College Athletic Recruiting from a Parent's Seat on the Anxiety Express

Lots of recruiting articles talk about the parent’s role in recruiting but very few address what you, as a parent, will personally be experiencing throughout this. I don’t think most parents can adequately anticipate what college athletic recruiting will be like.

Let me start with a story that has nothing to do with recruiting but illustrates the point well.

I am a boy parent, no girls. So after my oldest son had left for college, I was biking through the neighborhood one day and ran into a friend. I was lamenting how boys tell you so little, just one and two word answers to your carefully crafted questions. How much easier it would be if I had a girl. And here was her response: she has a boy (college freshman) and a girl (college junior). She agreed that her freshman doesn’t tell her much, calls home once a week and it’s usually a very short and functional conversation. But he’s happy and doing fine. Her daughter, on the other hand, calls her 2-3 times a day and has been for the 3 years she’s been at college. She drags her mother through every high and low she experiences, and every emotional upheaval gets to be experienced by both of them, not just the daughter. To make it worse, the daughter may solve her problems quickly but will forget to tell her mom about it for a day or two so mom is always left worrying about something the daughter has long since forgotten about. Mom’s conclusion? She prefers to know less because she worries less and it’s a lot less emotionally exhausting.

Welcome to recruiting. Lots of parallels here. You will experience every high and low with your student-athlete. If the letters and calls start coming, you will get so excited for them, especially if you know the schools. If there are no letters and calls, you will get so frustrated for them. And if a school shows interest and then suddenly stops calling, you will count the days and wonder how long means it’s really over. And the hardest part for you is that you want to take control and fix it, and you can’t. It’s between your kid and the people doing the recruiting. Period. The more you intervene, the less helpful you are being to your kid and in fact, the more harm you may do. I love the quote from a D I coach who said that the best team is a team of orphans.

Here’s another interesting twist. The emotional upheaval happens at all levels of the recruiting food chain. Parents of blue chip athletes stress over how to protect their kids, how to make sure they’re making the right decision, and how to keep some control over their kid’s life when everybody wants a piece of them. Parents of second tier athletes stress over how to make sure they get noticed, how to break through the clutter of the tons of kids they’re competing against, how to ensure that they’ll actually be able to compete and not just be a practice dummy, and how to try and leverage themselves into a scholarship situation. Everyone thinks it’s easier on the other kid but recruiting is an equal opportunity anxiety producer.

Let’s switch gears for a minute. Most kids who are pursuing college sports are doing so because they can’t imagine college life without competing. They have a deep passion for their sport and aren’t ready to give it up. I learned something interesting from talking to parents of all kinds of kids that I hadn’t really thought about before, that a kid who struggles to make the high school varsity team and just barely squeaks in, probably has just as much passion for the sport as the kid who’s going to play football at USC and go on to the NFL. They may not have the same skill, size, or speed, but those things are not necessarily related to their level of passion. So regardless of your kid’s talent level, if they’ve got that kind of passion, your mission as a parent is to help them get into a program where they can be happy and that will probably only happen if they can be successful in their sport.

This sounds so obvious but I often run into athletes and parents who wander through recruiting with an obvious attitude of Division I or bust. I know every kid has dreams of playing in Division I but there’s 330 Division I schools and 1400 other schools in Division II, III, NAIA and NJCAA so there’s a lot of roster spots that will go to kids not playing Division I. When parents set up the expectation that a kid is only successful if they get a Division I scholarship, we are effectively abandoning the great influence we have in helping them feel good about where they will need to end up to compete and be happy. On the other hand, if we (non-judgmentally) help them find the right place for them and it isn’t at the level they had hoped, the sting will only last for a short time. Once they are there and competing, they will thrive and enjoy it just as much as the big guys.

One of my favorite quotes from my book (Put Me In, Coach: A Parent’s Guide to Winning the Game of College Recruiting) came from a women’s soccer coach at a public university in Maryland. His point was that once a kid is in pre-season work-outs, it doesn’t matter if they’re at an Ivy League school or a junior college, if they got a big scholarship or not. What matters is the same things that mattered in high school, that they’re getting playing time, the level of play is competitive enough, their team is successful within it’s conference or league, and they trust their coach’s judgment. If those things are in place, their passion is fed and you will have one happy camper.

So help them find that place, wherever it is and whatever level it may be. Try not to get too stressed out along the way. And when you compare notes with the other parents you come across, you’ll realize that you’re in good company.