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Roster management for just about everybody has become more difficult over the last few years, thanks to the transfer portal, changing recruiting calendars, NIL, and other external factors.
But outside the service academies, there may be no harder roster management jobs than trying to figure out the numbers game for any team that relies heavily on Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) missionaries.
For those unfamiliar, many Latter-Day Saints, primarily but certainly not exclusively men, decide to go on 18-24 month long missions shortly after turning 18. During these trips, the missionaries withdrawal from school, largely postpone athletic training, and devote nearly every waking moment to church or community service. Church headquarters decides where to send the missionaries, and could dispatch them nearly anywhere in the entire world, from remote pacific islands to Missouri. Might be a little bit easier to find weights and protein powder in Kansas City than in Kiribati, but hey, you don't get to pick.
I'm no athlete, but I went on one of these trips myself. When I was 19, I left college, quit my job, got a bad haircut, and went to Sacramento.
Pictured: Elder Brown, clearly NOT an athlete, discovering where Sacramento is
If you live out in the Book of Mormon Belt, debating whether "missions are an advantage" is a well-worn off-season talk radio topic. After all, seemingly every year some football coach will glance at BYU's roster, see a few 25-year-olds, and assume the Cougars have a massive advantage. BYU fans will counter with the lived experience of going on these trips and having caught TB or some other disease that does not make you a better college athlete.
What do the actual athletes think about all of this, though? Is it easy to transition from missionary service to elite athletic competition? What does it mean for an athlete's identity or mental health?
I could probably offer some informed speculation, but you know what's better than that?
Actual academic research!
I was recently made aware of this paper from Matthew Moore at Miami-Ohio, and Leslee Fisher at the University of Tennessee, titled "From Mission to Competition: The Experiences of 10 LDS Missionary Student-Athletes Returning to Competition in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1." The paper was published in the Journal of the Christian Society for Kinesiology, Leisure and Sports Studies.
The authors interviewed ten athletes (eight men, two women) who participated in a variety of D-I sports, to better understand the challenges associated with returning to elite competition, the benefits of missionary service on athlete identity, and potential practical impactions for support staff and coaching professionals.
Some highlights from their findings?
Missionaries shift from a "self" to "other" orientation
LDS missionaries really have very little scheduled time for themselves. Nearly every moment is scheduled out, either for personal study (of scripture, theology or languages) or for service. The study's interviews found that athletes, once they acclimated to that change, often found it deeply rewarding.
It was clear from the interviews that missionary student-athletes focused on helping others in whatever ways they could while they were on their mission trips. This shift in identity from a “self = athlete” focus to an “other” focus seemed hard at first for many participants.
As one subject mentioned:
"Oh, missions are really, really hard! And they are really hard because you’re on your feet all day, you’re always doing things…there’s no time for yourself, but by investing myself in other people, I was truly able to see and feel God’s love for them and that was something I never really had experienced before…and that was one of the best things about my mission was coming close to people, feeling that God loves them so much, even though their lives were completely different than yours."
Forcing a 20-year-old to dramatically shift their focus from themselves to that of a community may be very spiritually rewarding. But the paper also notes that it could present a challenge as athletes leave missionary service and prepare for elite athletic competition. If you're going to participate as a D-I athlete, after all, you need to spend a lot of time on training. If you're not using to spending so much time on yourself, that might feel like emotional whiplash to a newly returned missionary.
Via the study:
Participants also described the phenomenon of moving back into an identity—“DI student-athlete”—which focused on “self” versus “other,” exactly the opposite of what they had experienced as missionaries. Being a DI student-athlete was described as being centered on oneself as an athlete—on improving and getting better physically.
One subject went into detail about how this aspect of changing identity was difficult for him: “I really had a hard time with adjusting…again as a student-athlete. I feel like as a student-athlete often everything is about me…it’s really easy just to get so self-absorbed…because as a missionary it wasn’t about me at all.” Scott went onto say: It’s like how to recognize that it’s not a bad thing first of all to, take care of yourself and have these goals…it’s a little bit of guilt like, ‘Is it okay to dedicate so much time to myself?’ But I had to just recognize that it’s a good thing and it’s something that I love."
A coaching staff or support staff that supports LDS athletes coming back from missions ought to perhaps keep this transition in mind, giving athletes the space and permission to learn to make those personal investments again without guilt.
There's a physical learning curve as well
A missionary serving in the United States, or perhaps another wealthy area, might have access to weights on a regular basis, but many missionaries don't. Most missionaries also lack the ability to completely control their diet. If a member of your local congregation invites you over for dinner, you better eat what they served you, no matter what it might mean for your macros. Or heck, your digestive health.
Even in a perfect world, where an athlete somehow spends two years within biking distance of a GNC AND YMCA, they're not going to have time to practice their athletic technique. Skills are going to atrophy. It's rare that anybody comes home from two years of LDS missionary service in anything resembling D-I athletics shape.
Via the study:
One of the drawbacks to being a missionary is that one can devote little time to physical, psychological, and tactical training while they are serving a mission. For student-athlete missionaries in the current study, this meant that returning to collegiate sport was a huge challenge to overcome once they returned.
For example, one subject mentioned:
Getting back into baseball where I was taking ground balls again, and I was hitting and stuff, it was actually coming back to me, but it was coming back at times a lot slower than others, and that was hard to see in myself because I knew what I was capable of.
This is part of what can make roster management so tricky. Will an athlete need to take a redshirt year to completely get their body and mind right after coming home? How does that fit in with roster needs, or that athlete's academic or athletic goals? Can re-training be sped up without burning out the athlete or risking injury? It all depends, but schools need to be aware of these challenges.
But not everything is about challenges. There is potentially one massive advantage.
LDS missionary work is HARD.
Trust me, it wasn't all like this.
Because missionaries don't get to pick where they go, they are often asked to serve in communities completely alien to them, where they lack language skills or cultural competency. They may be asked to take leadership roles in understaffed congregations, to provide advice in exceptionally challenging life circumstances, and to handle rejection again and again and again.
That's a tall order for anybody, and especially a tall order when you're twenty. But at the end, there's a very good chance you'll come away with some skills that are in short supply among many young people: the ability to truly put things in perspective, and the ability to become mentally and spiritually resilient.
Participants’ views of “winning” and also of sport as the former “be all end all” changed as a result of their mission experiences. They described believing that there was now more to life than sports and winning. Sarah mentioned that: “I’m a child of God and that is because that worth never changes and that’s who I define myself as; I will not always be a student-athlete.”
One of the biggest mental health challenges that many college athletes face is when they perceive their identity as an athlete is threatened. If that becomes the core of your identity, and you find yourself injured, benched, or failing to be fulfilled by athletics, you may be at risk for major problems. Respondents in this study mentioned not only that they had the confidence they could do hard things, but that they had confirmation that they really were more than just athletes.
Most athletic departments probably won't have many LDS missionaries. But there may still be useful information here
For schools in Utah, Idaho or Arizona, figuring out how to best respond to the unique challenges of LDS missionaries could be critical to your success. In a typical season, more than half a BYU football roster could have missionary experience, and you'll probably find at least one missionary on most rosters at places like Utah Valley or Utah State.
Returned missionaries do go to schools all over the country, of course, but an athlete department in the Midwest or South might only have one or two over a multiple-year period. But every school wants to help athletes develop resiliency, a passion for service, and a defined sense of self. There may be ideas here for alternative training programs or mental health services that could be applied for secular departments as well.
Will going on one of these missions make you a better athlete? I don't think so, and I don't think this paper argues otherwise. On the contrary, it may present significant challenges.
But there are benefits and opportunities too. And if a school is going to serve students from this population, they ought to understand what those students are doing, and how to best help them when they get back.
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