Ask an athlete to talk about a coach, Paul Wright says, and the stories will flow naturally.
Expect the anecdotes to overflow with loving examples of the positive and lasting effects of an additional, caring adult in a young person’s life. Their appreciation is genuine – and touching.
Consequently, athletes make good mentors.
“If they’ve been playing sports for a long time, they’ve developed a love for it and they have a passion for it,” says Wright, NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education.
“That also means they’ve had coaches or parents who’ve focused on them, developed them as individuals, supported them, picked them up when they were down,” Wright adds. “Relationships like that are at the heart of mentoring. It’s really an easy connection to make – or a slam dunk, to use a sports analogy.”
NIU’s world-class student-athletes are no exception, of course.
Several volunteer each year to mentor students at DeKalb’s Clinton Rosette Middle School through The Huskie Experience program of the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics’ Student-Athlete Academic Support Services.
“Our mission is to develop our student-athletes personally and professionally while engaging in the community and the campus community,” says Rachel Steward, an academic coordinator with SAASS. “I see a lot of tangible skills that our athletes are building. Time management is huge. Patience is a big one. Ultimately, though, I think they like the satisfaction of knowing that they’re making an impact on that next generation that really aspires to be like them.”
Robin Enders, a counselor at Clinton Rosette and the liaison between the school at NIU, says that her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders receive wisdom and assistance on homework, arriving on time to class, locker organization, how to approach teachers with questions, the value of higher education and more.
Mentees are chosen through recommendations from parents or teacher, Enders says; sometimes the students ask on their own if they’ve had mentors before or see friends with mentors. If she sees that the Huskie athletes are early in their education, she pairs them with younger children to extend the length of the relationship.
“It’s become a part of the fabric of our school,” Enders says.
“Parents appreciate the opportunity to have another caring adult in their children’s lives,” she adds. “For the NIU student-athletes – and I’ve served as references for them – it’s also been very beneficial. They see that what you put into something is what you get out of it.”
Wright saw another opportunity.
He enjoys a long relationship with Clinton Rosette, where he ran an after-school program focused on youth development and social change through sport. He also frequently connects with staff at Huskie Athletics, who appreciate his 20-year scholarly focus on youth development and social change through sport.
“The Huskie Experience is a great concept; it serves the mission of Athletics to develop their athletes and their social responsibility, and there’s an obvious benefit to the Clinton Rosette kids,” Wright says.
“But Athletics didn’t have a structured approach on the philosophy of mentoring or the best practices to share with their athletes. This is where I was able to offer my support,” he adds. “I talked with Melissa Dawson, the director of SAASS, and she was open to it. She said, ‘We would love to get your insights and recommendations. We built this thing, but how do we improve it?’ ”
Wright created an orientation program to prepare the athletes in “what mentoring is; the do’s and don’ts; the youth development; how to build relationships with kids.” His third annual presentation took place Sept. 11 at Anderson Hall, home of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.
Meanwhile, the professor hopes to evaluate the program through data collection and analysis. He encourages graduate students in his KNPE 596: Sport-based Youth Development course to assess the Clinton Rosette program for their class projects, independent studies or theses.
His students attended and observed the Sept. 11 orientation for a close-up look at how mentoring promotes the development of middle-schoolers and college students alike as well as for how to grow and improve such programs.
“It’s an all-around win,” Wright says. “Collaboration creates opportunities.”
Steward and Enders agree.
“NIU is obviously a main focus in the DeKalb community, and I believe that the more we can engage with the community is a benefit for both sides,” Steward says.
“Our student-athletes continually work with youth through camps, clinics and those type of experiences, and they yearn to get more of that on a consistent basis during the school year,” she adds. “For others, it’s leaving their mark on the DeKalb community. When they spend four or five years here, DeKalb is giving a lot to them, and they want to give back.”
Middle school students offer a perfect avenue: When the Huskies encounter adolescents who “might be hard to get to know,” Steward says, the athletes “keep pulling back the layers” until they uncover something that yields the reward of a breakthrough moment.
“For us, it might be the smallest thing, but for that kid to open up in that way is huge,” she says. “Just to see the relationships evolve over the years is pretty remarkable. Middle-schoolers might not necessarily say that they really enjoy the time they have with their mentors, but secretly on the inside, they do – and the more our student-athletes see that, the better.”
Staff at Clinton Rosette, meanwhile, love to see the smiles on children blessed with mentors.
“It’s just another positive person, like an older brother or sister, someone who reinforces the message of how important school is,” Enders says.
“Whenever I talk to them, they’re usually very excited,” she adds. “They’ll say if they did an art project with their mentor, or if they played a game of basketball. They’ll say, ‘Look what we did!’ and ‘We had so much fun – when’s my mentor coming again?’ It’s really a fun thing to see the kids get so excited.”