The NCAA Division III track and field experience continues to have an impact today – Natural Self Esteem

Dr Brian Lenzmeier

This is NCAA Division III Athletics Week. This celebration, coupled with an invitation to my 30th college reunion this summer (it can’t have been that long ago), makes me reflect on the role that athletics and attending a small college have in my personal and professional development had.

I believe that NCAA Division III athletics, when done right, is the kind of life-changing activity. My time at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, an NCAA Division III institution like Buena Vista University, changed my life.

Many high school students who want to compete in collegiate athletics wrestle with options; from attending community college to attending NCAA Division III without athletic scholarships to athletic scholarship-funded experiences at NAIA or NCAA Division I and II schools. All are good options.

I struggled with my decision.

As a high school senior, I loved running but wasn’t sure if I should compete in college. I was always one or two places away from qualifying for the national meeting on the track. And while I’ve often been on the podium in cross country, I’ve never placed high enough to compete at the national meeting, so I haven’t caught the attention of more than a few institutions that offer very small grants.

An advantage of NCAA Division III athletics is that there are no athletic scholarships. I know it sounds strange to call this a benefit, but it is! All financial aid and scholarships are tied to financial need and academic merit at NCAA Division III institutions such as BVU. This means that if a student-athlete is not having a good experience on the court, they can turn to other activities or just focus on the academic. It takes the pressure off of attending to maintain your financial support for school.

Aside from the strong science programs and beautiful lakeside campus (sound familiar?), one of the things that attracted me was the fact that I knew I would have the opportunity to try my hand at cross country and track and field. I was able to pursue something I enjoyed without the pressure of competing or staying on the team to keep my scholarship because it was an NCAA Division III school.

I was lucky because I had a great experience. I had wonderful teammates, many of whom are still good friends 30 years later. We had a wonderful coach in Tim Miles who embraced the NCAA Division III model of developing the whole person, not just the athlete. NCAA Division III athletics has been important to my success in college and in life for several reasons.

First, competing in NCAA Division III athletics helped me transition to college quickly. I immediately had a circle of friends with common interests. I was around upper-class students who took time to help me understand classroom, team, and campus expectations. As President of Buena Vista University, this remains my top priority as I strive to create a welcoming environment for all of our new students and staff.

Secondly, I learned what it really means to be part of a team and to work towards a common cause. This may seem strange because most people think of cross country as a sport all its own. At Saint John’s it was a team sport. We trained together all year. We suffered through challenging workouts together while qualifying for the NCAA Division III Championships. We ran outside together in January when it was below zero. In the summer, we trudged on the sidewalk at home every day, knowing our teammates were doing the same in the heat and humidity. There is immense value in working with a group of people who are committed to the same outcome, sharing successes and overcoming setbacks, something I do every day as I lead BVU in fulfilling its mission of students towards lifelong success through academic, vocational and co.-curricular programs.

Third, I have developed a sense of humility and empathy. In my senior year, I was the top runner in my high school. I was the school record holder in two track and field events. When I started college, I was a long way from being a top runner. It was challenging going from the top 10 percent in high school to the bottom 10 percent in the first few races in college, but having that experience and perspective was important. It helped me learn how to overcome setbacks. It expanded my compassion when I saw others struggle. These skills have come in handy as college president.

Fourth, I had great opportunities to develop leadership skills. When I became a senior student, I had the chance to set an example for younger teammates on how to train and compete. I became an academic mentor for new biology students. I’ve had the opportunity to play a leading role in establishing a team culture and ensuring that all my teammates feel valued and part of the common cause. These experiences have influenced how I work today with others in my leadership team at BVU.

Eventually I learned how to strategize and play the long game. I can still hear Coach Miles reminding our team that “a five mile race is not scored at the one mile mark.”

In many ways I’m still living and playing the long game and making an impact every day with a team of incredible colleagues at BVU. I probably would never have considered working as a professor at BVU if it hadn’t been an NCAA Division III school: a place where I knew the primary focus would be on academics, with the track and field experience being an important part of the holistic learning environment.

dr Brian Lenzmeier, Ph.D., is President of Buena Vista University at Storm Lake.

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