Coaching Cal athletes for success after sports

BERKELEY — It’s safe to say that no one’s ever called Derek Van Rheenen a slacker, either on or off the field.

Van Rheenen is the director of UC Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center, which offers academic support and career counseling to student-athletes. He also coordinates the center’s Degree Completion Program (which helps student-athletes who left the university before graduating ) as well as a Graduate School of Education concentration called “Cultural Studies of Sports in Education.”

Derek Van Rheenen (Dara Tom photo)

And he’s teaching three courses this semester (one graduate and two undergraduate), dabbles in documentary film production and recently finished his latest season with the Real Marin Spurs, an over-40 soccer team.

“I like to be busy,” Van Rheenen says matter-of-factly.

That attitude’s hardly unique at UC Berkeley. What sets Van Rheenen apart is that he credits his drive to stay active to his days as a top-ranked athlete.

After coming to Berkeley from Woodside, Calif., in 1982, Van Rheenen played soccer for Cal, becoming team captain and, in his senior year, a co-MVP for the league. (His time as a Golden Bear earned him a spot in the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.) And before joining the Graduate School of Education faculty in 1997 and taking over the Athletic Study Center four years later, Van Rheenen played soccer professionally for the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks and the San Jose Hawks. He was team captain and a league all-star every year of his pro career, yet he still felt like he had something to prove.

“As young athletes, we’re trained in this country with a conditional self-worth,” he says. “You’re only as good as your last game. So you need to continue to work hard and demonstrate that you’re still at the top of your game again and again. I’m not certain that’s the healthiest mindset, but it’s certainly the one that I’ve been socialized into.”

Healthy or not, that constant need to strive and succeed helps Van Rheenen relate to the challenges faced by today’s Cal athletes. The students who come to the Athletic Study Center for tutoring and guidance are under more pressure than ever to perform. In fact, Van Rheenen says that as hard as he had to work when he was a Berkeley undergrad, he had it easy compared to today’s student-athletes.

“It’s become more competitive and time-consuming,” he says. “When I was playing at Cal in the ’80s, to my knowledge there was only one team that did weight training or weightlifting, and it was football. Now I don’t think there’s a varsity team — and we have 29 sports here — that doesn’t have its own weight-training regimen. And there was a distinct off-season, whereas now we’re hard-pressed to find any time that these young men and women have off.”

Changing the Culture

Van Rheenen’s the first to admit that the pressures of college athletics — and the temptations of professional contracts — have taken their toll. Just last fall, news that the graduation rate for the football Bears was the lowest in the Pac-12 conference preceded the departure of head coach Jeff Tedford.

Van Rheenen calls that kind of performance — in any sport — “completely unacceptable,” and says a turnaround is in the works.

“Any time you change a coaching staff there’s an opportunity to change the culture,” he says, referring to the football squad. “And we’re very happy with the kind of work that we’re doing with the new head coach [Sonny Dykes] and the assistants to engage the academic parts of these young men’s lives in a much more integrated way. There’s much more time that is being devoted to academics and to the support of student-athletes, not just athletes.”

Van Rheenen points to a moment early in Dykes’ young Cal career that highlights the renewed emphasis on academics in the football program.

“In the first week of classes, he said in a team meeting, ‘I expect every guy on the team to have all their books for every single class by this Thursday. And if someone doesn’t, there’s going to be hell to pay,'” Van Rheenen says. “And by Thursday every guy on the team had every book — and we’re talking about 100-plus guys. I don’t remember that happening in the past 10 years.”

Succeeding academically at Berkeley, though, takes determination, perseverance and focus — especially for undergrads whose schedules are filled with training, practices and top-level competition.

That’s why Van Rheenen emphasizes that the tutorial support at the Athletic Study Center is not, as he puts it, “remedial help for so-called ‘dumb jocks.'” The center is there to help athletes identify their interests and strengths in preparation for a future that doesn’t necessarily involve balls, bats, helmets or cleats. And if a student-athlete needs to see living proof of the importance of such a back-up plan, Van Rheenen himself fits the bill.

“I can show young men and women who really have a strong focus on their athletic identities and playing professionally that there’s life after professional sports,” he says. “It’s great to pursue that goal, but it’s a short-lived one. There’s got to be something that’ll happen after that. So having done that myself — moving on and getting a Ph.D. and teaching at Berkeley — it says you can have it all. You can have a very rich athletic, physical life and a very rich academic and intellectual life. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Even when he’s behind the lectern, Van Rheenen remains intensely focused on that athletics/academics balancing act. “Cultural Studies of Sports in Education,” the concentration he heads for the Graduate School, examines the history and implications of America’s unique intermingling of higher education and popular, big-money sports.

“We really get at the root questions. Do sports support the mission of American colleges and universities? Or do they undermine them?” Van Rheenen says. “Of course, I’m a firm believer that intercollegiate athletics plays a vital role in the modern university. But I’m also not an apologist for issues and scandals that have grown out of that relationship. So it’s a tricky balance.”

Of course, anyone as busy as Van Rheenen has to be good at balancing priorities himself. When not attending to his UC Berkeley duties, he’s helped produce documentaries with such filmmaker friends as Wolfram Hissen. (Hissen’s latest, a documentary about the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude and their famous 24-mile-long art installation Running Fence, was commissioned by the Smithsonian and can still be seen there.) And soccer remains as important to him as ever, even though it’s been two decades since he played professionally.

“It’s a major part of my identity, despite getting older,” he says. “I’m still incredibly competitive when I get on the field, and I have no intention of hanging up my boots.”

Asked if he’s slowing down at all, Van Rheenen concedes the possibility. Then his competitive side kicks in.

“Yes, I’m probably slowing down,” he says. “But I’m not willing to acknowledge it.”


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