College Recruiting for the Elite Athlete

No Golden Ticket for Admission

Sooner or later, as the parent of a star athlete, you are going to hear about the "edge" your child supposedly has over the competition for college admission. Whether the end of the rainbow holds a pot-of-gold scholarship from a Division I school or admission to an Ivy League college, sports success carries more weight, on average, in college admissions and non-need-based scholarship awards than being the son or daughter of an alumnus/ae or a member of a minority. The practice may be unfair, but most will argue that college recruits did not invent the system and would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

But athletics is not the golden ticket to college admission that some make it out to be. A top ranking in a national sport is no substitute for strong SATs, grades, and academic recommendations. And really, why should it be? A college education can lead to many things: intellectual discovery, vocational training, emotional and social maturation. In a few sports, and for a small minority, exposure gained through college sports opens the gates to a professional athletic career. Most experts agree, however, that in such cases, the experience has lost most of its integrity and value.

Five questions

There are five major questions that parents of elite athletes need to answer in the last two years of high school:

  1. Should they engage in "process parenting" or "outcome parenting?"
  2. How much of the family's financial and other resources should they spend on their star athlete?
  3. What division (I, II, or III) will provide the best fit for their child in terms of sports versus academics and financial aid?
  4. Should they hire a consultant to assist them and their child in the college recruitment process?
  5. When is it appropriate to postpone college by using the so-called "gap year"?

1. Process parenting versus outcome parenting

Youth sports experts, like Brooke de Lench, author of HomeTeam Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports generally agree that parents of all athletes, regardless of their skill level or talent, should emphasize the process and the journey, rather than the outcome. While parents should allow their athletic children to dream and think big, they need to remain positive in the face of losses and other setbacks. Their focus should be on hard work, fitness, training, skill development and the sheer joy of sports.

The more things change ...

At some point, however, usually early in high school, elite athletes begin to be singled out, not just for their prowess on the field or the court, but for their potential as professional athletes or college players. Suddenly, it is a whole different ball game. A schedule that called, let's say, for three national events per year suddenly requires at least six such events if the athlete is to get proper "exposure." To be successful at these events, the athlete must train almost every day, preferably with a coach who understands the stakes. The drain on a family's time, financial resources and emotional balance suddenly balloons.

"But it's worth it!" say the same experts who so recently were advising parents to eschew outcomes. "Think of the scholarship! Think of the edge in college admissions! Think of the possibility of a pro career!"

Yet most young athletes regard their sports involvement the same way they always have. Even a group of baseball players selected for an international all-star tournament reported their prime motivation as "having fun," with "challenge" second. Rankings, future prospects, and even winning were far down the list.

Such surveys suggest that the only reason young athletes jump onto the college recruitment bandwagon is as a means to an end: they realize that by doing so, their parents will be more willing to shell out the extra money that translates into more fun and greater challenges for them: more coaching, more travel, more competition.

Falling into trap

Thus, it's easy for a parent to fall into the trap of feeling that the emphasis has shifted appropriately from process to outcome, from free and easy sports participation to the serious business of college recruitment and athletics.

In doing so, parents may be blind to the fact that the shift from process parenting to outcome parenting poses a number of risks:

  • Viewing involvement in terms of return on investment. That the reward of a college scholarship will not justify the risk in terms of the additional investment of time and energy required;

  • Increased chance of burnout. That, as the emphasis shifts from having fun and skill development to winning and impressing college scouts, the athlete will be under more and more pressure to achieve athletic success. The more he sees sports as a job, the less he sees participation as being for fun, the greater the chances of burnout;

  • Bests interests of the child ignored. Parenting that focuses on the outcome increase the risk that decisions about the athlete's well-being and college choice will not be made on the basis of her overall best interest but be skewed towards the choice that brings the most return on investment and ego gratification for the parent (e.g. biggest scholarship, most prestigious school).

Fun should be #1 goal

In the end, whatever the pressures of college recruitment, the young baseball players who were surveyed have it right: fun and challenge - the process - must always remain the priority. What is the final "outcome," after all? Sports and fitness are good, not for a four-year stretch, but for a lifetime.

2. Money Matters

When my son Dan was playing tennis at a national level during high school, we tried to limit his annual budget to $15,000 - already a good chunk of a single working parent's take-home income. Yet compared with other elite athletes' expenditures, our budget seems laughable.

What to expect by sport:

  • Tennis. According to Tim Donovan of Donovan Tennis Strategies, a college recruitment consulting service, most tennis families spend upwards of $25,000 a year for their son or daughter to compete at a national level. A recent article in The New York Times on rising tennis star, Donald Young, doubled that figure for athletes competing internationally.

  • Skiing. Skiers can easily spend $40,000 per year according to a representative of the U.S. Ski Association.

  • Golf. The United States Golf Association (USGA) figures it cost about $20,000 a year for young golfers to compete, but this figure does not include the costs of a parent or coach traveling with the child to tournaments, which can add $15,000 to the tab.

  • Sports Academies: Sports academies, which provide one-stop-shopping for elite athletes by bundling school, coaching, and competition into a single fee, begin at $36,000 per year and rise to at least $50,000 when travel to national competitions is included.

Between a rock and a hard place

If, as a parent, you try saying "no" to any of this, you face the domino effect of outcome sports parenting: if Jennifer doesn't play the qualifying competition, she can't be eligible for the regional competition, where she needs to place in order to gain a berth in the national competition, where college coaches circle like hawks over the choicest recruits.

The competition, meanwhile, have brought in a top-ranked coach along with perhaps a sports psychologist and personal trainer, so if the lower-level events are to have the desired outcome, you had better get people of similar caliber on board before your outlay proves fruitless.

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