most athletes expect it to be, many jump to the conclusion that the solution to the negative feelings and the dissonance they experience is simply to transfer to another college. In other words, they attribute their experience to the particular college they are attending and really believe that transferring will solve all of their problems - that the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. While in most cases student-athletes stick with their initial decision some do transfer and a few decide to drop out of their sport altogether. The important point is that almost all of them question their initial decision, which creates an internal conflict.

      For many of them it is the first time they actually make the decision to attend the classes of the college, that they are already enrolling. Because of the recruiting process and the concomitant pressures that they feel from coaches, parents, etc. their decision-making is often limited and distorted during the period that a decision is made. Therefore, many of them do not understand the importance or magnitude of the decision that others have persuaded or helped them make until their first semester in college. Consequently, they question their decision to attend a particular college, and they go sometimes so far, that they doing experience all of the conflict that accompanies making a major life decision.

The Academic Transition

      The academic transition is particularly difficult for most freshmen student-athletes. Many of them enter college not only under prepared for college level work, but also unaware of how college level work differs from high school. Once again they make the assumption that college will be a continuation of their high school experience. Thus, they assume that if they do what they did in high school they will get the same grades. They will receive special treatment in the classroom because they are athletes, and how they do academically isn't all that important. Many of them enter college unmotivated and disinterested in their classes because they have never been encouraged to achieve academically. Finally, many freshmen athletes do not understand the importance of the education because they plan on a career as a professional athlete, but some of them see it as a means for paying for school not necessarily as a stepping stone to a professional sport career.


      Almost everything changes. Not only they are away from parents, and friends but they experience a change in where they live, who they live with, the food they eat, the bed they sleep in, etc. Some may also experience moving from a rural area to an urban one or vice versa. For many it is also the first time that they have lived in an integrated environment. All of these changes require adjustment and produce stress for the student-athlete.


      It was mentioned earlier that most freshmen enter college unaware of how it is different from high school. Many athletes become frustrated when they realize that they are expected to attend classes, write papers, read books, etc., in order to remain eligible to participate in their sport. Because many of them don't see the importance of the education, the academic requirements are frustrating because they take a lot of time from their already busy schedule, and get in the way of other things that they want to do. Athletes also experience the academic demands as frustrating because they are put in the position of having to do something that they neither enjoy nor want to do.


      Almost everything about the classroom threatens their self-esteem. Student-athletes are used to performing in front of others, but they are accustomed to performing at a high level and are not used to performing poorly in front of others. Consequently reading, writing, taking tests, speaking in class, etc., generate feelings of inadequacy that may create emotional distress for many student-athletes. One of the factors that intensify these feelings is the fact that many of them have never learned the student role (Roberts-Wilbur & Wilbur, 1985; Akgun, Ciarrochi, 2003). Thus they lack the necessary skills, such as how to study for a test, how to behave in the classroom, how to ask for help from a professor, etc.

      Poor time management skills also result in feelings of inadequacy. It is estimated that a football player puts in between 45-49 hours a week during the season, and if travel time is included the average time commitment expands to sixty hours a week. It is also estimated that a student should expect to study two hours outside of class for every hour in class. Time then is of the essence and without good time management skills most academic work will never be completed. Finally, the reality that many freshmen student-athletes enter college lacking in some of the basic skills necessary for college work also intensifies the threat to self-esteem.


      While the athletic portion of the student-athlete’s life is structured to the point that many complain they are treated like children the remainder of their time is not structured. Thus, they are in the position of having to make many decisions about what they will do with their time. Student-athletes are used to being coached and consequently many of them have never had the opportunity to learn to take responsibility for themselves. Besides the decisions that average freshmen make regarding such things as friends, drugs, alcohol, sex, etc., athletes are under even more peer pressure to live up to the "dumb jock" stereotype, which includes such things as sexual activity, getting into fights, parties, and not doing well in he classroom. Thus, in order for an athlete to do well academically they have to withstand the peer pressure and desire to be accepted as "one of the boys" which is a conflict that can create emotional distress.

      Finally, the major conflict that all athletes struggle with is how to do both - how to participate in their sport and successfully meet the academic demands and requirements. This struggle is fraught with daily decisions and results in a good deal of stress.

Ineffective Coping Mechanisms

      Coping is what people do to protect themselves from the negative physical or psychological consequences resulting from a pile-up of demands (McCubbin, Needle, & Wilson, 1985). Unfortunately, coping can also be a source of strain that adds, rather than reduces the amount of stress an individual is forced to deal with. Since we are talking about 18 year olds, it is not surprising to find that most freshmen student-athletes do not cope very effectively with the inordinate amount of stress that they are forced to deal with during their first year in college. Consequently, their coping efforts are often self-defeating thus increasing their level of stress rather than diminishing it.

Self-Defeating Behaviors

      Most athletes are both unprepared and unaware of the stress that they will experience and also unaware of how stress and their inability to cope with it can negatively affect their athletic and academic performance. The only thing that most of them are aware of is the feelings that they experience. Feelings of loneliness, frustration, homesickness, discouragement, self-doubt, and the general sense that no-one cares about them are common place among freshmen athletes. Since, at least initially their response to the stress is to either "fight" or "flight", their ability to cope effectively with the stress is limited.

"Fight" or "Flight"

      According to most people who write about stress (Barrow & Prosen 1981; Selye, 1956; 1974) people respond to stressors initially with a "fight" or "flight" response followed by a stage of resistance or adaptation, during which physical and/or psychological malfunctioning can occur. Freshmen athletes' response to stress appears to be limited to the "fight" or "flight" response. Therefore, they spend a good deal of time and energy trying to change things they have no control over and/or fleeing from the stressors in their life through avoidance behaviors, such as alcohol, women, sleep, etc. Consequently, their response creates more stressors along with their concomitant feelings and makes it more difficult for them to be productive either in or out of the classroom.

      "Fight": The "fight" response is more common in the athletic realm than it is in the academic one. Examples of this response include fighting/arguing with the coaches and to a lesser degree complaining about the coaching staff, practice, workouts, etc. Athletes who attempt to cope with the stress in this way are often labeled by the coaching staff as having bad attitudes, as poor practice players, and as recruiting disappointments. A "fight" response is therefore self-defeating to the student-athlete because, even though attention is obtained, it is usually negative and punitive and therefore intensifies the feelings of inadequacy. The "fight" response is also evident during free time. Fights in bars and at parties are examples of this response outside the athletic realm.

      "Flight": The "flight" response is even more pervasive than the "fight" response and is particularly apparent in the academic realm. Freshmen student-athletes almost all avoid their feelings of inadequacy and fears of failure related to their academic performance by simply avoiding anything related to the classroom. Examples of this include not going to class, going to class late, not studying, not turning in assignments, withdrawing from classes, etc. They further flee from their feelings by "acting" like they don't care about how they are doing in their classes, not trying, complaining about professors, and in general distorting to themselves and others how they are doing academically. This response also becomes self-defeating because as a result of their avoidance behaviors student-athletes often get themselves into an "academic hole" that is difficult to get out of. In the process of avoiding the stressors many jeopardize both their academic and athletic careers. Other examples of the "flight" response include drinking, partying, watching TV, and sleeping. Finally, threatening to transfer or to quit their sport altogether are obvious examples of the "flight" response.


      The intent of this article has been to discuss the high level of stress experienced by athletes during their first year of college. Specific athletic and academic stressors were presented and discussed in order to provide the reader with information that will facilitate their ability to identify athletes who are particularly ineffective in coping with stress and to reframe in general some of the perceptions others have about the behaviors that freshmen athletes manifest. While it is beyond the scope of this article specifically to deal with how to help freshmen student-athletes cope effectively with the stress, and it will do so indirectly by facilitating the awareness and understanding of those who come into contact and work with them.

      If we understand that stress may be related to the dismal academic performance of freshmen athletes, then perhaps we will be in a position to develop some programs and/or support systems that will facilitate their ability to understand their experience and deal more effectively with the stress. If they can do this then perhaps they will also perform at a higher level academically.


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