Advising the College Student-Athlete: Issues and Strategies

Matthew L. Kelly
Murray State University

Volume: 11
Article first published online: May 13, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161504

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, athlete, student-athlete

Academic advising is a crucial component of student success on college and university campuses across the nation. Institutions compete not only for the brightest students but for all potential students seeking higher education. Once students enroll, the pressure to retain and graduate them without compromising academic standards and learning ideals is very high. Many campuses have charged various committees with studying and creating plans for improvement in enrollment management, retention rate, and graduation rates. These rates come under great scrutiny from state to state and region to region, as institutions report them to various councils on postsecondary education. In a collegiate world where student-athlete participation numbers have risen in eight of the last ten years, recruiting and advising student-athletes is an important priority on many campuses. In fact, there has been an increase of almost 9,000 student-athlete participants at National Collegiate Athletic Association sport-sponsored institutions during the last several years (NCAA, 2007).

Academic advising for student-athletes requires more than knowledge of curriculum at a particular institution. This type of advising includes additional provisions within 400+ pages of the NCAA policy and procedure manual, which dictates the academic eligibility requirements for participation in intercollegiate athletics. This requires the academic adviser working with student-athletes to be uniquely equipped to deal with this special population. Advisers need other key competencies to ensure the success of the student-athlete, such as effective leadership styles, career advising skills, expertise with at-risk students, and the artful use of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

Previous research has addressed the importance of a transformational style of advising by academic advisers specifically housed in athletics departments (Kelly, 2003). Research also has examined the need for career advising (Bates, 2007) and Appreciative Inquiry methods to improve advising for at-risk students (Truschel, 2007). Transformational leadership includes key elements that allow advisers to relate well to the typical student-athlete. According to Slack (1997), transformational leaders score high in nurturance and relatively low in aggression. This balance often works well with advising student-athletes who are occasionally the opposite—low in nurturance and higher in aggression. These contrasting styles can help to build a bond of trust during advice giving.

Another key component of the transformational style as it relates to advising is individual consideration, introduced by Bass (1985). This component addresses the degree to which a leader gives individual attention to subordinates. More specifically, individual consideration occurs when the adviser shows appreciation and support for positive grades earned in the classroom. Student-athletes often cope with others' high expectations and their own low academic-confidence levels. In these circumstances, advisers can exhibit individual consideration by emphasizing knowledge of achievement and positive reinforcement, which can go a long way toward building trust and strong advising relationships.

Once an effective leadership style develops within the relationship between adviser and student-athlete, two key advising components follow. Beyond sharing knowledge of university policy and curriculum, advising about specific career goals will further strengthen the student-adviser bond. Many student-athletes enjoy high sports-related confidence yet suffer from low academic self-esteem. One way to deal with this is to avoid advising into a specific major and instead focus on advising into a career. When advising into a career field, there likely is more than one academic major that will allow the student-athlete to pursue a particular career goal. There are multiple majors that can lead to medical or law school, business pursuits, or communications careers. Career advising relies on choosing areas of academic strength and defining areas of academic weakness. Once this takes place, the adviser can discuss academic majors that will allow the student-athlete to take advantage of his or her strengths while not feeling as vulnerable to areas of weakness.

There are several areas of career advising. First of all, many advisers are surprised by student-athletes' lack of academic confidence given their typically high levels of public and athletic assuredness. A second key area to address is the student-athlete's fear of decision making. Many of these students may know what they want to do and how they think they can get there, but they are afraid to actually make a decision about a major and a specific career. They often feel it may be better to never make up their minds than to risk choosing and perhaps not succeeding in that choice (Bates, 2007).

The last and often the most important component of advising student-athletes is the ability to relate to the at-risk student. There may not be a higher percentage of at-risk students in the athlete population, but the higher visibility and treatment of student-athletes as public figures can lead to greater scrutiny. This higher visibility can also create problems for the marginal or at-risk student. Appreciative Inquiry is an advising method widely accepted as the key to success in advising at-risk students. According to Truschel (2007), AI also applies to the low-confidence or marginally motivated students, and he outlined key components that apply to student-athletes who are also high-risk advisees. The Appreciative Inquiry model helps to create a sense of trust between advisee and adviser by assuring the student-athlete that the adviser is actively listening. The student-athlete also participates in the relationship, takes part in goal setting, and ultimately feels positive about his or her progress. Overall, student-athletes must feel they are involved in the educational process rather than just receiving advisers' directives. Athletes should participate in discussions about what they want to do and how they might accomplish their goals. Simply put, the student-athlete should drive the car and the adviser should sit in the back seat and help to read the map.

A key element that has not really been examined in literature is the concept of dual advising. Athletic departments tend to have athletic academic advisers, while academic departments have faculty or full-time academic advisers. Often the individuals in these two positions do not communicate successfully when it comes to advising a student-athlete. These two advisers must talk, share their ideas to assist the student-athlete, and combine their advising expertise. Between the two advisers is critical knowledge about NCAA eligibility, familiarity with specific university degree requirements, and career-planning information. The two advisers also share views and successes when guiding at-risk students along successful paths. A joint advising model in three areas—transformational leadership, career advising, and Appreciative Inquiry—will help an ever-increasing number of collegiate student-athletes progress and successfully graduate from colleges and universities.


Bass, B. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: The Free Press.

Bates, S. D. (2007, July 25). Career advising: What academic advisers need to know. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 9(3). Retrieved from

Kelly, M. (2003, January 1). Academic advisers as transformational leaders. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 5(1). Retrieved from

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). (2007, June 18). Athlete participation rates continue climb. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from

Slack, T. (1997). Understanding sport organizations: The application of organization theory. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Truschel, J. (2007, July 6). Using appreciative inquiry in advising at-risk students: Moving from challenge to success. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal 9(3). Retrieved from

About the Author(s)

Matthew L. Kelly is the associate athletics director at Murray State University in Kentucky. He can be reached at