Is There a Viable Alternative to the NCAA for Weightlifting?

I recently wrote an article entitled: “Is Weightlifting Losing Its Best Athletes to NCAA Sports?”  The article exposes a problem facing the sport of weightlifting in the U.S. today: Thousands of youth weightlifters enter the sport of weightlifting, but the majority of these weightlifters leave the sport before they reach maturity, making it difficult for the U.S. to produce elite, world-class weightlifters.

One explanation for the loss is that college weightlifting programs—and scholarships—are not as readily available as those in other sports.  Plus, plenty of other sports offer scholarships to weightlifters, reducing the pool of athletes from which the U.S. could generate mature athletes.  While it is wonderful to have child superstars within a sport, the true measure of a country’s dominance in a sport is its ability to produce world-class athletes in their prime.

One solution to this problem would be to petition the NCAA for membership and continue working with the organization until it adopts weightlifting as one of its regulated sports. The NCAA and its member colleges and universities together award $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships every year to more than 150,000 student-athletes.  Membership in the NCAA could open doors to more college weightlifters, encourage youth athletes to remain in the sport, and bridge the gap between the developmental years and maturity within the sport.

According to Phil Andrews, CEO of USA Weightlifting, however, membership in the NCAA is not likely to happen in the near future.  Andrews explains: “USA Weightlifting has been working on establishing a relationship with the NCAA for a number of years.  However, the NCAA has zero interest in adding men’s weightlifting and only a small amount of interest in adding women’s weightlifting.”

NCAA membership also would come with a cost.  Vance Newgard, head coach of the Olympic Training Site at Northern Michigan University points out:

  • The NCAA imposes numerous requirements on the schools, athletes and coaches that receive funding from the organization.
  • The NCAA regulates financial aid, eligibility, recruiting, athletics personnel, playing and practice seasons.
  • Under NCAA regulation, coaches are limited as to when and how much they can train their athletes.
  • Athletes are limited as to how much they can train.  An athlete desiring to reach the Olympic level can not simultaneously receive NCAA funding and train as much as needed to achieve success.
  • Coaches are limited as to program promotion and recruitment of younger athletes.
  • In short, the benefits of NCAA membership—namely scholarship money for student athletes—may not be worth the costs.

Given that NCAA membership may not be desirable—or even available—for the sport of weightlifting at this time, there may be other solutions for retaining youth weightlifters through their college years including the following:

A Private Scholarship Fund

USA Weightlifting could create a scholarship fund to help collegiate weightlifters continue with the sport while simultaneously getting a college degree.  This is, in fact, something that USA Weightlifting is currently considering.

PROS:

  • USA Weightlifting has the right membership demographics to support a college fund.  Of the 27,000 members registered with USA Weightlifting, the majority are Masters lifters.  Masters lifters (age 35+) presumably have some disposable income—otherwise they wouldn’t have the luxury of participating in the sport.  These members may be convinced to support talented weightlifters in their college years.
  • Giving specifically to a college weightlifters has “donation appeal.” People are more likely to give money to individuals to achieve specific goals than to blindly hand money over to an organization.  If donors know they are helping certain weightlifters with college expenses, it would personalize the process and encourage larger donations.
  • Giving to education charities is popular.  According to Giving USA, 15% of charitable donations made in 2016 were used to fund education.  This made education second only to religion in receiving charitable funding.
  • Control of the sport could be maintained by USA Weightlifting.  Without accountability to the NCAA, coaches and athletes could train to maximize athletic success.  Presumably, athletes would be required to meet some academic standards to continue receiving their scholarships.  However, both coaches and the athletes would have more flexibility in their training.

CONS:

  • Not as many athletes could be funded by a private scholarship fund.  A private scholarship fund might be able to assist a dozen athletes with college expenses, but an NCAA affiliation could assist hundreds of athletes.
  • Scholarship amounts may not be as large.  A private scholarship fund could not match the resources of the NCAA and its member schools.  Coach Newgard, however, points out that most college athletes receive only partial scholarships anyway.  So, athletes may be equally benefited by private scholarship funding—especially since it would not bind them to NCAA compliance.

Centralized Training Sites

Centralized training of college-age weightlifters could also solve the problem of athlete retention.  Coach Newgard is a proponent of this solution and offers the following points in support of the idea:

PROS:

  • Optimal Coaching: If a handful of experienced coaches could devote themselves full-time to grooming and developing a group of elite athletes, they could maximize the athletes’ performance.
  • Competitive Environment: When elite athletes work together, they push each other to work harder.  So, bringing elite athletes together for training would also enhance athletic performance.
  • Economies: Paying for a single facility and group of coaches could be more cost effective for USA Weightlifting than awarding stipends to individuals.

CONS: 

  • Money.  Let’s be honest, if USA Weightlifting had the money to fund a central facility, pay the salaries of a team of elite coaches, and pay the living expenses of the athletes, they would probably do it.  USA Weightlifting was afforded this luxury with a resident training program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs until September 2016.  However, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has since stopped offering a resident program for the sport of weightlifting at the Olympic Training Center.  Procuring another central training location may not be feasible for USA Weightlifting.
  • Finding the right location may be difficult.  For most individuals in their early twenties, their first priority is getting an education or job training.  Weightlifting is fun, but athletes know that it likely will not support them in later years.  So, any central training facility should be located in an area with numerous job/education options for these athletes.
  • Coach Resistance.  Coaches who have developed elite weightlifters from a young age may not want to turn these athletes over to another team of coaches.  After all, these coaches have invested much energy and time into the athletes and want to continue building upon their success.  Similarly, elite athletes who have developed good relationships with their coaches may not want to terminate these relationships.

In conclusion, youth weightlifters should not feel discouraged about the NCAA’s disinterest in our sport.  Weightlifting is a rapidly growing sport, so future inclusion is always a possibility.  In the meantime, lifters and coaches can enjoy the sport free from the demands of NCAA compliance.

For more information on opportunities for developing athletes, see:

Understanding USA Weightlifting’s Stipend System

Youth Weightlifting Scholarship Opportunities

Photography by Matthew Bjerre of Lifting.Life at 2017 USAW National Junior Championship.

 

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By |2017-07-25T10:10:23+00:00July 24th, 2017|Athlete Resources, Coaches Resources, Parent Resources|

About the Author:

Susan Friend is a weightlifter, coach, and weightlifting enthusiast. Susan has participated in both the U.S. and German weightlifting systems, along with her son, Hutch, who holds four U.S. Youth National Championship titles and one German Youth National Championship title.

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