Stronger Bodies, Stronger Minds

Back when I was in high school, athletes were not smart. The football players were the classic ‘dumb jocks’ that you see in movies, and brains were the only thing that the non-athletic kids could lord over the athletes with. Sure, the hockey player could beat up the Mathlete member, but he always had the knowledge that, were they ever in some sort of geometry competition, the hockey player was going down.

Such is not the case at UVM. Here, the hockey player is also likely to be a physics major with a 3.5 GPA. Was it always like this? Is it just something in the water (or maybe in the Powerade) that’s making UVM athletes so smart, or is there some other factor that is blurring the line between the athletes and the Mathletes at the University of Vermont?

Joe Gervais, the Coordinator of the Student-Athlete Services, believes that there is another factor, and the athletic department backs him up. Joe Gervais started the Life Skills program at UVM in the fall of 2000, when the NCAA made it mandatory for all colleges with Division I sports to have a CHAMPS/Life Skills program. CHAMPS/Life Skills, begun as a model that the NCAA developed in 1995, is now implemented in over 450 colleges and universities across the nation, approximately 150 of them Division II and Division III schools. CHAMPS stands for Challenging Athletes’ Minds for Personal Success, and that is just what the CHAMPS/Life Skills program is all about. The program focuses on helping student-athletes to manage their time and excel in the classroom, on the field, and in life. Gervais and Gary Bruening, a new addition to the staff this year, help the athletes to know how to commit their time and what to commit it to.

The program emphasizes five kinds of commitment: commitment to academic excellence, athletic excellence, personal development, career development, and service. Basically, the students learn how to structure their lives in order to be as well balanced and well rounded as possible. These are the basics of the program, but the way the program is structured and implemented takes a different shape at every school, according to Gervais.

Here at UVM, the CHAMPS/Life Skills program takes shape as the Student-Athlete Services, hence Gervais’ title as Coordinator of the Student-Athlete Services. The Student-Athlete Services department is comprised of a Life Skills program and an academic support program. The Life Skills program orients the athletes to UVM and helps them get to know each other, building a sense of community between not just teammates, but athletes from all the different sports.

A big part of the Life Skills program is a one-credit class that all athletes are required to take. The class curriculum was developed by Gervais, and helps communicate the department goals to the student-athletes, as well as teaching them the five kinds of commitment and the rest of the CHAMPS/Life Skills ideas. The class is also taught by Gervais, along with Bruening and Alexis Ressler, a graduate student at UVM.

The academic support program makes up the rest of the Student-Athlete Services. This is a relatively new program to UVM, and Bruening was hired this past fall to run it with Gervais. The two men work with the teams on academic issues, and bring services on campus closer to the athletes who wouldn’t have the time otherwise to go to counseling, get help and advice from the career services center, or get tutoring.

“The demands on the student-athletes have increased greatly in the past few years,” says Gervais. “Student-athletes now have year-round conditioning and a lot of early-morning workouts, something we didn’t have when I was a student-athlete here (Gervais graduated from UVM in 1988), so they need additional advice and help. The academic support program provides this.” Consequently, the student-athletes of UVM are well above par, with 2/3 of the athletes earning better than a 3.0, making the collective average of the student athletes a 3.08, higher than the student body mark of 2.96.

The Student-Athlete Services has done more for athletes than improve their grades. Gervais has also seen a sense of community growing among the student-athletes, and part of his program in the Life Skills classes is teaching the athletes an ability to have a bigger vision, something he is gratified to see happen in his students.

The only downside of CHAMPS/Life Skills and the academic support program? Now that the athletes are getting smarter, those smart kids from high school have some competition.