Athletics News
CHAMPS/Life Skills Program Develops Student-Athletes Beyond Sports
Nnanna Egwu with kids at the Boys & Girls Club. Community service is one of the major areas of the CHAMPS/Like Skills Program

Nnanna Egwu with kids at the Boys & Girls Club. Community service is one of the major areas of the CHAMPS/Like Skills Program

Oct. 23, 2013

By Lexi Shurilla, staff writer

Champaign, Ill. - The CHAMPS/Life Skills program was started at the University of Illinois in 1999. Now the Douglas C. Roberts Illini Life Skills program, the program has been helping student-athletes succeed on and off the field for nearly 15 years.

"The program is in place to help our student-athletes with their overall development while they're here," Kathy Kaler, the program's coordinator, said. "We think they make quite a commitment with a lot of demands on their time to represent the university on their athletic teams, so we want to make sure we're helping them be successful academically, within their sport and also in preparing them for the future."

In 2005-06, the Athletic Directors' Association named the University of Illinois as a recipient of the CHAMPS Program of Excellence Award. This is a lifetime award designed to recognize programs that have established student-athlete welfare as the cornerstone of their operating principles.

Because of their busy schedules, student-athletes often miss out on career fairs or other activities because the timing doesn't work out, so the Life Skills program was created to provide them access to the same types of resources other college students have.

"Life Skills has a tremendous impact on the student-athletes at Illinois," Ross Guignon, a junior on the men's tennis team, said. "It allows student-athletes to have a voice through SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) participation, all the way down to the personal development category for student-athletes to explore new things. The impact is immense. The program is meant to reward student-athletes for being proactive with their sport, academics, community outreach and overall interaction with everything campus has to offer."

Illini Life Skills makes a commitment to Illinois' student-athletes in five areas: academic excellence, athletic excellence, personal development, career development and community service.

The program offers 30-40 workshops a year on a variety of topics for student-athletes to choose from and Illini Life Skills works with many campus departments and organizations to provide the workshops.

In the academic area, workshops include "Getting Your Semester Off to a Great Start," "Preparing for Final Exams," and "How to Find a Major That Fits Me." Freshmen take a weekly class to help them transition from high school to college that includes topics such as study skills, time management, budgeting and credit card use.

The athletic workshop area offers guidance from a sports nutritionist. These types of workshops include taking freshman to the dining halls to walk them through how to make good food choices. It also includes trips to the grocery store to teach tips on things like what types of meat to buy or how to determine if a watermelon is ripe. The Activities and Recreation Center (ARC) is equipped with an instructional kitchen and the Life Skills program offers workshops where the kids learn how to make quick and easy nutritious meals and snacks. Along with nutrition, the program also offers sports psychology workshops.

"To me, the most important part of being in the program is all of the opportunities that it presents to give back to the Champaign-Urbana community."
Ross Guignon, men's tennis junior

In the personal development area, Illini Life Skills offers different types of dance - including Zumba workouts - self-defense, as well as guidance on dressing for interviews, basic auto maintenance and relaxation techniques. In the career area, there are workshops on résumé writing, internships, grad school preparation and interviewing tips.

"It presents student-athletes with helpful tools on not only how to survive in college, but how to thrive in college," Guignon said. "At the same time, most of the events incorporated with personal development have not only been informative, but entertaining as well."

"We ask the kids each year to choose one workshop," Kaler said. "Many will attend four or five. It's up to them as long as they meet their requirement of one. Our coaches and student-athletes give us the ideas for the workshops and everything we do, we have the kids evaluate. We want to know if they feel like it's beneficial and they give us ideas of what they think we need."

About eight years ago, Jeff Janssen, a renowned leadership trainer, introduced his leadership training to the University of Illinois. As one of five schools that has the opportunity to work with him in leadership training, the Life Skills program includes being a part of Janssen's Leadership Academy. All of the student-athletes that are members of the academy are chosen by their coaches to be in the program.

The community service aspect of the program provides perhaps the greatest impact on the student-athletes and those they serve. Coming together to support the Hometown Heroes organization, last year student-athletes performed more than 7,000 hours of community service within the community.

"To me, the most important part of being in the program is all of the opportunities that it presents to give back to the Champaign-Urbana community," Guignon said. "There is an entire category in the program that is dedicated to community outreach, and there are a lot of events providing opportunities for each student-athlete to give back in a different way and also promote their sport."

"Some of my favorite things about being a part of the Life Skills program are the opportunities to work with the community in Champaign-Urbana through Hometown Heroes events," Callan McDermott, a junior on the swimming and diving team, said. "These events allow us to work with the youth in the community by being role models and spreading a positive message. I think it is important for student-athletes to get involved and give back to the community that is so supportive of us."

Although the student-athletes don't have a lot of free-time, they are very generous with the time they have and enjoy going out and getting involved. Student-athletes will go to schools and participate in reading nights, visit patients in the hospital and spend time collecting things for those in need, among many other events.

"Volunteer work through Hometown Heroes events has led me to pursue a career in occupational therapy to help other people and make a difference in their lives," McDermott said.

"We have terrific camaraderie among our student-athletes," Kaler said. "And to some extent I think that's developed through the program. They get to know the other student-athletes. They have their inner circle and the people on their team, but the program broadens their relationships and they'll go out and support the other teams at their events."

"It helps us participate at the university in more than just our sport," McDermott said. "Not only does the Life Skills program offer volunteer opportunities, it helps freshman become adjusted to college and being a student-athlete. It also is helpful to listen to the guest speakers because they give valuable advice about the world outside of athletics. The program helps all student-athletes prepare for our future careers and life after sports."