By Michael Heck MS, LPC
Recently, I’ve had a handful of intriguing, yet challenging, conversations about the transfer portal with the collegiate student-athletes I work with. These talks have sparked my interest because we are in a new era of how scholarship and business are being done to better serve the student-athlete who would like to explore alternative opportunities to play at a different school. We are experiencing the evolution of collegiate sports in real-time. The student-athlete now has an increased amount of leverage other than the initial signature of commitment. Another influence being added to the transfer portal is the impact of NIL; however, NIL currently impacts a small population of athletes and will be discussed at a later time.
As an associate with the Institute of Sports Performance, I work with collegiate athletes regarding their mental and emotional approach to their performance and/or injury recovery. Often the issues are related to self-talk or emotional regulation within the athlete; feeling stressed for a variety of reasons: injuries, team culture, relationships, and academics. However, the added dynamic of the transfer portal is reshaping collegiate athletics daily.
First, this is not an op-ed piece on the transfer portal. However, I am curious about how it will evolve college athletics and shape programs. I am curious to see if this process enables the “survival of the fittest” mentality like I believe it does. I believe that Division I, II, and III athletics are important parts of shaping leaders who will serve in other careers or start families once their playing days have concluded. Student-athletes, more often than not, are preparing to launch into a career while playing a sport. I’m interested in how the transfer portal will impact global collegiate athletics and the formation of student-athletes. I’m also interested in supporting athletes to make well-informed decisions when they are contemplating transferring.
Second, I’m curious about the mental and emotional impact it’s having and will continue to have on student-athletes. I believe there is a healthy dynamic within the portal that allows athletes a similar level of freedom that coaches have to exit a program because a better opportunity potentially exists elsewhere. However, I’ve encountered several athletes who are quite worried about the level of responsibility that comes with entering the transfer portal:
- The experience of directly communicating an athlete’s intent to their college coaches
- Will it work out? And if the athlete doesn’t receive interest from other colleges, then what?
- The fear of the future and the potential loss of scholarships
According to the NCAA website, it is recommended that athletes directly communicate with their coaches regarding their intention to enter the portal. If they don’t, and once coaches discover the intent to transfer, the coach has the freedom to contact the athlete to find out why. The school also has the ability to eliminate scholarships. If an athlete withdraws from the portal, the school decides whether or not they will restore the scholarship. So, even if the athlete has more options, such choices have significant risks!
I’ve worked with several athletes who have or are facing the stress and impact of making such decisions. This is an added stressor for the athlete; it is different because it impacts four important relationships: with the current university or college, the coaching staff, the athlete’s support system (family, friends, etc.), and the athlete’s relationship within themselves.
I’ve found my work within this context to be clearly defined: helping to increase clarity of their choices, understand the risks, stress management, and develop an authentic response to what they desire (because it is often that coaches and support systems will have a variety of different thoughts and feelings over entering the portal, influencing the athlete to move in a specific direction). One dynamic that has been present as I’ve walked with athletes through this process is how it allows a young adult to make an adult decision. What I mean is that entering the portal comes with short- and long-term risks, mostly because there isn’t certainty when the athlete enters the portal. The athlete is truly banking on their ability to start over somewhere, where it might be a better fit. This is a highly emotional decision, and if an athlete struggles to manage their internal experience, making wise judgements can be difficult.
Prior to entering the portal, here are some areas to be explored:
- Are you being realistic? I’ve met athletes at DI, DII, and DIII schools who truly believe they’re a DI, full scholarship athlete worthy of starting, and they want to explore that opportunity. I’m always supportive of reaching for dreams. However, there is a balance between making the very best of your current opportunity and believing that the grass is greener elsewhere. Every situation has been different, but nevertheless, are you being realistic? When an athlete is being realistic, I’ve noticed their decisions about the portal being more effective.
- Are you listening? Are you listening to your instincts while taking charge of your emotions? Are you listening to your trusted support system? If you’re struggling with your coach’s decisions about your playing time, what kind of feedback are you getting from them? Look, I understand that politics are alive and well in college sports, and it may be a legitimate reason you enter the portal. However, are you also willing to listen to feedback and grow from it? Which leads me to my next thought. and grow from it? Which leads me to the next thought…
- Be responsible for what happens next. During my experience playing college football, guys would transfer in and recreate their issues. For example, if they received negative feedback about technique or work ethic from a coach at the NAIA level, the athlete would respond by becoming dismissive or defensive. I played at an NAIA school, and we had several DI transfers. Instead of taking responsibility for their past and present, several of those athletes felt entitled because, well, they came from a Division I school. If you get another opportunity to compete, wherever that may be, then be responsible for your work ethic, attitude, and buy-in. If entering the portal changes your direction in a way you didn’t plan, then taking ownership of your situation is the healthiest and most effective plan of action.
The stressors that an athlete experiences when making such decisions is one reason why my practice exists. I help athletes to be realistic, and, as a listener in your trusted circle, my goal is to help you make the most effective decision for yourself. Plainly speaking, I would be objective and honest while helping you manage the challenges of making important decisions. I look forward to being in your corner!