Attrition and the Yale Athlete

Frank Keefe, the head coach of Yale’s men’s and women’s swimming teams, has lost his fair share of athletes over the years.

“There’s quitting,” he said, “and then there’s quitting for the right reason.”

Keefe is not the only Yale coach to experience heartburn at the exodus of student-athletes, a number of whom leave their teams each year in order to pursue opportunities outside the pool or off the field. For Keefe and for others, the loss of Eli athletes — to pursue medical school, to sing, to join other campus groups — raises questions of obligation, stigma and recruiting priorities.

Many players interviewed who quit felt that the time they were putting into the sport did not translate into playing time and, more important, took away from time they could spend elsewhere on other activities, including academics.

Kristin Smith ’09, who played on the volleyball team during her freshman and sophomore years before stopping midseason this year, said she realized it was time for her to move on and pursue other things, including medical school, while she battled stress fractures throughout this season.

“I’ve been playing volleyball for so long, and I’m so thankful for opportunity to play here, but I think I learned all the lessons I could from the sport,” she said. “If I was going to keep getting injured, and given how much time volleyball took up, it just didn’t seem like the logical choice. I really wanted to focus my energy on medical school, and there’s lots of academic pressure.”

Although other athletes interviewed cited their injuries as reasons for quitting, Smith emphasized that her stress fractures were not her principal motivation.

“My injury was a catalyst towards my decision to step away from volleyball, but I didn’t want to make it an excuse of my injury for me not wanting play,” she explained. “I wanted an authentic reason.”

Athletic Director Tom Beckett said there is no “blanket answer” to questions about athletes’ decisions to quit, but in most cases, the significant time commitment required to play a varsity sport is the most significant factor in their decision to stop playing. Another athlete, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity surrounding athletes and quitting, said she had originally planned to play for all four years and continues to love her sport, but she was unhappy with her experience last year.

“It was taking too much time and energy, and it was an activity that I was just not happy with anymore,” she said. “There are so many other activities and interests that I can get involved with, and my time would be better spent with different groups and communities through which I can make a difference.”

Often, athletes who were stars in high school can quickly find themselves sitting on the bench and questioning whether their sport is a worthwhile investment of 40 hours a week.

Quitting is more common among athletes who have more “peripheral” roles on the team, as opposed to starting players, Keefe said, but attrition at any level can still make drawing up lineups a challenge and can affect the competitiveness of the team.

Jennie Hansen ’08, captain of the women’s crew team, said a loss at any level of the team can affect the allocation of rowers across boats — one lost rower can make it impossible to put a boat out on the water if there is no on else to fill in.

“When you’re limited to the number of people you can support and one of them drops out, it leaves a hole that can be very difficult to fill,” Keefe explained. “You have to find someone else, and the talent level drops.”

Obligated, or not?

Recruits do not necessarily have an obligation to follow through with their intentions to play sports at Yale, Beckett said, but it is the goal of the Athletics Department to encourage coaches and players to develop a strong bond during the recruiting process, which often lasts all four years of high school.

“When the student joins the team, we hope that they make a commitment to strive to be part of a team that they want to be part of their entire Yale career,” he said. “That’s generally what is expected, and by and large that does happen.”

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said his office does not admit students, including recruits, with a stated expectation that they will follow through with a particular activity in which they express interest in their applications.

Yale accepts students who apply with medals from science competitions and later major in history, pianists who drop their instrument to take up acting and community activists who never join Dwight Hall, Brenzel pointed out.

“We never offer admission with the thought that we are creating an obligation for them to exercise that particular talent at Yale,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We do not take ‘editors’ and ‘pianists’ and ‘athletes.’ We take individuals of great promise, with a wide variety of talents and interests.”

Unlike some other universities, where admissions decisions and scholarship offers are contingent on participation, Ivy League universities are forbidden to require continued team membership once students get to campus.

But athletes like Hansen said coaches and administrators expect that recruits will follow through on their commitment, even though that expectation is never explicitly stated.

“When you go to an Ivy League [school], it’s a verbal agreement, there’s an unspoken understanding that you should compete all four years,” she said. “When you sign with a scholarship [school], you’re putting something on paper. With an unspoken agreement, you can get out of it more easily, and you don’t feel as obligated.”

Smith added, “I absolutely think it’s easier to stop playing here or any other Ivy League compared to schools that offer scholarships.”

Keefe said the existence of explicit obligation deterred him from coaching at a scholarship school. He compared playing sports at scholarship schools to having a job because recruits must continue to play in order to pay for their education.

“It becomes an obligation, and it’s like you’re a hired gun,” he said. “If you were on scholarship, I would own you. It’s just that simple.”

Although coaches and athletes interviewed said students at Yale should not feel obligated to play on the basis of being recruited, the anonymous athlete said her coach raised questions about her responsibility to the team as she made her decision.

“That was brought up, but I don’t feel like I have any obligation to the school,” the athlete said. “They bring us in as student athletes, and we’re held to the same standards as everyone else — that’s why we’re recruited and that’s why there’s no scholarship, so if things don’t go as planned, there’s no reason to be unhappy.”

Facing a stigma

Athletics administrators, coaches and players interviewed discussed the possibility that prospective recruits and their families may try to use athletics to gain admission to a competitive school. But instances of high schoolers successfully gaming the system are rare, they said.

Hansen said she has known athletes who were recruited to play their sport at other colleges, but never showed up to play, which makes it seem as if they used athletics to get in, she said.

Smith said she is not looked down upon for quitting and has not heard others question her reasons for doing so.

“Most people — other athletes, deans, athletic trainers — have said that they’re happy for me because I made the decision for myself and I’m happier for it,” she said.

But Hyatt Bailey ’10, who was recruited to play tennis and quit during October of his freshman year, said his experience was not as positive as some other athletes have described. He said his coach understood that he found a more comfortable social niche with the Baker’s Dozen, but some others doubted that he ever intended to follow through with recruiting commitment.

“I’m sure there are some people who probably thought something like that,” Bailey said. “But anyone who actually knows me knows that it was the right decision for me.”

While other athletes said they have had support from coaches, fellow teammates and other athletes, Bailey noted that quitting carries a certain stigma within Yale’s athletic community. He was surprised when even one of his friends in the Baker’s Dozen, a varsity athlete himself, told Bailey that he initially looked down on him because Bailey decided to quit while he chose to continue to sing and play sports simultaneously.

“There’s a stigma around quitting — athletes look down on kids who quit, and yes, they might have thoughts about people using recruiting to get into Yale, but I think the underlying negative feeling is the idea of quitting a team you’re supposed to be loyal to,” he explained. “It’s a group mentality that people can relate to across teams, and you’re not one of them anymore.”

Coaches are often frustrated when athletes quit because of the effort Yale puts into supporting recruits. Because they spend up to 18 months recruiting an athlete, coaches said they are particularly disappointed when recruits end up quitting early on in their careers — some as early as pre-season practice. Some recruits don’t show up to practice at all after being admitted.

“At some point you can say, ‘You got into Yale because of swim[ming],’ ” Keefe said. “Our kids are smart, just like everyone else, but swimming is what distinguishes them, so they should at least give our program a try.”

Brian Tompkins, head coach of men’s soccer, has had players who quit after their first pre-season practice.

“When an athlete quits on the first day, it leaves a coach with the feeling that the recruit and or their family were not being open and honest with their true intentions,” Tompkins wrote in an e-mail. “It is no secret that Yale is extremely selective in its admission requirements and therefore no coach wants to feel taken advantage of or ‘used’ by a student as a means to gain admission.”

But, he added, “If they have given some serious thought to the decision and they can make it without feeling a sense of regret, then they leave with my blessing.”

Finding the right fit

Chuck Hughes, president of the admissions-consulting firm Road to College, said recruits get a boost in the admissions process from athletics departments through recruiting, and attrition may be a concern to admissions officers if they stretched academic standards to admit the recruits in the first place.

Hughes said admissions offices are willing to stretch standards for certain sports programs for the sake of long-term relationships with coaches and athletic programs with a history of success, among other reasons.

“The reality in the Ivy League is that admissions will take risks — there’s no doubt that some recruits wouldn’t have been admitted had they not been supported,” he said. “Schools would never say so, but admissions offices are willing to stretch the standards for certain sports and these athletes get a tremendous amount of support during the process.”

Certainly coaches and admissions officers will be less supportive of a recruit who they fear might quit in the future. But Fritz Rodriguez, director of admissions and financial aid for the Athletics Department, said attrition does not factor into the process of determining the number of athletes each coach is able to support from year to year.

Harvard Associate Director of Athletics Sheri Norred, who serves as a liaison to the admissions office, said the situation is similar at Harvard.

“At the most, it just means a coach might have to change his/her strategy … to replace that student in a future class,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Any sport with significant attrition would be looked at to see what might be the possible reasons for that occurrence, but we’ve not had a situation like that at Harvard in the recent past.”

From his time working at Harvard and interacting with Crimson coaches, Hughes said coaches pay close attention to attrition if they have had problems in the past. In a time when recruiting is becoming increasingly sophisticated, the system has become one that some families hope to work to their advantage, which creates a challenge for coaches trying to distinguish between athletes who truly love the sport and those who may only want to use the recruiting process as their “in.”

Members of the athletic community said the bond between coaches and players created through the recruiting process is an important aspect that athletes must consider.

“The coaching staff is part of the reason I came to Yale and I wouldn’t want to let them down, but everyone puts a different value on that.” Hansen said.

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