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Division III Athletics: Where athletes play to win, play for fun, and are true student-athletes

Finding the balance between athletics and academics

Recently, Steven Reiss wrote an interesting blog post about the distinction between Division I athletes and Division III athletes. In his post, Professor Reiss wrote: "I later evaluated the needs of each player on an NCAA Division I baseball team, NCAA Division I golf team, and a soccer and a tennis team playing in NCAA Division III. The results showed dramatic differences in what motivated the various teams. The Division I players were primarily motivated by competition and achievement, whereas the Division III players - i.e., those from smaller schools - were primarily motivated by social experiences. In other words, Division I athletes wanted to win, but those playing in Division III wanted to make friends."

One of the benefits of playing at a Division III school is the balance between academics and athletics. I commend Professor Reiss for studying motivation in different levels of collegiate competition. However, I do not agree with Professor Reiss that players in Division III play primarily to ‘make friends'. As a coach and professor at a Division III school, I have the privilege of working with seventeen highly motivated student-athletes (male basketball players) on a daily basis. Last year, we went 30-1 and we were ranked #1 in the country for much of the regular season, before losing to the eventual national champion, Washington University. Over the course of the season, our players demonstrated a commitment to excellence that was about team, enjoyment, winning, and being the best we could be.

I believe Division III athletics is the purest form of intercollegiate competition. Student-athletes are truly students first. Players are talented, competitive, and driven, but also know that they are in school to pursue an education, prepare for a career, and to develop socially, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. Athletics in Division III are an important part of the educational experience. That said, the majority of Division III athletes I have coached or coached against are highly motivated by many factors, not just making friends. one of those factors is competition -- individuals and teams in Division III work incredibly hard. Division III athletes are not on athletic scholarships. As a result, they may actually have higher levels of intrinsic motivation than their Division I and II counterparts.

My perception of competitiveness in Division IIII athletes was supported again last week. The University of St. Thomas played at our archrival St. John's University in football. St. John's entered the game ranked #6 in the nation in D-3, St. Thomas ranked #15. Both teams were undefeated and St. Thomas had not defeated St. John's in more than a decade. On a beautiful fall day, nearly 13,000 fans packed the stadium nicknamed the Natural Bowl (Clemens Stadium is set in the middle of a picturespue bowl of trees, hills, grass, and goal posts).

St. John's led 14-0 midway through the 4th quarter before St. Thomas stormed back to tie the game with two seconds left on a pass from Greg Morse to Jake Friederichs. As fairy tale endings go, the Tommies seemed destined to break the streak. John Gagliardi, 83 years old, in his 56th season at St. John's, and the winningest coach in NCAA history and Glenn Caruso, in his 2nd year at St. Thomas, and engineering a tremendous season at St. Thomas, were both digging deep into their bag of tricks to pull out the victory. In overtime, St. Thomas struck first with a field goal and needed to hold St. John's to squeak out a victory. Unfortunately, St. John's ran for a touchdown and the home crowd rushed the field.

Walking out of the stadium, I passed player after player for St. Thomas who had a look of disbelief in their eyes. Many were kneeling on the turf, others were walking off with eyes showing both anger and sadness. One player in particular caught my attention - a senior wide receiver. He stood in the corner of the end zone, staring off into the distance with tears in his eyes. It was as if he could not bring himself to leave the field in what was his last opportunity to defeat the vaunted Johnnies. (of course, if both teams win their remaining games, the stage could be set for a rematch in the NCAA tournament).

As I reflected on the scene after the game, it struck me how incredibly competitive the afternoon had been. Whether it was the crowd, the coaches, or the players, it was a day filled with passion. Monday morning snapped us back to reality in the life of Division III athletics when we began basketball practice at 6:00am. Our players rushed off to class immediately after we were done. Later that morning, quarterback Greg Morse was back in class discussing how to break down prejudice, showing resilience after a tough loss. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of having a research meeting with six student-athletes to discuss our research on the effect parents have on children's motivation to participate in youth sports. These research  assistants included a soccer star, two track All-Americans, a basketball point guard, the football quarterback, a football lineman, and the softball team's pitcher. More impressive than their athletic accomplishments, they are all outstanding students and even better people.

One member of the group was unable to attend that meeting. Football player Jeffrey Hilliard suffered a concussion in the St. John's football game. A senior defensive back, Jeffrey was knocked out in the 2nd half and unable to return to the game. Jeffrey did return, however, to our research meeting today, and he made several valuable contributions. Jeffrey, Erin, Carolyn, Matt, Greg, Marta, and Nikki reminded me once again of the passion for excellence possessed by so many Division III athletes. Yes, they want to have fun and yes they want to make friends, but make no mistake that they also want to win and to excel at all that they do.

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