Counseling The Black Student Athlete

Dr.Paul Harris is an assistant professor in the Counselor Education program at the University of Virginia, in the Curry School of Education. His research focuses on the intersection of education and sports, with emphasis on the college readiness of black male student athletes.

Dr. Mark Why the emphasis on the black male athlete in your research?

Dr. Paul Harris: When we look at sports participation from high school through college, the literature is replete with examples of how beneficial it can be, such as connecting individuals to significant others, building work ethic, networking, etc., all of which is true. What I find particularly interesting with the black athlete is that those benefits do not always occur. The educational experience, which is what I focus on in my work, often suffers in the case of Black males. It doesn’t mean we should discourage black males from pursuing sports: in fact, I think quite the opposite. But we need to figure out how to structure, organize, and deliver sports in a way that sports are a mobilizing mechanism for black athletes instead of an exploitive one.

This is not to say that we are to disregard the needs of all other student athletes, however, because I think the experience of all student athletes is unique enough for all to receive some type of targeted intervention and service. But I do think that there is a bit more of a nuance and history to the black male student athlete experience that deserves particular attention.

Dr. Mark: Do athletes need counseling other than academic counseling?

Dr. Paul Harris: That’s a good question. When we look at just the developmental needs and tasks of any student compared to student athletes, they are pretty much the same; for example, identity development, developing a sense of purpose, and developing integrity, are concerns that every student needs to address.. But when you think of student athletes, they such This creates stress that is very unique to the student athlete experience, and warrants targeted support; support, that I would say, could be delivered in the form of counseling.

I think there can be a lot more counseling done outside of the academic realm. I think we first need to demystify the notion of counseling. – Dr. Paul Harris

I think we first need to demystify the notion of counseling. Oftentimes with many populations (but definitely with student athletes), there is a hesitance to access counseling services. It is often deemed as a weakness or a threat to one’s ego, which contributes to many student athletes not even reporting their personal and emotional concerns.

The personal concerns, transition issues, and other areas that the average student deals with need to be addressed by student athletes as well, and in some cases more so because of the unique stressors student athletes face. They deal with all of the developmental tasks I mentioned on center stage, particularly at the college level. Every misstep or challenge they face is occurring in the public light, whereas other students not so much, they can exist privately.

Dr. Mark: How often do you work with student athletes in the area of counseling?

Dr. Paul Harris: Prior to coming to UVA, I was a high school counselor, and I coached a city high school basketball and a college women’s club team. My current role involves training future school counselors. My focus is on training students who are going into the field so they understand how to meet the needs of all students and, in this case, the needs of student athletes.

Last year, I designed a course called Counseling Student Athletes, where I was able to interact more directly with student athletes at the university level, and also with students who are going into the fields of sports counseling, higher education administration, and other capacities that work with athletes.

Dr. Mark: Have you worked with the N4A Student Athlete Division in training student athlete development personnel?

Dr. Paul Harris: I have not, but I look forward to opportunities to do so.

Dr. Mark: What type of counseling do student athletes need when making the transition from competitive athlete to noncompetitive athlete?

Dr. Paul Harris: That’s a good question. I came across your book because I was looking for some information on athletic identity. That’s something I have run across in my own experience, and I have been studying it recently. It is something that I believe we need to really pay attention to, and in reading some of your work, I definitely agree that counseling toward a healthy athletic identity early on—the proactive, preventive type of counseling—is really what’s needed.

Certainly there are other aspects, but I am focusing more on that now because of what I have seen in my personal experience, experience as a counselor, and a scholar. We know a strong athletic identity can be very useful to being successful athletically. However, identifying solely with one’s athletic identity often detracts from establishing other strong identities. As such, there may not be as high a sense of self-efficacy in the academic and career domains, for example. As a result, we can see difficulties arise when it is time to transition out of sports

I think a lot of the counseling could be in creating space for student athletes to strive in these other areas where they have strengths, and then reinforcing such successes. Such opportunities for success in a variety of domains could be facilitated by educators as early as elementary school. Personally, I make a concerted effort in the classroom now to provide a safe space for student athletes to express their intellectual curiosity and then be reinforced for being very intelligent young men and women who happen to be reinforced mostly for their physical and athletic attributes.

Counseling on that front, both individually and in groups, is just unearthing the strengths that already exist in student athletes so that they can see them, and leverage them for future success. Student athletes should be able to see multiple avenues to success. When they get outside of sports, there is going to be a sense of loss, no doubt, but the goal is for that sense of loss to not be devastating.

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