By Kim DeRaedt
It’s almost time for college, a teenager’s dream. Soon he or she will be free—no parents or bosses, no rules or responsibilities. It’s a chance to do what you want, when you want. It’s a chance to be whomever you want to be, and dang it, you’re going to be a soccer star! You can see it now: Go to class (maybe), do your homework (definitely not), step onto the field and score two goals…each game (sure thing). After all, you’re getting a full-ride athletic scholarship, right? So who really cares about school? It’s free. You’re getting paid to play the game you love for four years until you’re drafted into the pros, and then the money turns into cold-hard cash for you to spend on whatever you want. A nice convertible (red, of course) and trip to Hawaii top your list.
Then you wake up and reality hits you like a 30 mph wind gust on an already sub-zero Chicago day (been there, felt that). For some reason colleges aren’t knocking down your door, your phone isn’t ringing off the hook, and money isn’t pouring out of your mailbox. Maybe your name has been somehow been omitted from the white pages or maybe, just maybe your name is one of hundreds of thousands of wannabe collegiate soccer stars in a giant encyclopedia of white pages.
Let’s debunk the common myth of college recruitment: You’re not a star at the top of the Christmas, brightly shining for all to see (and your parents know you aren’t the angel resting on the top limb either). You’re a needle in the haystack, and you must work your way out to be discovered from beneath tangle. Soccer may be a game, and college may seem fun. Getting recruited, however, is nothing but old-fashioned hard work.
Note: This is not intended to provide extensive insight on the specifics of recruiting rules nor is it a comprehensive “how to” guide as in how to first contact a coach, write a resume, etc. This is merely expected to give a prospective student-athlete a solid foundation to grasp the bigger picture of college soccer and the processes and realities that surround the recruiting and selection process.
“Well, if getting recruited is a job, at least I get paid good money.”
You’ll get paid good money, if you’re a good student that is. The full-ride athletic scholarship stories may capture the headlines, but they are few and far in between. The NCAA limits DI men’s soccer programs to 9.9 scholarships and women receive up to 12. In DII, men’s programs are cut off at 9 and women’s scholarships are reduced to 9.9. This is the limit, the MAXIMUM. Many programs may not be fully funded. Even so, there can be upwards of 25-30 players on a DII women’s roster. The 9.9 scholarships would equate to 1/3 scholarship per player if divided equally. This is never the case, however. A standout player may have a full-ride scholarship, which leaves less for the remaining players. Most coaches allocate nearly all of their money. If hardly any seniors graduate the year before you enter, the coach will have little money in his pocket to offer to new recruits. On the other hand, numerous academic scholarships are GUARANTEED if you have a certain GPA and/or ACT/SAT score.
“Soccer is my life. I’ll choose a school based on soccer. After all, my major is pretty generic.”
Soccer is your life until you make a sharp turn to beat a defender in your season opener and it’s bye-bye ACL. Harsh? Maybe. It happens, though, and then you are stuck as a spectator, perhaps hundreds of miles from home, in a new and unfamiliar setting with no friends, food, or water. Ok, so it might not be that extreme, but injuries happen all the time, and it just takes one to wipe you out for a season or worse yet your career. Would you still want to be at that school, or did suddenly every reason why you enjoyed the university go right down the drain? Likewise, some academic programs differ drastically between two universities. Really analyze your area of academic interest. Investigate the curriculum. See what bonus features each program boasts and what sort of academic support is available. Where have former students in that field found employment? Is the program recognized by the appropriate bodies? Has it won any awards or recognitions? How many students are in that major? Do they finish in four years? Math at College X may not equal math at University Y. After all, there are different variables involved of course!
“I’m a good player. I led my high school in scoring and start for my club team. North Carolina bound baby!!”
Have you been with the US Youth National Teams, at least starred for a Regional ODP team, or guided your team into the national championships? If not, chances are you won’t be a Lady Tarheel or Indiana Hoosier on the men’s side. You could be; there are a few who are, but those players have been identified long ago for the most part. You may be very good. I don’t doubt that. But if you are the “best” player on your high school team, think of how many “best” players on their high school teams there are across the country. Using men’s soccer as an example, there are approximately 18 high school senior players for every 1 NCAA freshman roster spot. You have to be an elite player just to secure a collegiate roster spot and the most elite of the elite to land on the radar of larger DI programs. Don’t get caught up in the “I must play DI mentality.” Don’t think DI is superior to DII which is superior to DIII. Each level is best fit for certain players. That’s why they made three and distinguished between them (not to mention NAIA and junior colleges). Find what’s right for you because only 5.5% of high school seniors land a freshman roster spot and only 1.9% of all NCAA soccer players take a whiff of the professional game. College marks the end of most athletes’ careers (those fortunate enough to even make it that far). You might as well enjoy your final years.
“My friend goes/ is going to ‘University X’. I know I’m just as good as him/her. It’ll be a great fit.”
Again, different courses for different horses. Each college plays its own unique style of soccer that requires certain types of players to fill its roles. Most of all, universities have varying positional needs depending upon the year. Let’s use a goalkeeper as a comprehensible example. Assume you are a high school senior. If College X has a sophomore goalkeeper who was all-conference as a freshman and there are currently two freshman goalkeepers on the roster now, your chances don’t look good. First of all, unless you are clearly head and shoulders above the standout goalkeeper, a coach doesn’t really have a need to bring in another. Likewise, he won’t be looking to spend much money, if any, on another goalkeeper. Why would he when he could instead focus on recruiting a striker because his top two goal scorers are graduating? Therefore, the coach may have his eye on your buddy who is an attacking midfielder or a teammate who anchors the defense but have no interest in you. This is not a knock to your skill. The good news is that there are plenty of other colleges out there searching for a player in your position with your precise abilities. Go find them, connect!
“Should I add an extension so my home phone doesn’t get tied up with all of the coaches calling for me?”
I hope your grandma calls soon or else you’ll be staring at the phone for quite some time. College coaches aren’t even permitted to call you until July 1 before your senior year. By then, the recruiting process is almost over, and you should have only a handful of schools left on your radar. The point is that college coaches don’t come to you; you must go to them. They can’t read your mind. They don’t know if you are interested. There are thousands upon thousands of players across the country with nearly an identical skill level as you. You have to make yourself stand out, and the only way you can do that is by being proactive. Student-athletes have the sorely mistaking opinion that they decide to play college soccer, then boom: They make an announcement that says, “My name is John Smith, and I want to play DI soccer.” Next thing you know, 20 colleges are beating down your door waving money in your face and asking for your autograph. It doesn’t work that way. College coaches are in the driver’s seat. They have plenty of athletes coming to them. Why should they go out and find you sitting on your couch watching a movie with a bag of popcorn and a phone by your side? Getting over yourself is step number one.
Rays of hope:
Some colleges are just as desperate as you. Smaller colleges, those struggling with a new coach or coming off a dreadful season, or those that have had a depended upon recruit fall through may be hitting the panic button as well. It’s never too late to start your collegiate soccer search, and there are certainly respectable teams and opportunities to be found as the clock ticks down. This is not to say that procrastination pays; it doesn’t. Your chances will significantly dwindle with time. It’s just like if you decided you want to get married at age 40. There won’t be as many fish in the sea, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fish out there for you. Walking on is an option also but is usually viewed as a last resort unless carefully thought out and discussed with the coach beforehand.
It’s easier for a coach to play you than it is for him to pay you. Maybe the coach has allocated all of his scholarship money for the year. Then you come along. If you and the coach both feel that you’d be a valuable asset to the team, be patient and negotiate. Perhaps you can receive scholarship money the following year after the senior class departs. A word of caution for those taking this route: Unfortunately, a coach’s word often isn’t worth much. You must be confident in your abilities to prove yourself and be a contribution to the team. If you do just that, be sure to be persistent and follow up on your discussion. A coach may feel as if you’re “locked in” since you’re already enrolled and playing, and he’ll try to spend his money on bringing other players into the university and program.
Sometimes close enough is enough. Intramurals and club teams, especially at larger colleges, can be just as good as some NCAA teams. On top of that, the time and travel commitment is often significantly less. This is an especially attractive option for those whom want to get involved in many aspects of college life and for those who want/need to devote extra attention to academics (aka everyone).
Grades, grades, grades!! Your parents weren’t joking. School is important. No college will take you if your grades aren’t up to par. No university will play you if you can’t keep up on the books. In fact, excellent grades are just as valuable in setting you apart as an extra sharp shooting ability or superior speed. Put yourself in a coach’s shoes. If you have a superb GPA and can receive 50%-75% tuition on grades alone, a coach can “purchase you” for much less. It’s just like anything else in life. You become “a good deal”; you’re “on sale.” Why would he want to recruit a player of equal ability to you when that player doesn’t have good grades, and he’d have to waste $10,000+ more dollars on him or her?
Start early, invest wisely: The college recruitment process is one homework assignment you simply CANNOT put off until the last minute. Cramming does not exist; it doesn’t work. Start your sophomore year. (If you’re going to a Division I powerhouse, start earlier.) HOLD UP! Before you do anything soccer related, get and/or keep your grades up; otherwise, anything and everything else you do will be completely useless. As a general guideline, “start thinking” your sophomore year. Narrow down your potential majors. Get a general feel for what level (DI, DII, etc.) you would like to and are capable of competing at. If you have a good idea or some schools that are particularly appealing, attend the university’s summer camp and let the coach know you are interested. Your junior year is a big year. After September 1, college coaches can begin e-mailing you certain information. You need to return the favor. Narrow down your choices to 6-10 and hit those hard! Unless you have very strong contact with these coaches/there’s a definite mutual interest, you must diversify. If you are going to a major tournament, look up the coaches who are attending and e-mail any college that may appeal to you in the slightest. You never know what will emerge or where your best offer will come from. If you think you are going DI or DII, e-mail a handful of DIII and NAIA colleges just as a safety precaution. Send colleges your schedule throughout the year and follow up that they have received it, will be attending Game X, etc. Take unofficial visits to your top colleges, arrange to meet with the coach while you are there, and attend their summer camps. Starting July 1 before your senior year college coaches are generally permitted one phone call a week barring a few exceptions. You should have a very good idea of your top 3-5 schools. Schedule official visits early in your senior year. The coach should have seen you play by now, and you need to be prepared to make the most of your visit and ask the hard questions. Take a really close look at the campus, the academics, the players, and the program. Discuss scholarship money and playing time. Once you’ve made your visits and received your offers, it’s decision time. Although it will be stressful, try to take the positives out of it. Your choices are simply the rewards of your successful hard work. Weigh your options and pick what is best for YOU!
Personal touch: You don’t like to receive mail that says “Dear resident, Dear student, or To whom it may concern.” Neither do college coaches. Take the extra minute to personalize everything with the coach’s name, the school’s colors, and/or the team’s mascot. It’s a little way of showing that “you care.”
Happy camper! A coach may watch half of your game at a tournament. You may visit campus for a day. The university’s camp, however, is the perfect opportunity for a coach to see you play for a whole week and for you to get a much better feel for the campus and surroundings. Many times, the college’s players will help out at the camp, which gives you an excellent opportunity to interact with them, ask questions, and measure your ability. The coach can evaluate your play without having to worry about catching 100 players at 40 different games in two days. He can get a feel for your personality and work ethic, and you will get a better look at his coaching style and personality as well. Plus, it shows a coach that you are really interested. It’s a win-win situation for all!
Go big or go local: Essentially, if you believe you are Notre Dame bound yet you are playing in small local tournaments or with your high school team, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. There’s no problem with playing for your high school or not spending thousands of dollars on air travel and hotels for national tournaments, but then understand that you should focus more on local colleges, especially smaller ones. If you’re destined for Stanford and your club competes at the nation’s most prestigious tournaments, you stand a much better chance but your work is by no means done. Those coaches still receive so much interest that, unless you are the next Mia Hamm, you’ll have to be persistent to ensure that the coach has your schedule and plans on attending part of your game. Never assume. Telling the coach you’ll be there isn’t enough. You’ll be there, but so will 1,000 other equally-qualified players.
“Be injured and quit”: Sometimes we’re in denial. You might think you are choosing a college for the right (non-soccer) reasons, but you’re not. Say to yourself, “If I was injured…if I couldn’t play soccer again…if soccer wasn’t offered at this school…if I didn’t have an athletic scholarship…if money wasn’t an issue…would I go here?” If the answer is “yes”, you’re probably on the right track.
Don’t discount history: Has the program sported a 3-12-5 record rather consistently for the last seven seasons? If so, what makes you think “this year” is really going to be the team’s year? Sure a coach may tell you this and give you quite the convincing speech to boot, but chances are he gave the same sales pitch to the juniors and seniors on the team when he recruited them as well and nothing has changed. Better yet, has the team had this dismal record and been through four head coaches in the process? Has the present head coach switched universities every two years? Are there any seniors on the team, or throughout the years has there been a noticeable dearth of upperclassmen on the roster? History has a way of providing helpful insights and predicting future outcomes. Who the program’s coach is is usually a significant influence in a player’s decision. If the coach has a pattern of leaving jobs, would you still be happy to be in the program without him or her and not knowing who the replacement would be or if the new coach would value your skills? Maybe the same coach has been there for years, but there never seem to be many juniors or seniors on the roster for some strange reason. What goes wrong whereby none of these players care to return for multiple seasons? Does the team have a wild up and down winning/losing season pattern? Has the program been gradually improving or steadily falling? Don’t be persuaded by a coach who brags that his team beat Superstar University one time at band camp. Look back through the archives. Do your research. See what stands out.
Open your ears: What a coach says and what he doesn’t say are equally important. If a coach truly wants you, you’ll know. Recruiting is a two-way street. You have to sell yourself, but a coach has to sell his program at the same time. Sure he may “want you on the team” or take you. Most coaches would be a fool to not take something they can get for free or bottom price. You must decipher between an honest plea and a BS sales pitch. Does he sound interested, or are you the one always chasing him down? Does he mention where/when he sees you as being a contribution? Does he talk about other recruits coming in at your position? What does he talk about most often? What does he really try to sell you on? Coaches are human too. They make mistakes; you’ll be able to see through them. The more they talk and the more you listen, the quicker and clearer the truth will come into perspective.
Open your mouth: ASK QUESTIONS! How many players are you looking to bring in at my position? Have any of them committed? How much playing time do you think I’d get as a freshman? What do the girls/guys do during the off-season to keep in shape? What is your spring schedule and training like? What sort of academic support is available to athletes? What about athletic trainers? What time of day do you train? Do you require study table hours for freshman? Do athletes get preferential scheduling? Do the soccer players live together or in the same dorm? What was the team’s GPA? What are your goals for the team? Ok, so don’t ask them all without a breath, but you CANNOT be afraid to ask the hard questions. Here’s a source with additional questions that should be considered and/or asked. http://www.soccercoachingnotes.com/college/what-to-ask-about-college-soccer.html
On the clock: If you’ve planned wisely, you won’t have two hours to ask the audience and phone a friend before settling for a 50/50 and picking a college using eeny meeny miny mo. Don’t jump at the first offer. Receive feedback from all of your top-choice universities and careful evaluate your options. Write it down. Put your colleges together side by side on paper and compare and contrast. College X may be better in one regard, but University Y is stronger in another. Decide what is most important to you in a school. Go about it slowly. Eliminate one college at a time. Make a decision based upon logic, yet go with your gut. If you have a bad feeling about a college, if you went there and you just didn’t feel like it was right for you and didn’t enjoy the atmosphere, don’t go there even if that school offers you the most scholarship money. You have to attend and/or live there for four years. Your mom, dad, siblings, friends, coaches, teammates, etc. don’t have to. You can always take out student loans. College is supposed to be some of the best years of your life, and the old cliché rings true, “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Also importantly, sleep on it. If you wake up every day for a week feeling convinced that College X is the right decision, go for it, be proud of yourself, and don’t look back. It’s way too early to start the “what if” games.
Prepare for battle: Now that the mental labor has subsided, it’s time to pick up on the physical efforts. Fitness, fitness, fitness! Your first impression will be your fitness. There is no better way to catch the coach’s attention and gain immediate respect among upperclassmen than to come into pre-season as one of the fittest players. Likewise, there is no quicker way to stand out like a sore thumb and have every player discount your ability than to come into pre-season out of shape. First of all, you’ll never take the field if you can’t pass the fitness test even if you have Messi-like skills. Secondly, it shows a lot about your character. A little secret: College players are people too. What happens when/if your high school or club coach gives you an off-season fitness regimen for you to complete on your own? A good majority of the players don’t follow it. The same happens at MOST colleges. This does not mean that you can toss the fitness workbook aside. Some players are naturally more fit or gifted in speed or endurance than others. This simply means not to panic. The coach designed that specific program for a reason. If you follow it to a “T” and complete everything with the appropriate intensity, you should be fine come pre-season. Monitor your times and other measurements throughout the summer. If you are falling short, add extra workouts. Remember that college soccer is a new beginning. You enter as a nobody. All of your past accolades are erased. Nobody cares who you were, how many goals you scored in high school, etc. You have to prove yourself all over again. The college season is short. If you don’t come prepared from Day 1 of pre-season, you’ll be chasing behind all year, and a lot of benches become quite cold in November. Prepare properly and earn yourself a spot on the pitch!
The 12th Man: Enjoy!! These are likely the last years of your competitive soccer career. If you went about the recruiting process properly, this should be one of the most rewarding experiences. College soccer should be a challenge, but one you succeed in. You’ll be pushed to the next level and become a better player, but it is nothing you’ve never endured before. Throughout your soccer career, you’ve been steadily progressing to the next level. Don’t let the words “college soccer” scare you. It’s simply the next level. Sure it’s a bigger jump than you’ve probably made before, but it is absolutely nothing that a little bit of sweat and sacrifice cannot overcome. Work hard, play hard, and stop long enough to enjoy the ride!
Here are a few more resources that will be helpful in your college search:
A more detailed explanation of recruiting steps year-by-year in high school: http://www.santansoccer.com/stysa.asp?PageName=Year%20by%20Year%20College%20Search
A brief bit of everything: College soccer facts, stats, tips, terms, and myths and realities: http://www.sambasoccer.org/college/mcneish_article_1.htm
A simple outline of recruiting rules: http://www.collegesportsscholarships.com/ncaa-recruiting-rules-contact-visits.htm