Balancing Academics In The Team Culture

Written By: Matthew Kinney

When Streamline Teams asked me to write something about academic success in the college environment, I thought it would be a straightforward project. As I began writing, the reality of summarizing our academic success and team culture was harder to pinpoint. Like many of you, I have always believed that academic achievement and successful athletic levels coexist well together. For our program, it is a culture we have cultivated and improved over time – and a culture that, with some tending, sustains itself fairly well.

Last season was the most accomplished in our school history (right up until the Covid 19 shutdown before NCAA’s.) A roster of 91 student-athletes, a full academic year team GPA of 3.7, Twenty-four NCAA qualifiers/All-Americans – with an equal number of Academic All Americans, plus an elite 90 award winner, etc… it’s hard to look back at the year with anything but reassurance in the process and a little pride. Having said that, there were innumerable challenges in that process not encapsulated in a year-end summary. In a typical (Non-Covid) May, I would place myself into a peaceful, self-induced coaching amnesia of the daily effort, consistency, and complex problem solving that was necessary over the course of the previous season.

From the outset of my career, I vowed to assist my teams in managing the challenges we see in college student-athletes; helping them deal with their stressors head on, and setting themselves up healthier in their routines. Each season we repeat the need for them to get into a good academic routine before practices even begin, so they don’t feel overwhelmed once their training schedules pick up. We also encourage, (read – require) Communication. Defining team goals and reinforcing a belief system that we are all trying to work together to achieve greater accomplishments and objectives in and out of the pool. Pretty straightforward.

One of our other goals is to create an environment where they want to come to practice every day – creating a come to practice to get better and work hard environment, but one that is also fun. By fostering that balance, they are additionally motivated to stay on top of their work, because they really do prioritize and appreciate the duality of being student-athletes. Practically speaking, offering alternate training options sometimes takes away a bit of stress. Our kids don’t want to miss training – but 1-2 times a year or semester – almost all of them will have to negotiate a non-practice training time (besides the obvious sickness/pinkeye apocalypse that strikes us yearly) due to labs, exams, job interviews – the outside the pool components and intense academics are always present. By checking in and trying to evaluate their stress levels, and offering assistance where we can, it helps alleviate a great deal of the pressure they feel. Sometimes just knowing that all they need to do is ask - that they have the option to catch up on sleep, on work, or that a person will listen to them, is a helpful start. It can keep the stressors in better perspective. Note: they may also require encouragement to speak up about what is affecting them – as it is not always easy for 17-22 year olds.

An additional, key factor is the incredible group support from their upperclass teammates and alumni – utilizing them as social, athletic, and academic resources - when combined with the university services, is an amazing combination. Our CMU academic model ends up creating tutors and mentors on the team in just about every major the university offers. These upper class leaders provide the first years access to academic help beyond the norm and create an environment highlighting positive models and a path to success. In addition, it creates a “if 70 upperclass athletes can do it - double major, get great grades, earn challenging internships and jobs - and balance it all – of course you can too” mentality. That groupthink can definitely help take away a little more of the fear.

Looking back at my 25-year-old self and comparing my coaching philosophy to my 50 year old self – there are many constants: Dedication, consistency, passion, humor, focus, fairness – all traits I firmly believe in to this day. My efficiency, understanding, and ability to recognize that more is not always better, have grown substantially over the years. In that growth, our success has also continued to progress. If I can accomplish in 2 hours what it used to take me 2 and a half hours – I can save the time for them to use in other areas of their day. Our practices and focus are no less challenging – we are just much more effective in the execution. Recognizing that there might be a time where I’d rather have an individual get an extra few hours of sleep, than to train a certain morning session was also a tough lesson to learn as a young coach, but an important one. This does not mean we focus on or adjust our overall team goals and training routine to the LCD (lowest common denominator or the handful of individuals that might need a little extra assistance.) Our teams want to compete at the highest level, they want to be great, and work towards those goals, but there is the ability for individualization at points in our routine.

I think it is important to say that, as a last resort, knowing when to step in and address serious concerns – and even halt participation for a week/month, semester, year or career if it isn’t manageable. Removing the privilege from being on the team is not something I take lightly – but because there is a bigger picture – it must be a consideration in rare cases.

One final overarching concept that we stress is leaving the program better off than when you found it. That philosophy is not just about performance, it’s directly related to culture, and balance – as well as the potential to develop and have an increasingly positive experience for everyone. Understanding the academic and goals of their outside the pool focus is so important, but also being able to compartmentalize and leave those pieces at the door when we are training – helps achieve the athletic performance part.

Every school and program is so unique, so I would add that just like there is not one secret key to the work/life balance as adults, there isn’t a simple solution to the academic/athletic combo our student-athletes face in college. If we can show them examples and ways that they can be successful in both areas, and offer them the support and guidance, it goes a long way in helping them find a fuller satisfaction in the process. And as challenging to clearly define as that may be, it has always been an underlying goal for our team culture.

Matthew Kinney has been named the University Athletic Association Coach of the Year for men's swimming and diving three times during his 13-year tenure as head swimming and diving coach of the Tartans. His most recent honor came in 2013 after leading the team to a second-place finish at the championship meet.The Tartans have placed second at the UAA Championships five times under Kinney while setting 17 of 21 school records. Eleven times the Tartans have been represented at the NCAA Championships with a school record 13 set to compete in 2020 before the meet was canceled. The 13 invited swimmers and divers were awarded a combined 27 All-America awards including four relays. In 2019, eight representatives earned a 16th-place finish at the national championship meet. Two sophomores each earned two All-America awards while the 800-yard freestyle relay and 400-yard medley relay earned the same distinction. The 2019 finish at the NCAA meet was the fifth straight year the Tartans scored at the meet. The 2010 season was one of the best for the men's program as all seven athletes who competed at the NCAA Championships earned All-America or All-America Honorable Mention honors. Five of those athletes earned their first-ever award as the team finished 15th in the nation.Overall, Kinney has mentored 30 Carnegie Mellon male athletes to 72 All-America honors and 23 women to 60 All-America honors while he and his assistants were named UAA Men’s Coaching Staff of the Year in 2009, 2010 and 2013.

Kinney is a big proponent of academics as his teams have earned Scholar All-America recognition in each of his 13 seasons. Additionally, 10 times a women's athlete has been named to the CoSIDA Academic All-America At-Large Team, while a male has earned the honor four times during Kinney’s tenure. Prior to the 2007-2008 season, Kinney spent 12 years as the head men's and women's swimming coach at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Throughout his 12 year tenure as head coach at Mary Washington, Kinney led the men's and women's teams to an impressive combined dual mark of 182-59 and a total of 22 combined Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) titles, including 12 straight for the women’s program. During Mary Washington’s conference title run he was named CAC Coach of the Year 12 times, seven with the women's program and five with the men. Kinney has brought tremendous coaching experience to Carnegie Mellon University, as he coached 88 All-America performers at UMW. A native of Canton, Ohio, Kinney is a 1993 graduate of Kenyon College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. While a student-athlete at Kenyon he was a three-time All-America athlete for the Lords and was part of three NCAA Division III National Championship teams. He was also selected captain his senior season. Following his undergraduate work, Kinney went on to Western Illinois University, where he earned a Master of Science degree in sports management while assisting with the swimming program.

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