Recent Big Ten Athlete on the Highs and Lows of Bigtime D1 College Sports
After reading this, you will have a better grasp on the realities of playing at the D1 level, good and bad. There are positives and negatives when it comes to playing at the highest level. What better way to find out than to talk to someone who recently went through the experience?
Kristen Dockery played Big Ten women’s basketball at the University Minnesota, graduating in 2011. The 6’4″ Dockery battled knee injuries because of years of wear and tear growing up, but when she was healthy, she was a valuable player for the Golden Gophers. I asked her to share candid insights on the D1 experience.
“The positives are the camaraderie of having college teammates,” said Dockery. “They were literally like sisters. It is a bond that is hard to describe. You don’t get that with regular students. We would pick each other up. We would challenge one another during practice but still be close off the court. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
What about the challenges?
“It’s extremely serious,” said Dockery. “You’re almost told where to be 24 hours a day. You have some time to be yourself but you usually are so tired, you want to go to your dorm. It is very structured. As a freshman, you have about 10 to 14 hours of study hall that are required. That gets lower as you prove you can handle your academics. There are constant team meetings, weight training, meetings with academic advisors. I liked it all though because I thrive off of that kind of commitment. I wouldn’t be satisfied if I wasn’t being challenged. I stayed busy and I was always focusing on trying to be the best I could be.”
During her first two seasons, Minnesota advanced to the NCAA Tournament, stunning national power Notre Dame in South Bend during her sophomore season. However, Minnesota went 13-17 and 12-18 during her junior and senior seasons. During that time Dockery did not always agree with the way coach Pam Borton communicated with the team. The important thing was she made sure to keep an open line of communication to her coach and even though they disagreed about some things, they are fine today and stay in touch. Dockery said they talked recently. Dockery understood all the pressures a D1 coaches go through, including the pressure to win conference, get into the NCAA’s, and work with boosters, fans and the athletic department.
At all levels of college sports and especially at D1 there are times where some athletes think about quitting or transferring. “I only had one that came in as a freshman that quit,” said Dockery. “She couldn’t handle being away from home and didn’t like the control part of being told what to do so much. I think sometimes athletes coming up are handed things and they are stars and then they get to college athletics and suddenly find out that they have to work hard like everyone else. Some can’t handle that adjustment. But all in all, my teammates were great. They all worked hard and we got along so well.”
Would she do the whole four year experience all over again?
“I would go back in a heartbeat,” said Dockery, emphasizing how special the bond is with her college teammates. “Some of my teammates I talk to almost daily, others about twice a month. I skype with some, including one that is in Australia. The bond is unbelievable. Looking back, you remember the good times.”
Dockery told me she started getting mail when she was in the 8th grade. At St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend, IN she played with other future D1 players such as Melissa Lechlitner (Notre Dame), Sydney Smallbone (Tennessee) and Aimee Litka (Valparaiso). Dockery was heavily recruited because of her 6’4″ size, her tremendous coordination, and the outstanding reputation of St. Joseph’s. She was a big girl who could play and was very smart. Minnesota and others liked her because she could post up or face the basket.
“I’m not being cocky,” said Dockery, “but I had my pick of schools. I don’t have regrets about the recruiting process because I did my homework and we took lots of visits. It’s a matter of seeing what matters to you when it comes to finding a college. Once you figure it out, it becomes easier. My main things were fitting in with my teammates (she nailed that because she is so tight with them today), finding a coach I could respect and that would challenge me, and finding a good atmosphere.”
Dockery’s top four were Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue and N.C. State. Though recruiting started for her in Middle School, she made her choice in the summer before 12th grade. “It was a tough choice,” said Dockery. “When your 18 it’s hard to decide, especially when you’re getting pulled from all directions. If I had to do it all over again I would still pick Minnesota.”
“My advice to recruits is to remember what is important to you as a person as far as where you would want to play in college,” said Dockery. “Try to have fun with the college athletics experience. Keep things in perspective. You get so consumed with it that you forget this is what you love to do. Work hard and do the best you can with it.”
One of the key factors in recruiting is figuring out if you want to stay fairly close to your home or if you are capable of going far off to school. Dockery’s choice of Minnesota meant she wouldn’t be able to get home to South Bend too many times each year.
“I had my moments when I was homesick,” said Dockery, “but having teammates there helps it a lot. “What was tough for me was my freshman year I was injured and I was the only freshman so I found myself alone in the room sometimes. What that taught me was how to put myself out there.”
As mentioned above, Dockery’s first three years were hampered by knee injuries that came from a combination of things.
“Part of it is the way I am made,” said Dockery. “Also, I played on multiple AAU teams growing up and I started playing at a very young age. They all were contributing factors. I did a lot of research in college on whether kids should specialize in a sport growing up. I think that by High School, if the athlete wants to specialize and can handle it, and it is their choice, then go for it. It has to be the athlete’s choice, not the parents choice. I do encourage kids to play multiple sports growing up so they can see what they want to pursue. I am against parental pressure to choose a sport. In my case I would still go back and do it the way I did.”
Dockery was a true student-athlete who used her experience to help prepare her for life. She got her degree in Sports Management and her Masters in Applied Kinesiology. She did both in 4 1/2 years, taking advantage of the summer schools that athletes attend. She interned with the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA while in college. She now works at the prestigious I.C.E. Athletic Complex where management is very impressed with her attitude, abilities and potential for growth. They have positive plans for her future there.
“One of the huge things I got from being a student-athlete,” said Dockery, “is my work ethic. Sports at every level, especially college, teaches work ethic. Employers really like that quality. I learned discipline from playing college. Reliability. I take responsibility for things. My leadership skills were honed in college from the Leadership Academies they provided for us.”
When Dockery reflects on her four years of D1, it is obvious to me that the positives far outweighed the negative. Injuries kept her out of all but fourteen games going into her senior year, yet the experience was still mainly positive. During one of her years there the team went on a playing tour of Italy. Her education was covered with a full athletic scholarship. And through it all, she lived her childhood dream of being a D1 athlete.
She will have memories for a lifetime. The picture up above shows her as a senior going against Baylor’s 6’8″ Brittney Griner. “It was awesome to play her,” said Dockery. “I played almost the entire game. She is like the best player in the nation arguably. We double teamed her. I leaned on her defending her in the post, but no matter how far out I pushed her she would get the ball and turn and practically be at the goal!”
“Even though it was hard and had its ups and downs,” said Dockery about her D1 experience, “I really miss it. Now I find myself searching for challenges that will live up to playing D1 basketball.”
Longtime Motivational Speaker Charlie Adams has a passion for helping athletes find the right fit at the next level. As the author of the motivational book Stoke the Fire Within, he speaks on Peak Performance topics and the College Athletics Recruiting process. His oldest child is currently an NCAA student-athlete, and his two other children will also be college athletes. As a former sports anchor across America for 23 years, Adams saw a lack of education on the athletics recruiting process and families struggling with understanding how to handle recruiting. His articles on the topic and his special Talk “How to Find the Right Fit AND Significant Scholarships at the Next Level” are designed to help families understand what they have to do to have success in the process. To get all of his past articles or to learn how to bring him in to speak, he can be reached at charlie@StokeTheFireWithin.com