March 01, 2012

Athletics and a life of purposeful consequence

In the increasingly shrill nationwide conversation regarding tuition growth (see my letter in the summer 2010 issue of this magazine for a more nuanced perspective), it is not uncommon for offerings that seem like luxuries to be called out as examples of college leaders’ inattention to cost control. In those debates, intercollegiate athletic programs are among the items most frequently cited. Why would a college spend so much money supporting intercollegiate sports—at Beloit, about 2.5 percent of the operating budget—when there are so many other pressing needs that seem to be more important, given the college’s mission? Good question.

At the core, our mission is to prepare Beloit alumni to live lives of purposeful consequence. To do so, we provide students with a moveable feast of opportunities from which they can choose. These are not exclusively classroom experiences. In addition to study abroad, internships, and service and entrepreneurial programs, we believe it is essential for Beloit students to participate in programs that do not offer course credit.

In my life, I believe I can trace many of the determinants of my professional and personal successes to my continued athletic participation at both the varsity and club sport level. I have heard a similar perspective from many, many Beloit alumni. What is it about athletics that might make this true?

At the top of my list is this: Athletics offers a particularly clear connection between high discipline and high achievement. It sheds a bright light on the paradox that creative freedom is a consequence of hours and hours of repetitive and often boring skill development (Michael Jordan comes to mind). There is little that I do that is not supremely well-practiced. I learned long ago on solitary trails—and ultimately, on race days—of the connection between preparation and pay-off.

Also among its major benefits is that athletics develops an appreciation for competitive settings and a learned ability to thrive in those settings. Being effective in front of a highly attentive external audience in a high-stakes setting requires years of practice. Staying calm, rational, and productive when chaos is reigning around you requires practice.

Anyone seriously engaged in athletics also has to have an appreciation for the value of formative assessment and an expectation of being held accountable for decisions and performance—pretty basic building blocks for success.

I have a much longer list—from an appreciation of aesthetics, to non-verbal communication, to ethical behavior, and beyond. But the point is obvious. While there are multiple pathways to a life of purposeful consequence, one pathway that substantively speaks to the college’s mission includes athletics. More than 20 percent of our students are varsity athletes and a much higher percentage are seriously engaged athletes (whether in the karate club or men’s soccer, volleyball, or ultimate Frisbee).

For all of the reasons above, I would welcome even higher percentages. From here at Chapin’s desk (and on my way out the door for a quick run),

President Scott Bierman

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