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Researcher collects experiences of college athletes-turned-mothers

Candice Williams, who authored the study on athlete pregnancies, is now a program manager for The Trust, a group affiliated with the NFL Players Association. Brian Blalock / Sam Houston State University

Key Findings

All 12 mothers Williams interviewed were scholarship athletes from Division I or Division II schools and participated in basketball, tennis, track and field, or volleyball.

11 of 12 of the pregnancies were unplanned.

9 of 12 participated in athletic activities (practice and competition, for example) while pregnant.

7 of 12 said they were not informed of their legal rights as a pregnant athlete by athletics staff.

3 of 12 did not return to their sport after giving birth.

As she searched for topics to delve into during her graduate studies, Sam Houston State doctoral student Candice Williams became intrigued by the concept of elite athletes who also are new mothers. How do they handle the physical demands? Or, more importantly, the mental ones?

She found literature about professional athletes raising children, but research about college athletes proved scarce. Williams decided to fill the void. 

Funded by an NCAA Graduate Student Research Grant, she tracked down a dozen recent Divisions I and II scholarship athletes who became pregnant while in school, and she conducted extensive interviews. Her goal? Translate the lessons they learned through their experiences into new resources, replete with messages and advice from those who have walked the same path. Her study now complete, she intends to share her work with the NCAA office of inclusion to update materials for college athletes who have or are expecting children.

“These are voices of student-athletes, sharing their experiences,” she says. “(I want) to use this and package it in a way that conveys to student-athletes that this isn’t something that was made up by a committee.”

The NCAA currently does not collect data about pregnant or parenting student-athletes, but Williams suggests adding a question to forthcoming student-athlete surveys to better understand the issue’s scope. Amid a population of more than 215,000 female college athletes, she thinks a robust group of coaches, administrators and expectant mothers exists that could use additional guidance. “I would say it happens more than we think,” she says. “You may have one or two pregnant student-athletes (on campus) at any given moment.”

Several of the women Williams interviewed said they discovered they were pregnant when they were being treated for sport-related injuries. All but one said the pregnancies were unplanned, and most of the women were using some form of birth control.

The majority continued to compete and practice while unknowingly pregnant, certain the physical difficulties they were experiencing were symptoms of a cold or stomach flu. One even thought her waning ability to focus was a sign of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

While the physical challenges are obvious, most women Williams spoke with noted the biggest mental hurdle they faced was reporting the pregnancy to their coaches. They were fearful of losing playing time, trust or even a scholarship. About three-quarters reported those tense interactions yielded support, not ire. And, once their babies were born, nearly all the student-athletes credited the mental toughness that helped them reach a high level in their sport for their ability to handle this daunting new responsibility.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.