We had a chance to sit down with Mary Armstong, a former Big Ten Champion, All American and George Alderston Athlete of the Year. Mary’s daughter, Cathryn just finished her athletic career at MSU, where both her parents competed on the women’s and men’s swim teams. From this interview you’ll see Cathryn’s parents provided insights to the college athletic experience most student-athletes have to learn on their own.
Mary, you began swimming at a very early age and as you know it can be a year-around sport with very little time off. How did you manage your daughter’s athletic career, so she didn’t experience burn-out when she got to college?
We tried to let her do what she wanted to do. And we encouraged her to be involved with other things, other than just swimming. Even though her swim coach didn’t want her to do other things, so it was kind of a battle. But she wanted to play golf her senior year, and we encouraged her to do that. She was involved with a thing called DECA and got to travel for that. Our thought was that you can’t go back and relive your high school experience, you only get one chance to take advantage of all that your high school years have to offer.
Another thing we did was give her time off when she needed a break. We didn’t pressure her to go to practice every single day or go in the morning and in the afternoon. We let her take the lead. This may sound like we were going against the coach, but in swimming it’s a year-round sport. If you don’t take breaks occasionally, you’ll burn-out. I think she always knew that she could talk to me or her Dad, since we had been through it, and see if this would be okay if she did this or not.
When did you guys start the recruiting process? Did you reach out to college coaches to see if there was a fit for Cathryn?
It was probably junior year. And I know times have changed now. We’d probably have to do everything sophomore year now, but she couldn’t get contacted until July 1st going into her senior year. We took most of her junior year to research schools and travel around a bit. We went down to California for a week over spring break, to see a few schools and to see if she had interest in being away from home.
Part of the research included learning about the school’s current roster of athletes and what kind of times they were doing. Knowing how you stack against the current swimmers will give you an idea if you can compete at their level.
Cathyrn reached out to all the schools, coaches, and filled out all of the questionnaires. We helped her research different schools that could be the right fit based on her performance and area of study. We also told her that she needed to decide what type of school she wanted to go to – big D1 or smaller D2/D3. We toured different sized schools in California to give her an idea of what each looked like. She also needed to decide if she wanted to be a “big fish” in a little pond or a “little fish” in a big pond.
Ultimately, she decided on a larger school. She felt she could compete at the DI level and the travel squad. From there, we were able to see where she would fit in at each school in each of the major D1 school conferences.
When she went on her recruiting visits, we told her that she should get a feel for the school and not just the swim team. Could she see herself going to school there if she wasn’t swimming? As you know, not all athletes make it all four years. We also told her to look at team chemistry and the feel of the team. Would she still want to be there if the coach left? The coach is important, but they tend to move around, and we wanted to stress that a good fit with the girls on the team is just as important.
Okay. That’s good, she was heavily involved. Did the coaches for her club team or high school help in the recruiting process?
No, not at all.
We didn’t reach out a ton either, so I don’t know if it would have been available. But I had gone through the process myself, albeit be 30 years earlier. I also had several friends who had been through the process, so I didn’t feel like I was in the dark. If I was a new person with a talented athlete, I probably would have leaned on the coach a little bit more, but luckily we didn’t need to go that route.
As a former college athlete, you know the pressures that go along with tight schedules and competing in your sport. How did you help prepare Cathyrn as she entered that next phase of her career?
We just had a lot of dialogue about what to expect. We told her that it’s a little different in college because everybody’s the best coming out of high school. You’re not going to be the star on the team. There’s going to be 20 other girls that are going to be at the same level as you, and that will be an adjustment. We also had conversations about how long the season goes, and the preparation needed for that.
It’s a lot different than swimming for the high school and club team. It’s a lot more intense. We focused on a lot of open dialogue, and then again, she knew that she could call us and we could empathize with her because we had been through it.
From your perspective, or as you see her enter the workforce, what advantage do you think she and you, picked up from being a college athlete? In the work world, how does that translate?
Oh, it definitely translates in a big way. For one, you’re used to being on a schedule, and you’re used to getting stuff done on time. When my husband Mark was getting up at five o’clock in the morning, he was used to it because he was doing that in college. There are a lot of things that you don’t want to do, but you have to do them. You get through it, because you have to. Whereas people who were not college athletes, the ones who could sleep in and take the afternoon classes, kind of struggled with the discipline in the corporate world. Lastly, I would add that one of the other key aspects of being a college athlete is around setting goals and keeping focused on what you want to achieve. That’s a skill that will help you tremendously for the rest of your life.