Big Green realities: athlete attrition at Dartmouth

Most Dartmouth varsity sports teams possess significantly more underclassmen than upperclassmen, as many student-athletes decide to stop competing after their sophomore year. As a result, there are approximately 100 fewer seniors on varsity athletic rosters than freshmen.

Dartmouth offers 34 varsity sports, including 16 mens’ teams, 16 womens’ teams and two coed teams. Over 70 percent of teams, based on their official rosters, have more freshmen and sophomores than upperclassmen.

The average Dartmouth team has eight freshmen, seven sophomores, six juniors and five seniors.

Student-athletes decide to stop competing in their sport for a variety of reasons, including injuries, financial motives and academic, social and emotional pressures. Because of the sensitive and often personal nature of an athlete’s decision to leave a team, many current and former athletes are hesitant when talking about the process.

“It’s a conscious decision to stop competing,” said Aylin Woodward ’15, an alpine skier. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d been competing in something for so long to find it easy to just drop their sport. There would certainly be a lot of time, effort, thought and anguish put into the decision.”

Dartmouth competes as an NCAA Division I school in the Ivy League. However, unlike most others, the Ivy League prohibits granting athletic scholarships, since all member schools award them according to financial need. As a result, student-athletes are not required to remain on the team for all four years. Many students join a team for the love of the sport that they have competed in since elementary school, while others walk on. Either way, students do not have a financial incentive to compete, since only a small handful continue after college in professional sports leagues. Few Dartmouth athletes signed contracts each year; for many, Dartmouth is their last opportunity to compete before graduating.

“We’re in college, but the closer we get to the real world, sometimes student-athletes begin to question the benefits of continuing to do their sport if there’s no long-term gain and they’re already focused on classes, their major, their work, possible internships and their Greek house,” Woodward said. “Sometimes athletics has to take a seat on the backburner.”

A member of the women’s cross country and track teams, who wished to remain anonymous to preserve team relationships, noted the potential conflicts that arise as a student-athlete.

“Sometimes coaches forget that you’re here mainly for academics,” she said. “That’s why we came here. No one’s on a scholarship here.”

The Dartmouth schedule presents a serious obstacle for student-athletes. They must balance academics and work commitments, and weekend competitions mean that athletes miss Thursday or Friday classes regularly.

“You have a very rigorous schedule as a student-athlete,” said Tyler Melville ’14, a basketball player. “Time management is essential. It was hard for me to make the transition when I first came to Dartmouth as Dartmouth’s such an academically prestigious school.”

Athletes practice almost every day for several hours, depending on their sport. Many train and compete throughout the year, and athletes who participate in year-round sports are exempt from taking classes sophomore summer.

Because the majority of Dartmouth’s study abroad programs happen during the regular school year, participating in an language study abroad or foreign study program removes an athlete from their team, which could harm an athlete’s chemistry with their team or coach.

“I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities Dartmouth offered that wouldn’t have been open to me if I continued to compete,” said Katharine Pujol ’13, who decided to leave the lacrosse team after her sophomore year.

The female member of the cross country and track teams agreed that the difficulty of studying abroad was a major factor in many decisions to leave teams.

“For a lot of my friends who retired, studying abroad was a big factor,” she said. “Studying abroad wasn’t forbidden but it was somewhat frowned upon unless it was necessary for your major.” Another important factor alongside academic pressures is personal health. Athletes face potential injury every time they compete, regardless of their sport. If an athlete is injured, he or she may be forced to choose whether to continue competing sooner than desired. Physical therapy represents a significant time commitment regardless of the injury, whether it is a torn ACL or a bone fracture.

Blaine Steinberg ’15 suffered two concussions while on the lacrosse team and left to avoid risking severe injury.

“I was training to get back and I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk,” she said. “I just wasn’t myself with the concussion.”

Steinberg had torn her ACL in high school, forcing her to quit the soccer team heading into her senior season, an experience that she credits for making the decision to leave lacrosse slightly easier.

“I knew I could be happy without playing,” she said.

Personal injury isn’t the only major factor in personal health. Athletes need to constantly watch what they consume and how much they sleep or their physical abilities suffer.

“It’s really hard to stay focused all the time,” the member of the women’s cross country and track teams said. “It’s a constant effort to make sure that you’re sleeping right, eating right and taking care of your body for the whole year. If you pull an all-nighter, you’ll be feeling that for a week at practice. It really takes a toll on your body which can make school really hard.”

Student-athletes find themselves under constant pressure from their coach, academics and career goals. The decision to leave a sport can be traced to an attempt to reduce stress or experience new activities before graduation.

“Freshman year, you’re a little naive about the way Dartmouth works and you’re just thrown into the schedule,” Pujol said. “But sophomore year, you rush a Greek house and experience other types of people. Then as a junior, you realize that there are a ton of clubs you want to do and you need to make a decision about whether to move on to things you really want.”

Steinberg said there was a big transition to life after varsity athletics with the end of a large time commitment.

“Being in control of my time was liberating,” she said. “I already had something lined up with the development office and each term I’ve added new activities. I’ve really enjoyed the extra free time.”

Steinberg did not completely cut her relationship with sports and is now an athletic fundraising intern and the sports director of the college’s radio station, WDCR.

For Pujol, leaving the lacrosse team meant a major culture change.? “One thing I do miss is the ability to play a sport here at Dartmouth,” Pujol said. “It’s easy to not compete when I’m involved in other things, but one thing I really enjoyed was how being a part of a team forces everyone to be honest with themselves. You want to be able to capitalize on your strengths, other peoples’ strengths and you need to be aware of yours and each other’s weaknesses. You have to be accountable. That bond is a very difficult thing to find here at Dartmouth with everyone being involved in so many different things at once.”

Leaving a team to some is akin to leaving a family, Melville said.

“When you’re on a team together for any amount of time, you become family and you start to gain strong bonds together because you’re been through battle and hard practices with each other,” Melville said. “You start to gain friendships. It’s difficult to leave because of all the challenges you go through. It’s always hard to see a person leave the team, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision and you have to support them.”

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