Have an aspiring college athlete? Here's what recruiting will (likely) really be like

AP Photo/Phil Sears

We all do it. We sit on the field, in the stands, in the gym. We watch our young kids compete, improve, show promise, and we fantasize about that day when our talented little goalkeeper/point guard/running back will be a college athlete. At that point, we just hope someday they want it, too.

And when they express an interest, we pour resources into that fantasy. By resources, of course, we mean time and money: private trainers, travel teams, club fees, recruiting showcases, recruiting services. There is nothing wrong with the fantasy, by the way. It's a good one. Collegiate athletics often provides young people extraordinary, character-building, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But it comes with some realities that only begin with the process of getting there.

The statistics are not hard to find.

* According to the NCAA, 8 million kids are participating in high school sports.

* Only 480,000 of them (6 percent) will eventually compete in collegiate athletics at an NCAA program.

* Only 56 percent of those athletes will receive "some level" of scholarship assistance, and that amount averages less than $11,000 per student athlete.

The myths, meanwhile, are not hard to bust.

* "It's all about the scholarship." Full-ride scholarships are not the norm in college athletics. Only six NCAA Division I sports offer full scholarships for athletes who make the team: football, men's and women's basketball, women's gymnastics, volleyball and tennis. The rest of the NCAA sports are called "equivalency" sports, in which each team has a set number of scholarships (11.7 in Division I college baseball, for example), and those scholarships are divided up among the players on the roster at increments determined by the head coach. That means some kids might get half of their tuition paid for. Others might only get their books covered. Some get nothing but a spot on the roster.

* "College programs will come looking for you." In reality, even the strongest, hardest-working, most talented kids on your high school team likely aren't going to catch the eye of big-time college programs without a lot of legwork on your part.

* "If you're good enough, you'll get your pick of schools." Often, kids who are being recruited are not choosing among the colleges they are most interested in attending, but among those who are most interested in them. And equally often, those choices are limited.

And if you are a parent of a kid who truly, honestly wants to be a college athlete, one who has already demonstrated he or she is willing to put in the work and the effort to achieve that goal, keeping it real is the best thing you can do.

"I think as parents, we have to be realistic about where our kids fit in," said my friend Shari, whose three kids have been recruited by colleges in the past five years. "It was a very different story for each of them."

Indeed. In our house, our experience was shepherding a hard-working kid who was a successful high school athlete to the best opportunity he would have to play baseball for another four years. Because let's face it, considering the minuscule number of college athletes who end up playing professionally in their given sports, that is what we are talking about here. A chance to play for four more years.

As a family, we put in a lot of labor, setting him up for exposure by signing him up for showcases and individual recruiting events at specific schools. He joined summer teams that might maximize his chance to get seen.

He emailed coaches, sent videos. We created a spreadsheet to keep track, along with a nice one-page reference to his stats, academic achievements and goals. We suggested to him that if he was interested in a school, he should check their roster on the website and see how many of the guys on the team were his size. (A reality check for our 5-foot-9 right-handed pitcher.) We reminded him to follow up. We encouraged him through the frustration of not getting a response from a school he really liked, or the coach who said he didn't get a chance to come out and see him throw after all. And on the odd day that he didn't throw particularly well, we tried (really hard, in my case) not to say much at all.

We watched him for signs that maybe this wasn't what he really wanted. But he kept working. And he kept wanting. So we kept going.

That's not to say we did everything right. But we did it with a sense of reality and appropriate expectation that this was going to be hard, and it wasn't just going to happen because it was what he wanted.

My son ended up at a Division III school, where he has indeed gotten his opportunity to play -- an opportunity initiated by a contact from his high school coach and barely any of the stuff we did. And sometimes, that is just how it goes.

Shari's oldest son, a football player, used a recruiting service that matched him up with a Division I-AA school that was a fit for his academic profile. Her middle son is a Division I swimmer at a school in the Midwest after getting a late start in the recruiting process. And her youngest daughter, a swimmer and high school senior, began making lists and sending out letters to coaches in her sophomore year.

"You can't sit back and wait to be discovered at a meet or a tournament," Shari said. "In a lot of instances, like 99.9 percent of the time, unless you are a star athlete who gets a lot of press coverage, you have to be very proactive, get your face in front of these coaches. And once you do that, it's follow-through, follow-through, follow-through."

And still, there's no guarantee how things will turn out. The week after my son decided where he would be going to school, the coach stepped down. My son went anyway. Shari's oldest son went across the country for his opportunity to play football, but his college career was limited by injury. He still loved his college experience.

It is a tenuous thing, the opportunity to be a college athlete. Shari was right when she called it "a gamble." She's also right about this:

"I think kids end up where they were meant to be, even if it's maybe not where they thought," she said. "But I think that's true whether they are an athlete or not."

A reality that trumps fantasy every time.

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