Are we sending our student-athletes off into the deep end of college recruiting without teaching them how to swim?
Although no one actually comes out and says it, all too often the message during the college athletic recruiting process is to focus on the athlete as a product more than a person. For college coaches there is a lot on the line when maintaining a team such as job security, budget, donors, and ego. Based on more high school athletes reaching out to me feeling scared and unprepared, I'm sensing a gap in support as we unwittingly send our naïve ballers into the full court press of their first big job–college sports.
Here's the usual checklist: Fill out the school's recruit questionnaire, build an online athlete profile, make a highlight video, field coaches' calls, take college visits, cross your fingers. But this process also presents an opportunity to help young athletes really get to the heart of what they want and need at a school that matches them. Teens are still growing in self awareness and how to communicate that. It makes sense that additional specific guidance is necessary as they take this VERY BIG STEP that can affect THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
THE STORIES THAT WE TELL TELL THE STORY
Teens being recruited to compete in college can't always articulate WHO they are and what they WANT and NEED, but their stories can. Asking a young athlete to"Tell me about a time when you were really happy," can unearth all sorts of personal clues such as friendship, nature, predictability, helping others, spontaneity, adventure, quiet, and personal satisfaction. Or,"Describe a time when you were unhappy," and now you are listening for hints such as pressure, expectation, loneliness, crowds, lack of control, uncertainty, comparison to others. As they are speaking, make a list of any descriptive words or phrases that you hear and then share with the teen to see if that tracks with how they see themselves.
It's also important to drill down to help them NAME and CLAIM their PERSONAL STRENGTHS and VALUES. Questions like, "Describe a time when you were performing at your best," are good for this. Listen for themes such as: leadership, creativity, play, community, courage, humor and, again, reflect back to them what you heard. These conversations are essential in the lead-up to the recruiting process. Young athletes can develop a greater sense of self awareness, learn to communicate that, AND pick the right college program that aligns with who they are. Having those personal stories at the ready is also a powerful communication tool. Instead of a young person telling a college coach, "I'm a natural leader," they can talk about the time when they led the team and why it was important. Reflecting back what you hear helps build their self awareness and guides our teen athletes in making decisions that feed their goals AND their souls.
THREE CASE STUDIES
As a top American high school runner, I was recruited by schools all over the country from Stanford to Harvard. My high school coach and I chose the school I eventually attended because it was the top women's distance running program in the country with a landscape similar to my hometown. When I arrived, I was ultimately too far from home in too unstable and competitive a pond to feel like I could ever get back on top of my game. When the coach told me I wasn't earning enough points (aka, money) at the conference meets, I basically got fired from what I didn't know was my first big job. I didn't know myself well-enough at 18 to make decisions that affected much of life ahead. I didn't know me enough to honor me.
A state-ranked high school client was really torn between a midwestern university with a top 3-rated business school and a fair women's team and a mid-Atlantic school with a top-ten ranked business program and an excellent women's program. Career achievement is definitely an important value for her, but with the midwestern school a lot farther away from home, she realized how much she would miss her family not being able to see her compete. She chose the latter school because it delivered the quality education and sport opportunity closer to home that aligned with what was important for her happiness.
One of my teen clients struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder and has difficulty putting his thoughts concisely together in conversations. We knew he needed to make an impact when talking with college coaches, particularly when he might feel distracted by nerves. We assessed his strengths, picked the stories that were meaningful AND memorable that demonstrated those traits, wrote down the sentences, and rehearsed them together in practice conversations.
When a college coach asked him, "What's one thing I should know about you," my client was ready. "I'll give you 3 things...I know myself well, I'm someone the other guys can talk to, and I bring a lot of positivity to the program. Even when I didn't swim well in one of my prelims, I was able to stay positive for the next event."
The coach said, "That's the best answer I've heard all season."
IS THIS COLLEGE RIGHT FOR YOU?
Provided that a program is financially do-able (that is another set of questions), what are the good questions that get at whether a college fits all of you?
How long has the coach/es been there and what is their experience?
Has there been high coaching turnover in the athletic department or in your sport?
Do I like the coach's personality from meeting and talking with them?
Have there been a number of athletes transferring out or in?
What is the culture of the team and does that suit me?
Were the facilities suitable and well-kept?
Will I get enough chances to compete or be out of my league?
Does the program suit my needs for diversity and inclusion?
What is the mission statement of the athletic department and how are they living it?
What would a season of training look like for me?
Will I feel isolated in the classroom because it is too easy or too challenging?
Can I handle missing classes for competition travel and still keep up?
What kind of career mentoring/internships are available to student-athletes?
How are schedule conflicts handled between training/competing and classwork/exams?
Do they have the program-of-study that interests me and how well is it ranked?
Is there an honors program, and can athletes do that and train/compete successfully?
Can I study abroad or do an internship as an athlete?
Does the school suit my needs for diversity and inclusion?
The Whole Human Being Questions:
What makes me happy?
What is success to me?
Do I want a big change or something similar to my high school life?
How far can I handle being away from home?
Does it matter if my family has easy-ish access to watch me compete?
How does this school hit on all of my goals: sport, career, lifestyle?
What are the trade-offs I can/can't live with?
Remember, this is not a lopsided process. College selection is really about finding a MATCH – athletically, academically, socially, geographically, financially, spiritually... Finding the balance that you can live with is key.
Aside from being a sport psychology consultant, I have worked in an NCAA Div 1 athletic department, was a school teacher, and have coached high school track for years. These are just some of my reflections. I'm really enjoying being able to provide young people with the support that was not there for me. It's actually really quite healing.