So You Want to Play in College?
It’s an experience many parents encounter: one of their children excels in a sport. As seasons go by, the young athlete seeks out better competition. By the first year of high school, the teen is playing showcase events for club teams in front of college coaches. Soon, there is talk of playing in college — even earning an athletic scholarship.
That’s when the real adventure begins.
The task of finding the right university for a young athlete is a complex one. There are large universities with well-known athletic programs, and small colleges with modest teams. Some schools offer athletic scholarships, others do not. The process can be intimidating — even overwhelming — to parents who have never explored college athletics.
One option is to work with a college sports recruiting service. These companies promise to streamline the process by connecting the high school student with college coaches. Many of these services will assign an account representative to your teen who will walk him or her through creating an online profile that includes statistics, photos and links to skills videos that can either be uploaded to the athlete’s account or created by the service. The account representative will also send emails to subscriber schools and show the athlete how to use the service to send emails to the coaches on his or her own.
But parents should be cautious before committing to a service. The placement fee can be several thousand dollars, and many college athletic programs do not use them. Division I schools — NCAA schools with well-funded athletic programs — rarely recruit this way.
“We go out recruiting all over the country and we find kids that way,” says East Carolina University softball coach Courtney Oliver, who has never looked at online profiles from a service. “At ECU, we’re really fortunate to have a budget to do that. Plus, we have travel ball coaches that we trust that give us a heads up on certain kids.”
But smaller schools often operate on shoestring budgets. At Division II Barton College in Wilson, men’s basketball coach Ron Lievense recruits athletes from a four-state region mostly by car. So if he can get a lead through an agency that acts as a recruiting clearinghouse, so much the better.
“Absolutely, I think those services do a great value,” says Lievense, who guided Barton to a national championship in 2007. “We’ve signed a number of kids off of those over the years.”
A few years ago, Ken Singer contacted a recruiting service to help place his son, Kasey, who played baseball at Leesville Road High School. The company arranged a couple of phone interviews with small, out-of-state schools, but they were expensive options with minimal scholarship offers.
“You want to see what opportunities are out there for your kid,” Singer says. “That’s why we did it. But the opportunities being offered to us were opportunities we could find on our own.”
Singer’s takeaway is common among parents who have gone through the process — that it doesn’t take a third party to get the conversation started. At all levels, coaches are quick to point out that reaching out to an athletic program should be done personally.
So where do parents begin? Actually, by stepping aside. Building a relationship with a college coach is largely in the hands of your son or daughter.
“I would rather hear from the kid,” Oliver says. “At the end of the day, I’m recruiting the kid, not the parent.”
Most coaches welcome a first contact by email, but that is not set in stone. Lievense likes the personal approach of a phone call, noting that his inbox is flooded with emails every day.
At Division III Guilford College in Greensboro, men’s soccer coach Cory Speed notes a change in the emails he receives. With each passing year, he says, they become a little more professional.
“The emails I’ve received over the years have gotten a lot better,” Speed says. “Basically, we’re looking for attention to detail. If you’re writing sloppily, it’s indicative of the type of effort that you would put into your school work and everything else. If the email looks really poor, it’s not as likely to generate a response from me.”
Like Oliver at ECU, Speed does not rely on recruiting services.
“I don’t really find them all that useful,” he says. “A lot of times, the emails are generated by the recruiting services themselves. It makes it more difficult to determine whether a student is actually interested in our school, as opposed to a personalized, written email. It’s better to take ownership for your own recruiting process.”
What do coaches want to see in a preliminary contact? Start with your school and grade point average. Then tell the coach your position and the name of your club team. Include a link to any videos and send along an upcoming schedule where the coach can see you play.
Here are a few more tips to help make the process run smoothly:
Be realistic. To determine your child’s skill level, seek an honest assessment from the club or travel coach. Also, note which schools are expressing interest. The consensus of the coaches is usually a good indicator of the athlete’s skill level for college play.
Have a realistic view of recruiting services. If your goal is to establish preliminary contact with as many universities as possible, they can help. But a more targeted, personal approach will help a high school athlete make a connection.
Consider your options carefully. For example, Division III programs (typically smaller schools) do not provide athletic scholarships, but they offer grants and other academic aid to qualified student-athletes.
Perhaps the most important step in pursuing a college scholarship is taking a reality check. Most college athletes will never earn a living playing professionally. Ken and Kasey Singer kept that in mind when Kasey opted to walk on as a baseball player at ECU.
“When we realized it was going to cost a fortune for him to go somewhere to play baseball, we had to make a decision: Was he going to college to play baseball or was he going to college to get an education and further his real-life goals?” Ken Singer says. “We made the decision that his education was more important than a career in baseball.”
Kurt Dusterberg covers the Carolina Hurricanes for NHL.com and is the author of “Journeymen: 24 Bittersweet Tales of Short Major League Sports Careers.”