Overlooked Upshots of Playing NCAA DIII Athletics

By Christopher “Tex” McQuilken

On any given Power Athlete Radio podcast, you’ll hear the phrase “Division III All-star” thrown around. Initially a half-joking term of endearment, it has since evolved as a means of highlighting my athletic “accomplishments” as I sit beside a 10 year NFL veteran, discussing performance with gold-medalists, professional athletes, and world class coaches.

Oh, and so glad you asked. My “accomplishments” include holding a Marymount lacrosse team record for most time in the penalty box and more career knockouts than goals.

#BeTheHammer

As I reflect on the loss of the Spring season, my heart goes out to the collegiate athletes, especially the Seniors. Personally, while the final stretch of my athletic career was memorable, all the takeaways and life altering characteristics from playing DIII were well in place before my career clock hit 0:00.

In fact, said takeaways played a huge role across 10 years of coaching experience. Read on.

Appeal For Playing NCAA DIII Athletics

Individuality

Like DIII class size, smaller team rosters allow student athletes to receive more attention. This relatively stable coaching environment creates a team building environment in which they further hone their skill sets.

It’s a numbers game. Fewer kids means fewer options. Thus, sport coaches are willing to invest time in a kid’s personal development because that kid is needed. Position depth is generally under development, so the most trusted athletes receive most of the playing time. At this level though, trust is earned through genuine interaction. If a kid is willing to listen, knowing they’re getting coached up towards their potential, the kid will find themselves on the field when it counts. (*Athlete note: if a coach is giving you a “hard time”, they see potential in you and are breaking down your wall to unlock it. Start to worry when the coach STOPS talking to you.)

The more playing time a kid earns, the more likely they’ll find their own style of play. In lacrosse, we call this swagger. In the smaller world of DIII, there is more opportunity to create, fail, and over a long enough time frame, eventually succeed. Developing swagger and confidence is an immeasurable process, but once they get it, something special happens on Game Day.

Specificity

Specificity in strength training refers to the set up, execution, and speed of movement to accomplish a specific goal. It’s no different for sport. If the goal is to win, the set up is to put the best athlete option out there and let them execute.

At this level, offenses and defenses are built around athlete skill sets. There may be less specialization simply because there are fewer heads. Experienced coaches will find a way to get athletes on the field, specific to scenarios or opportunities. While possibly chaotic on paper, this is empowering for an athlete, as they know when they get called in, it’s their 8 Mile Moment.

As athletes progress through their career, they’ll experience the eb and flow of a sports season, the long bus rides and awkward practice schedules. Year one is spent realizing coaches will lean on different athletes at different points throughout a season. To say coaching practices at this level are dynamic would be an understatement.

Fundamentals

College pre- and off-season training will beat fundamentals to depth (not a typo) to ingrain elemental skills. From experience, DIII will spend much, much longer mastering fundamentals because their athlete’s skill acquisition is lower.

Smaller teams and a constant flush of new kids entering the program is a fantastic excuse to knock upperclassmen back to white belt. And this is more than just “doing things together to build camaraderie”. While there is a definite need to break new athletes’ bad habits, everyone benefits from working the rust off their summer league season. Fundamentals are not limited to skills. Communication, leadership, “good teammate” skills all require a refresher during the pre-season ramp up.

What is lacking are strength and conditioning programs. As a coach, strength training is your opportunity to sharpen an athlete’s sport skill fundamentals through semi-general, yet targeted, stress. By overloading the neuromuscular system, heavy barbells accelerate coordination and coach-ability, while improving strength and power capacity, which can later be channeled towards a skill.

At Power Athlete, we call the squat, step, and lunge the “fundamentals of the fundamentals”. During any given strength training session, an athlete is (or at least, should be) coached on execution.

Practicing body adjustments under load will directly translate to body position adjustments demanded by practice or Game Day.

Unintentional Intangibles of DIII Athletics

Scaffolding

The NC2A had an ad campaign years back: “Go pro in something other than sports.” At this level, they’re 100% right. Specialized sports skills will not transfer 1:1 to the workforce, but the silver lining? The “intangibles” of being an athlete absolutely will. Punctuality, scheduling, time management, personal development, and even responsibly (maybe) making time for friends. Embarking on a career path almost seems easy compared to normal in-season demands!

Athletes will get plenty of reps strengthening cognitive and emotional stability. Especially at DIII, accountability is real. Teammates and coaches are counting on the athlete to not only show up, but execute. Moreover, parental pressure and academic demands can affect performance. Compartmentalizing outside pressures from the sporting arena is not easy.

Speaking of sporting arena, mistakes, miscommunications, and misfires are part of the grind. These are opportunities to learn how to react and communicate, both internally and among others around them. Ultimately, DIII is about owning their lives and taking responsibility for their actions in and outside the classroom.

For many, college sport is not only their first independent experience, it’s the first time someone else’s livelihood depended on their performance. However, while aforementioned intangibles exist at all levels, DII sees no message boards, social media backlash, or their mistakes played on loop among major cable networks. Just teammates, parents (with far too many treats at the post-game tailgate), and coaches turning mistakes into lasting teachable moments.

Differentiation

Many student athletes walk in thinking they’re blessing the school. As practices begin, most are knocked down to reality. This ain’t high school any more. Once they adapt to game speed, level of play, and their role with the team, the actual season introduces a whole new level of conference and national talents.

Level setting on skill, ability, and ranking on the depth chart pays off in sport and life. In a competitive team environment, they’ll learn to appreciate the process of sucking in a controlled environment and the value of dedication. Once they leave the safe confines of DIII sports and enter the workforce as a lowly new hire, Mr. Lumberg won’t care about your goals, kills, assists, or weight room records. Those TPS reports have to be on his desk Monday morning, mmmmm-kk? And if you have to come in on a weekend to do so, that’d be greeeeat.

A team is a fantastic representation of the workplace: different skills, learning styles, levels of abilities, communication barriers coming together to work towards a common goal. Seasons begin favoring the upperclassmen, but as things progress, the best players play and leaders lead. Anyone who is not happy with an assigned role invests extra time and effort.

DIII presents 4 years of opportunities to learn how to work hard despite higher skilled kids gunning for your position, align expectations of 10-40 teammates, and travel in very tight quarters, the latter of which develops a social intelligence employers value.

Athlete Led Outcomes

There are levels of commitment and work ethic within the ecosystem of a team, ranging from individuals who believe every rep will take them to the promised land, down to the go-through-the-motions-in-it-for-the-sweatpants guy. As in any given workplace, not everyone will be acting for the good of the team or putting in equal effort. A coach’s reach and word will only go so far, so athletes must find their own way to cohere. Sometimes, it takes direct confrontation to gain understanding and respect. At times, it may come to fisticufs, but give it time: learning to constructively navigate emotions and relationships takes reps.

My coaches put our captains in a position to drive the bus, figuratively and literally (captains drove vans to practices and home games at MU.) That aside, I appreciated being a decision maker for the team. Simple things like choosing practice warm ups, season mottos, and organizing team fundraising were great opportunities to creatively lead outside the confines of practice. DIII is rich with coaches who will tirelessly put the pieces in place for students to take charge, not because of laziness, but to empower: make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life.. Student led outcomes are higher at the non-scholarship level because there are far fewer external stressors (media, boosters, and what-have-yous vying for the coach’s job). As a result, more longitudinal development can take place.

Empower Your Performance: You Are Not Your Sport

For DIII All-stars, the label “college athlete” doesn’t tell the whole story. The sheer breadth of lessons and opportunities create a solid base which, metaphorically speaking, is like a four-legged chair. When one gets cut (our athletic career), our academics, time management, and interpersonal connections form a proverbial tripod that still stands strong regardless of environment.

This is a fundamental principle to building a sustainable human: never base an existence on something that can be gone in an instant, whether through injury or pandemic. Once the sport, team, and schedule goes away, DIII experiences teach athletes that they’re more than their sport. It did for me.

My DIII days are done, but I am still finding ways to lead, be a hell of a teammate, and train with weights, sprints, even the occasional pass around with the old lacrosse stick.

After all, “I got to toughen up. 364 more days until the (alumni game), I got to toughen up!” -Happy Gilmore