Be an outlier.
Every August, since 2011, has been my favorite month of the year. It’s when college starts back up. There’s nothing more exciting than going to a campus full of new faces, refreshed vigor, and the energy is off the charts. As the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) Athlete Development Program Coordinator, August means my athletes and recruits are coming back to campus. It is finally time for me to get to work.
Once the orientation stuff finally settles down and the students figure their schedules out, it is time for me to order pizza and bring all of the athletes into a room. Every fall, we have about 15-25 NCAA Division I and III student-athletes who are supported by NTID. In short, they’re deaf and hard-of-hearing. I usually start our inaugural meeting with introductions, starting with the new freshmen all the way up to the upperclassmen.
After the ice has been broken, I go right to the point. I start discussing numbers. I look up a bunch of numbers from different websites, but the message is always the same: there are approximately 3-something million high school females and 4-something million high school males playing high school sports. I ask the students to guess the percentages of these numbers that would go on to play at the college level. It’s less than 10 percent of that population. The numbers get even smaller if we discuss levels such as Division I, II, and III.
Now, we’ve narrowed down to the top 10 percent (roughly) of all the high school athletes in the United States of America –but we haven’t mentioned international student-athletes yet. We have some students from overseas here. Then I discuss how the freshmen class were literally competing against the world to achieve a spot on a NCAA roster. This is where students begin to connect the dots.
I ask them next, “Why are we here?” The student-athletes start to look around, and it’s finally hitting them. They are one of the few deaf athletes who’s made it this far, to the NCAA level. I tell them that they are the exceptional few. The people in that room are considered outliers. If we all were assigned numbers in a research study, we all are outliers. We have deaf athletes in hockey, track, softball, wrestling, and so forth. We are the “one out of one” in the nation.
“Being an outlier can be intimidating,” I tell my athletes often. “But you are the only version of yourself. We are striving to be the best version of ourselves.”
The fact we (deaf and hard of hearing athletes) made it this far means we’ve been doing something right. Now, it’s time to push the envelope and continue to distance ourselves from normalcy. College is a four-year window, and for most of the college athletes, it’s their final four years of their amateur competitive careers. “Now is not the time to let up,” I tell them. “It’s time to charge forward. Lift weights, do everything that’s asked of you and then some, and compete like there’s no tomorrow.”
Being an outlier is the greatest way for us deaf and hard-of-hearing student-athletes to show our individuality. Over the years, we’ve had two international student-athletes from Africa and Europe come out of literally nowhere, break school records within their first years of competing at RIT/NTID. We’ve had an athlete come in from the Junior Olympics national team. We’ve had athletes who walked onto a team with zero experience and went on to win Liberty League honors. We are the few– and we’re proud of it.
For you all athletes out there, now is the time to be an outlier. And be a winner.
Sean “Skip” Flanagan completed his Masters of Education Degree in Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership from the University of Washington and a B.S. in Psychology while minoring in Exercise Science at Rochester Institute of Technology.