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Why the Superstars Burn Out

Athletic Programs Suffer High Attrition Rate

By Janie Smith

This has been a week just like any other week in the Harvard athletic community. Three varsity athletes decided to hang up their sneakers and sweats and turn their energy elsewhere. But this time it was female sensation Nancy Boutilier, varsity player in three sports, and junior butterflyer Kathleen McCloskey. And when the men's basketball team hit the courts last Thursday it was without the presence of three-year varsity player Robert Taylor.

Sadly enough for Harvard athletics these players are not alone. Ask any athletes if they know of outstanding players who've quit and you won't just get names--you'll get lists.

Is Harvard unique in the number of ex-athletes walking around campus? Or is the high rate of player attrition inherent in the nature of Ivy League programs and the type of athletes attracted to them?

"I never expect a serious athlete to quit," says Carole Kleinfelder, women's basketball coach, adding, "People who drop out are in the sport for the wrong reason."

Based on her own athletic experience, Boutilier, who just last week decided to take a leave from school for the rest of the year, disagrees. "I don't believe what Vince Lombardi says, that winners never quit. At this school some of the best winners quit.

"At Harvard an athlete's identity is rarely subsumed by his or her sport--the player has the confidence to say, 'I don't need this because I'm something else,'" Boutilier explains.

Although the reasons athletes quit are as diverse as the players themselves, certain attitudes and complaints appear common.

"I was so committed to my sport when I came here that if I could have fit six years of swimming into four I would have done it," remembers Ron Raikula, a world-ranked swimmer who retired at the end of his sophomore year.

This attitude reflects the mental, if not financial, commitment most athletes feel when they arrive at Harvard, intending to complete for four years.

The most common explanation given by athletes who have decided to leave a team is "the chance to do other things." But, with a little delving, other factors emerge--usually an unsatisfactory coach-athlete relationship.

The picture of the typical Harvard coach one gets from talks with various athletes is flawed: young, intelligent and articulate--but missing the ability to communicate with his or her players.

"I don't know if it's that they're seasoned only as press releases, but they're missing the qualities of sincerity and true camaraderie there should be between coach and player," is how one ex-athlete expresses it. "Before I came here I always felt that when I played it was for the coach and team, but once here I could feel the emphasis shifting and I began to play for myself--that's when I decided it wasn't worth it," is how ex-varsity basketball player Dave Coatsworth views his experience.

"If there's going to be a scapegoat here it's going to be the coach," says one coach pragmatically. But coaches often see the breakdown in player-coach relations as rooted in the athlete who, perhaps because of the absence of scholarships, feels no commitment to either the coach or team.

"Sometimes I feel like it's a one-way street," says Frank McLaughlin, men's basketball coach, adding, "If the athletes have no commitment to me why should I have a commitment to them--when they cut both me and the team short."

Another coach admits, "I've never gotten the personal rewards here that I have at other schools. The athletes want to take more than they're willing to give."

But the coaches do care for their athletes, often wondering where the person disappointed with athletics will turn. "I'm disappointed when one of my athletes tells me he's quitting, but I'd be more concerned if he told me that he was dropping out of school," explains McLaughlin.

Is the Harvard athlete a unique breed? Harvard coaches appear to think so.

They often cite the scenario of the highly motivated athlete who has most probably experienced not just athletic, but academic success in high school. Once here that student is thrown into a melting pot of similar success stories and--probably for the first time in his life--finds himself sitting on the bench. It's hard to take, and often quitting is easier than admitting one's own limitations.

Most athletes admit that consideration of coach and teammates didn't play an important role in the decision to leave. Norma Barton, Ivy League swim champion in three events, says that for her, "It was easier to stop when I was on top. Maybe that's selfish, but I'd been swimming for a long time and had accomplished everything I could hope for."

Coaches and players agree such decisions are easier to make without the pressure of athletic scholarships. The fact that only three of the 75 athletes who received scholarships at UMass last year decided to drop their sport apparently supports this belief.

But where does Harvard stand in relation to other Ivy League schools?

"It's clearly not a problem here," says Marilee Baker, athletics director at Princeton, adding, "Our athletes usually keep playing unless they're cut."

But where Baker can speak of "a very good hard core group of fans," Harvard coaches and athletes often mention the lack of administrative or student support for athletics. As one ex-athlete said, "There's no such thing as a Harvard fan."

"I know that we ask an incredible commitment for almost no public recognition--the athlete soon comes to realize that he's swimming just for his own benefit and enjoyment. It makes sense that once they've had the experience they move on," says Vicki Hays, coach of women's swimming.

Even the relatively glamorous sports of football and hockey have their share of discontented athletes. Although attrition may be due to competition in his than in other sports, Dave Clemenes, the gridders' defensive coach, admits, "It's not always the third stringer that comes to me and wants to quit."

Statistics show the attrition rate is higher in women's sports than in men's, and certain sports, like basketball and swimming, see more athletes retire more often than other sports such as tennis, lacrosse and baseball do.

In his four years as varsity baseball coach Alex Nahigian has never had an athlete quit. Nahigian appears to have a different view of Harvard athletes than most coaches; "I don't see much difference between the kids I coach here and those I've coached before. I handle them all the same way," he says, adding, "They enjoy practice, it's not physically or mentally taxing."

There's a joke going around campus that if the Houses combined teams, the intramural squads could beat the varsity at their own sports.

But when you consider that three of last year's starters in women's basketball had decided to retire, and that 11 of the 18 individual team records in women's swimming are held by ex-athletes who still attend Harvard but don't compete--it's not really all that funny.

I was so committed when I came here that if I could have fit six years of swimming into four I would have done it.' Ron Raikula, former swimmer

I feel like it's a one-way street. If the athletes have no commitment to me, why should I have a commitment to them?' Frank McLaughlin, men's basketball coach

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