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Put it in writing: Student-athletes author their own tales

By Jennifer Gunnels
For NCAA.org

With so many accomplished student-athletes participating in intercollegiate athletics, it’s easy to tell their story. But we found three student-athletes who are telling their own stories – in writing.

Two have scribed motivational non-fiction works based on lessons learned during their collegiate playing days. The third is a crime novel by a current student-athlete, written largely while traveling with his team.

So if you’re looking to add an “athlete authors” section to your library, we’ve got a few new titles for your shelf.

From bench to book

Kevin Christensen had plenty of time to think while sitting at the end of the bench for the Sonoma State basketball team. Those thoughts would later turn into a motivational book that is currently being used as an instructional tool by high school and college coaches around the country and even the world.

Christensen grew up as one of the top players in the gym. So when he walked on to the squad at Sonoma State as a redshirt freshman and found himself at the end of the bench, he was ill-prepared for his new role.

“There was no way to navigate being a bench player because growing up I was always one of the better players; I wasn’t prepared for it at all,” he said. “This was stuff I had to learn on my own, and I think it’s really helpful to other people who find themselves in the same situation.”

Christensen compiled the lessons he learned at Sonoma State into a book called Bench Rules: A Guide to Success On and Off the Bench, based on the belief that every player, even the one on the end of the bench, is essential to the success of the team.

He says he learned to use his role as a bench player to become a student of the game, to try harder, to be a better teammate. Empowered by the role he developed for himself at the end of the bench, Christensen became a leader on the squad despite taking just 30 shots his entire freshman season. He was named the team’s Most Inspirational Player that year.

Christensen continued to sit on the bench, although he saw increased playing time each season. He continued to encourage and push his teammates, earning Most Inspirational Player again during his sophomore and junior years.

By the time he reached his senior season, Christensen had earned a starting spot on the squad and would go on to be named to the all-conference team. Not surprisingly, he earned Most Inspirational Player again during that senior season and the award has since been renamed the Kevin Christensen Most Inspirational Award.

Christensen served as an assistant coach at Sonoma State after earning his degree in history, and it was during that time of coaching that he realized his story might be helpful to other athletes who found themselves in an unfamiliar place on the bench.

“I saw a lot of guys having the same issues I had as a player,” Christensen said. “So my main motivation in writing this was that I could help guys with what I had learned in that situation.”

Christensen went on to play basketball professionally in Austria and worked on the book on and off over the course of several years. After returning from Europe, Christensen became the associate athletics director and head boys and girls varsity basketball coach at Sonoma Academy, a private high school in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“I felt like my story could really help the guys at Sonoma State, and at first it was just intended for them,” Christensen said. “As I got further into it, I had some of my former coaches say, ‘Hey, this would help my players, too, you need to make this available to more people.’ ”

Christensen published Bench Rules through CreateSpace, a self-publishing company on Amazon, in October 2011. He hasn’t attempted to market the book widely, although word of mouth seems to be marketing the book on its own. Bench Rules is now being used by high school and collegiate teams around the country, including UNC Asheville, UC Santa Barbara and Sacramento State. The book has also been requested by coaches in seven other countries.

“I couldn’t have imagined these stories would really matter to people, but what I found was that these situations apply to more people than I realized,” Christensen said.

The stories apply so widely, in fact, that a talent agency in California is working on developing a script based on Christensen’s story to pitch to movie studios. The owner of the agency learned about Christensen when his son was instructed to read Bench Rules for his high school basketball team.

Christensen recently became a father and says he doesn’t have plans to write any other books, unless something comes along that he feels as passionately about as Bench Rules. For now, he is happy coaching the game he loves.

“I love helping players and paying forward all the help that was given to me,” he said. “I’ll be coaching basketball for a very long time.”

From aces to pages

As Greg Hirshman approached his graduation from Stanford University, he realized he was also nearing the end of his competitive tennis career. After so many years in the sport, it was a moment of grief, but also inspiration.

“I know I’m not going pro and I’ve put all this time into tennis … so it was a moment of reflection and just thinking, ‘What can I give back to others who are sitting where I was 10 years ago?’ ” Hirshman said.

That moment of reflection turned into 12 days of concentrated writing about the principles Hirshman used to find success on the tennis court. He calls it the PEAK approach: Prepare thoroughly, Execute intelligently, Analyze critically and Keep fighting.

After completing that first draft, Hirshman began seeking feedback from coaches, teammates and friends. As he sought an agent to represent his book to publishers, Hirshman was advised that the PEAK approach would reach more people if he applied the principles to academics and not just tennis.

“It was something that really kind of blew me away as the book evolved to be more about academics than tennis, just how applicable tennis really was to the classroom,” Hirshman said. “This is really what the NCAA is all about, that what we do on the court or the playing field really does apply in the classroom, and the same principles that lead to success on the tennis court could be applied to find success in the classroom, too.”

Hirshman certainly excelled in both, twice being named the recipient of the Division I men’s tennis Elite 89 Award, given to the student-athlete with the highest grade-point average at the finals site of each of the NCAA’s 89 championships. He was also the founder of a quarterly student publication on campus called The Cardinal Principle, designed to stimulate political debate.

Through the network of Stanford alumni in the publishing industry, Hirshman was put into contact with an agent at Janklow & Nesbit, himself a former student-athlete. The book is now being represented to publishing companies under the title PEAK Like a Pro: Winning in the Classroom and Beyond.

After graduating from Stanford in June 2011, Hirshman went on to pursue graduate studies in finance and private equities at the London School of Economics on an NCAA postgraduate scholarship. He now resides in San Francisco and works for McKinsey & Company as a business analyst.

He hopes to write subsequent books applying the PEAK approach – to tennis, as originally planned, and to other areas of life, like starting a business.

“These principles have been a driving force in my life and they are applicable to so many things,” he said. “How good you are is a function of how much potential you have and how much of that potential you’re able to use. So what the book is really focused on is how to achieve what you’re fully capable of achieving and reaching your fullest potential.”

Hirshman hopes the book will be picked up for publication soon, and he plans to donate the proceeds from PEAK Like a Pro to charities serving underprivileged kids.

“Since my book is so much about helping people reach their potential in the classroom and beyond, I believe that these kids potentially have the most to gain from it, so I believe it is important to support them,” he said.

From runner to writer

Indiana sprinter Chris Vaughn never dreamed of writing a novel.

“I was always interested in the process of creating something out of nothing, but to be honest, I’m not sure where it came from,” he said.

During the fall of his junior year, while traveling with the track and field team, Vaughn began to tinker with a short crime story he had originally written for a high school project.

“I wanted to further develop that idea,” he said. “When I started, I sat down and took some notes about things I wanted to include, some plotlines and certain scenes.”

Vaughn’s novel, Catharsis, is a crime-oriented drama about a city overturned by a series of brutal murders and the testing of the friendship of three central characters. Vaughn says the names of the characters were a combination of names he had always liked, and although he had a general idea of what would happen to those characters, he was sometimes surprised by the turns the story took as he was writing.

“I’d get to certain points where things would develop that I hadn’t planned,” he said. “Sometimes things pop into your mind as you’re writing and you adapt to that.”

Vaughn quietly completed the novel over the course of about three months, unbeknownst to his teammates and friends. He says writing became an outlet to relieve the stress of traveling and competing while also keeping up with his academics.

“It was something I didn’t ever intend to get published,” he said. “I did it for my own amusement. It really just started as a hobby.”

But after the novel was complete, Vaughn’s parents encouraged him to publish and make the book available to the public. Vaughn chose to self-publish through an Amazon company called CreateSpace and his novel became available in February 2012. The news took his teammates by surprise.

“They didn’t believe me at first; they thought I was joking,” he said.

Vaughn completed his undergraduate degree in 2012 and is currently working on a graduate degree in public administration as he completes his final season of outdoor eligibility with the track and field team. The Nolensville, Tenn., native has twice advanced to the NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships and earned All-America honors in 2011 as a member of the distance medley and 400-meter relays.

After news of his book became public, friends and teammates read it and offered suggestions and feedback. Vaughn says he was pleased with the initial response and although he is working on a new project now, he thinks one day he might go back and write a sequel to incorporate some of the good ideas he was given.

Since publishing his first novel, Vaughn has gone on to write a second book. Branching away from the crime genre, Vaughn says this project falls under the fantasy category and is a completely separate story.

He is currently reaching out to contacts in the publishing industry and hopes to find an established publishing company for this project. As he pursues his graduate studies in public management, Vaughn envisions writing continuing to be a hobby he will pursue on the side.

“I enjoy the creative process and the intrinsic satisfaction of writing something that came out of my own mind,” he said.