Athlete’s in Small Sports Still Feeling the Pressure

The same uniform, different styles.

The same city, different locations.

The same mentality, different goals.

The University of Iowa features 22 athletic teams, all of whom wear black and gold. But aside from the visual resemblances shared, each program proves unlike the other.

Of the 22 Hawkeye sports teams, some are highly publicized and regularly receive national attention, but a majority of the Iowa’s smaller sport teams receive limited media attention in a given year.

Between the scarce coverage and minimal hype surrounding Iowa’s less prominent programs still lies the pressures and responsibilities that come with being a Division-I student-athlete.

Dispersed Pressures

No matter the sport, a college athlete’s head coach becomes their new authority figure on campus.

But unlike athletes in larger sports, like University of Illinois basketball player, Lana Rukavina, who said the pressure to perform well stems directly from her coaches,  UI sophomore volleyball player, Allison Straumann said the pressures she feels comes from multiple outlets.

“When you work for something most of your life, such as trying to get a scholarship or making a certain team, a lot of the time the push comes from people who you are closest to, mostly just because you don’t want to let them down,” Straumann said. Coaches and teammates apply pressure just because you want to succeed to make the end result for not only you, but for them better as well.”

Like Straumann, UI field-hockey player and senior, Sarah Pergine, agreed the pressure to perform at a high level branches from multiple people, but the Collegeville, Penn., native also added that  for her, there’s another non-human source that produces an even stronger push.

“Since our program has a long-standing tradition of being a good team, the demand for a win is always there,” Pergine said. “We have winning all-time records against every team in the nation except for three teams so the pride that has been instilled in our program is extremely important to maintain.”

photo credit: Sarah Pergine

Iowa field-hockey player, Sarah Pergine, said she knew Iowa would be the last high level team she would ever compete for. (photo contributed by Sarah Pergine)

Eastern Illinois volleyball player and senior, Erin Hake, said a unique situation in her program this season is the reason she felt this year’s pressures were unlike those she’s felt in previous seasons.

“Our team especially feels pressure from our coaches now just because they both recently came from Penn State, where they won both the women’s and men’s NCAA national championships,” Hake said. “Our assistant coach played professionally and “losing” isn’t necessarily in either of their vocabularies.”

Classroom Responsibilities

Like Rukavina, and a majority of the other names listed on roster’s of larger sports teams, is on a full scholarship to play basketball at Illinois.

Straumann, Pergine and Hake are also on full athletic scholarships to their universities.

But unlike Rukavina, who said since basketball is her top priority, academics are rarely a source of pressure — Straumann, Pergine and Hake felt the opposite.

Hake, a Marion, Iowa, native, said her Midwest location and the lack of professional opportunities in volleyball, are the reasons her academics have always been her top concern at EIU.

“I have never considered playing professionally and have always put academics before volleyball,” Hake said. “…Volleyball on the West coast as a whole, is a lot more competitive and more girls continue on from conferences like the Pac-10, where you can play the sport year-round.”

Field-hockey does not offer a professional future after college, either. Pergine said there are national field-hockey teams, but that she has never considered pursuing the sport after graduation.

Pergine said coming to Iowa and knowing the Hawkeye roster would be the last lineup card her name would ever appear on, has positively impacted her career in Iowa City.

“Since we do not have an opportunity to be a professional in my sport, it almost makes us as athletes cherish our time and collegiate athletic career more,” Pergine said. “Because for the majority of us, these are the last few years we can ever compete at a high level.”

Christina Johnson, Ph.D., and lecturer in health and human physiology, with an emphasis in sports psychology, said an student-athlete’s attitude towards their sport can greatly impact their academics.

“I think in terms of life outcomes, the number of student-athletes who will go on to play their sport professionally is really so small,” Johnson said. “The percentages are not great at all and definitely in women sports, professional basketball is about only option a female athlete would have.

“So to put the emphasis on that ‘I’m an athlete, not a student’ can shift the focus away from the classroom stuff, and by doing that, they might start to struggle in their classroom lives.”

Out of Uniform

No, there are not usually reporters lining press row leading up to the start of a regular season volleyball game for Straumann or Hake, nor do the bleachers at Iowa field-hockey games typically contain more than a few hundred fans.

Eastern Illinois volleyball player, Erin Hake, said because the team's schedule is so busy, she rarely visits her home in Marion, Iowa, during the school year. (photo contributed by Erin Hake)

But this lack of outsider attention given to smaller sport teams does not make maintaining the integrity or image’s of these programs any less important.

Pergine and Straumann both noted their team’s no alcohol rule or “dry policy.”

Straumann said this rule doesn’t always seem necessary because the team’s busy schedule doesn’t make the partying habits of a typical college student “physically possible.”

“Basically from July to until the end of November we aren’t allowed to drink or go downtown,” Straumann said. “The reason for this is so that as athlete, we set a good image for other people that we are completely dedicated to our sport, and to our teammates, that 100 percent of our efforts and energy are being given to our sport.”

Like Rukavina, Hake said she and her teammates are expected to carry themselves in a deliberate manner when out in public.

Hake said this rule is strictly enforced on her team, and that she had the misfortune of “learning the hard way,” her first year at EIU.

“Our program strongly encourages athletes to never wear other universities clothing on campus or pretty much anywhere if it’s not EIU gear,” Hake said. “If we got caught, our coach would  make us run five suicides for every letter of that university. I did this my freshman year when I wore a Wisconsin sweatshirt —I learned my lesson.”


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