I recently received a phone call from a friend who is one of the national directors of coaching for a major US sport governing body. He told me the story of a recent phone call his office received from a distraught parent:
“We just had tryout for our local club and my son was placed on the B team. I need someone from your office to contact our club and demand that my son be placed on the top team. There is no way he should have been cut and he is going to miss out on going to the right events these next few years,” said the distraught mother. “My son is a Division 1 prospect and he is being cheated out of that opportunity.”
“Here is the kicker,” said my friend with a chuckle. “Her son was 9 years old!”
Has this parent lost the plot? Yes. But here is what is scary.
That mom might might have a 13-14 year old who has already been asked to make a verbal commitment to a college! She might have an 8th or 9th grade daughter playing lacrosse, soccer, or a number of other sports on a weekly basis in front of college recruiters. She is not the only one who has lost the plot.
The recruiting scene in youth sports has gone completely insane. It is hurting families. It is ramping up pressure on parents, coaches and kids. And it is terrible for universities that have freshmen on campus who have sometimes committed to a school they never visited, playing for a coach that didn’t even recruit them, and over their heads academically, athletically, even socially.
I feel for parents and athletes in the current environment. Mom and dad are scared their child will miss out on a scholarship because they hear about 8th graders being recruited and 9th graders verbally committing. I cannot imagine what it feels like for a kid. When I was a high school athlete, if you committed to a college in September of your senior year, before you had even applied, people looked at you with a look that said “why are you in such a hurry?”
Today, kids who have not committed by spring of their sophomore year are told “what are you waiting for?” This is insane.
I have yet to meet a college coach who likes it.
I have yet to meet a student athlete who benefits by it.
I have yet to meet a parent who isn’t stressed out by it.
Most importantly, I have yet to come across an institution that so blatantly disregards its mission statement to serve student athletes as does the NCAA. They allow this environment to exist with a shrug of the shoulders, claiming this section of their 500-page recruiting rule book is “unenforceable” and might limit student opportunities to gather information about schools. Meanwhile, they march off to the bank to cash that next billion dollar TV contract. It’s not only sad; it’s a complete abdication of their responsibility.
In her excellent piece about the recruiting nightmare in women’s lacrosse former Georgetown head coach
Kim Simmons Tortolani does a fantastic job outlining the detrimental effects on her sport caused by the accelerated recruiting calendar. She points out how it encourages early sport specialization, parents holding kids back a year to get an athletic advantage, year-round lacrosse, and high cost travel and club sports at younger and younger ages that kill participation numbers. These same issues exist across all sports.
Early recruiting also contributes to the high transfer rate among sports with early commitments. Michigan St men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo recently commented on the alarming transfer rate among NCAA D1 basketball players which has risen from 200 transfers a decade ago to nearly 800 this year. He states that players lack resiliency, but at the same time, how many kids transfer because they get to a school they committed to years prior when they were a different player, and a different person?
Finally, many athletes simply quit playing after their freshman year, burnt out on a sport they went all in on way too young, no longer willing to commit the 30 plus hours a week to their sport required in college. In its recent study of its athletes, the NCAA found that the number of athletes who committed to a single sport prior to age 12 was on the rise, and that the number one regret of athletes was that they did not play more sports growing up.
Let’s face it, there are no advantages to recruiting a kid in middle school or early high school except to tie them up before anyone else has. These coaches are committing to an athlete whom:
- Won’t even play with most members of their current roster
- May not even play with the coach who recruited him/her, as coaches often move on to other schools or opportunities.
- Has probably never visited campus
- Likely has no idea what he/she wants to study
- Is unknown to a coach as a person. Will they fit your culture? What kind of teammate will they be? Are they strong enough academically? Can they balance coursework and sports?
Perhaps most damming, coaches who commit to 8th and 9th graders are likely recruiting children, not adults. These kids have not finished growing or developing as an athlete. The dominant ones are usually the ones who grew first, and are a bit bigger, stronger and faster. What about the late bloomers? As an 8th grader, I wrestled at 95 lbs. When I graduated high school I weighed 170! Basically these coaches are guessing what athletes might play like in 5-9 years.
How ludicrous this is? Imagine your local high school varsity coach at the park and rec games next weekend, committing spots on his or her future varsity team to current 9 year olds! That is exactly what is happening when a college coach makes a verbal commitment to an 8th grader! The person they commit to will barely resemble the player who walks on campus.
College coaches must take responsibility for starting the downward trend in recruiting, but at this point they cannot fix it without the help of the NCAA. Even coaches who would prefer not to recruit early feel compelled to do so because if they don’t, they don’t get the type of players that will allow them to compete. As a women’s NCAA Division 1 soccer coach once told me “John, I tried for 3 years to wait until at least a kids’ junior year to recruit them. I didn’t want them on my team until they had been on campus, met the team, and spent time with me. Sadly, I almost lost my job, as we quickly went from the top of the conference to the bottom.”
No coach wants to lose her job, and no coach will stop the early recruiting for fear that a competitor does not. YET THEY WANT CHANGE! Tortolani points out that over 85% of women’s collegiate lacrosse coaches supported legislation to slow down recruiting by prohibiting direct contact with prospects prior to September 1 of their junior year, but the NCAA has failed to act upon it. As she states, “If the NCAA was truly committed to ‘academics, well-being and fairness,’ it would not only accept the proposed recruiting legislation set forth by the IWLCA, it would do so enthusiastically, publicly and quickly.” Amen to that. And amen to the college lacrosse coaching community, who has produced this video asking the NCAA to intervene:
Until the NCAA acts, I am afraid the burden of protecting our kids from rushing one of the most important decisions of their life, at a time where they have no business making it, will fall to parents.
First, why not encourage your athletes who do not want to commit early to write a letter to the NCAA, and describe what it is like to be forced into committing to a college so young. The NCAA may not listen to its coaches, but it may listen to kids and feel compelled to act.
Second, give your child the time and space to visit schools, decide what he/she wants to study, and decide if they even want to play college sports! Tell coaches your child is flattered by the offer, but not prepared to make such a decision at this time. In the meantime, have your child do their research, and don’t worry if others on their team have already committed. Your child’s path is his and his alone, and should not be compared with another’s timetable. The good news is with the current high transfer rate, nearly every program has spots open up late in the process, and I have never seen a high school senior who was a quality player not find a place to play. Being patient will definitely pay off academically and socially, and it may even pay off athletically as well.
Third, be a change agent. Share this and other articles with parents, and encourage them to slow down too. Let your voice be heard by the NCAA as well. Visit this page by the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association and sign the petition asking the NCAA to adopt this legislation. They cannot ignore this forever (I hope), and once it happens for one sport, others should follow.
Perhaps if the NCAA finally started serving its student athletes first and foremost, we may have a domino effect in youth sports. Imagine that. We could push off specialization. We could slow the downward creep of travel ball. Most importantly, we could all take a deep breath and just watch the kids play without scanning the sidelines wondering how many college coaches saw our pre-pubescent superstar score the game winner. Wouldn’t that be nice!