UMaine Professor: Writing Boosts Performance of Maine’s Student-Athletes

Jun 1, 2016

Tennis great Serena Williams, Olympic gold medal skier Mikaela Shiffren and Mets outfielder Carlos Delgado might play vastly different sports, but they share one common trait that some Maine student-athletes are working to emulate: they are writers.

A line drive to right by Bangor High baseball player Peter Kemble brings in the second run of a recent game. It’s only the second inning, but the crowd senses a win over rival Hampden Academy.

Kemble is in right field tonight, but whether he’s pitching or fielding, he’s all concentration. It won’t be until later, when he can reflect on the game, that the learning really begins.

“As you write, things pop in your head that you wouldn’t think about normally. And as you’re driving home you kind of think, ‘Oh I did this bad, but I did this really well, like I hit the ball really hard, but I struck out that one time.’ And then when you write about it you say, ‘OK well, why did I strike out or why did I hit that hard?’” he says.

This is the second year that Kemble, a junior, has written about the sport he plays, and he finds that keeping a notebook off the field is helping boost performance on the field.

“Writing is a powerful way to learn,” says Richard Kent, professor of literacy at the University of Maine. He’s also a coach, with over 30 years of experience guiding athletes in more than half a dozen sports, including soccer, skiing, running and cycling.

Kent’s book “Writing on the Bus,” and several other guides he has produced, are helping coaches and athletes make writing part of their postgame analysis and pregame strategy.

“Having multiple pathways into learning and including writing is a very smart thing to do for athletes, for coaches, for the workplace,” he says.

Emily Keenan, a varsity tennis player who will graduate this year from Scarborough High School, has been writing about her performance at the prompting of assistant tennis coach Lincoln MacIssac, an English teacher at the school. Keenan says the experience is helping her to not only analyze her tennis strategies but also to become a better writer.

Scarborough High School varsity tennis player Emily Keenan says writing improves her game.
Credit Dave Boardman / MPBN

“Journaling, and trying to express an idea, express an argument, analyzing my own actions, the actions of my opponent — that definitely helps me in my English class now when I have to analyze different passages, the language of any speaker giving any speech,” she says. “I think it will help me a lot and it will help me in the future.”

Keenan is one of four student athletes writing about their experiences under MacIssac’s mentoring.

“I wanted to really explore the idea that writing can be authentic and it can help kids grow through things that they naturally like, so sports obviously is really interesting to students, and so I kind of jumped on that and said there’s got to be something here for kids to dig into,” MacIssac says.

Lincoln MacIssac (left) and Emily Keenan
Credit Dave Boardman / MPBN

He says he is finding that athletes benefit from the opportunity to step back and reflect on what actually happened on the court.

“We don’t often think about it as we’re doing it. But when we can step away and we can envision what we did and maybe what we would have done differently and then the writing piece gives that an opportunity to say, ‘OK, yeah, this is what I would have done’ or ‘Yeah, this is how I could improve on this piece,’ and it really takes it out of the competitive atmosphere,” MacIssac says.

Kent’s work in the field of writing athletes comes out of his own experiences with young soccer players. He has brought over 500 high school players on competition trips to Europe — on one return flight he asked his players to write about the experience. Their work, captured on the back of air-sick bags, is illuminating.

Richard Kent has authored several books on the connection between writing and athletic performance.
Credit Dave Boardman / MPBN

“What I realized was not only was I learning more about my players, I was also learning more about the game of soccer through their eyes and at the same time, I knew they were learning more about the game,” he says.

“I think writing about it lets you get those ideas out and focus on them more and elaborate on them,” says Dan Neel, an outfielder on Bangor High’s state championship baseball team, who wrote at the prompting of English teacher Emilie Throckmorton.

Neel says reflecting on his sport in writing is making him a better ballplayer.

“You can think one thing, but then as you’re writing it down other things will pop into your head that you didn’t originally think about, and it kind of lets you go off on your own little trail or path down your way to success,” he says.

Keeping team notebooks, says Kent, turns players into students of the game, a move that not only has the potential to improve performance but also writing ability.

For more on Richard Kent, visit writingathletes.com. For more on students and writing, visit nwp.org.