By BARBARA ESTEVES-MOORE
It’s athlete signing season. That means we’re seeing photos of athletes at tables signing agreements to play various sports at various colleges around the country. But what those pictures don’t tell you is what exactly those students are receiving.
Roughly one to two percent of high school athletes earn athletic scholarships to college. However, a much higher percentage of parents of high school athletes believe their child can earn an athletic scholarship to college. The statistics are stark and not promising. Nevertheless, parents of many high school athletes aim for that elusive college athletic scholarship, and, as a result, so do their children.
My daughter is a competitive eventer – an equestrian three phase sport that involves stadium jumping, dressage and cross country. She has been riding since she was about 5, but now that she is in high school it seems like anyone I get into a conversation about college with asks me, “Do you think she’ll get a scholarship for riding?”
I used to raise my eyebrows and say, “I don’t know, maybe? It would be nice.” But now I just flat out say, “No.” It has nothing to do with what I think of my daughter’s riding abilities (which I am in awe of, by the way), it is just that those scholarships are so rare. I do not have any expectations.
Mack Chuilli, founder and CEO of Traction Sports Performance in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, trains athletes from the casual to the professional – including many athletes preparing for things like the NFL combine and Major League Baseball’s coming season. This summer, he had the U.S. Women’s Soccer team training in his facility. He has seen it all when it comes to athletes trying to reach the big time and he’s seen how their parents can get things a little wrong.
“The parents are way nuttier these days about sports than they ever where when we were as kids,” he said. “This whole industry that I am in established over the last 20 years or so … as athletes got bigger, stronger, faster. Athletics has become so big from a financial stand-point, every parent wants kids to have a chance to get that scholarship. The amount of money being invested in kids and what they are doing at a young age to help them achieve that has changed drastically.”
Should parents give up the dreams of their children being the star athlete and getting a free ride to college? The answer, like most things, depends.
“Parents look at it like this: if I invest $20,000 in my kid throughout high school, it’s going to save me $80,000 in college tuition. They really look at it as an investment,” Chuilli said. “But 1% of high school athletes get a scholarship to college. So, for 99% of those people, there investment doesn’t work out.”
Diane Connolly, founder and owner of College Well Planned, said the statistics are true, especially when it comes to that full ride.
“I think the word is getting out, and parents — and children — are starting to become more realistic about college athletics and the limited possibility of a scholarship,” said Connolly, who is also the mother of a D1 college athlete herself. “Very few sports are fully or even generously funded, and the impressive money is limited to the big moneymakers in D1 — in most cases, football and basketball. Parents need to do some reading on how college sports works — the idea of full-ride scholarships are incredibly rare. And those impressive signing ceremonies that teams hold to welcome their new athletes add to the mystique and the myth. Very few of those signees is getting more than a few thousand dollars — at most. Some might be getting enough to cover their books, for one year.”
Because he has successfully trained athletes at the highest levels, parents go to Mack and his staff at Traction aiming for those scholarships despite the odds.
“What we say when we say ‘crazy parents,’ which we deal with all the time, is they don’t see what everybody else sees,” Mack said. “A professional will tell a dad, ‘Hey, it would be smarter for you to take your kid to train twice a week than have him do pitching lessons, but they don’t listen to the professionals.”
Parents continue to invest money in young athletes in hopes of the dream coming true. But what if your child is in fact that 1-2%? What if your child is a truly gifted athlete? How do you help your child hone his or her skill without overkill and without unrealistic expectations as far as college funding?
“You can see something special at a very young age,” Chuilli said of gifted athletes destined for the pros. “A lot of time you can see a kid that’s 12 years old that’s special. And really at that point, it’s almost the opposite of what you would think. People think, oh, he’s really special, he needs to ramp it up. Whereas, what I would say he’s really special he needs to scale it back. It’s kind of one of those things when coaches see talent or parents see talent, they feel like they have to push, push, push. Where, in reality, the kid is naturally gifted. If you just keep him focused and make sure he’s prepared you don’t have to push the envelope to where now you’re starting to push more of a risk or adding more risk to maybe ruining this kid’s career.”
Connolly’s advice was similar.
“For those top athletes in very visible sports, the recruiters will find you,” she said, adding that it is a different story, however, for a student athlete in lower-profile sports, or those wanting to play for an Ivy League or D3 program. Connolly’s stepson, Brendan, played basketball for Princeton University from 2009-2013.
“Those students need to be very pro-active. They won’t be getting scholarship money, per se, but they could gain admission to a school that would offer a wonderful balance of academics and sports,” she said. “For example, Ivy League schools often admit less than 10% of their applicants, but athletes offer a ‘hook’ that can certainly increase their chance of admission. The U.S. military academies deliver a stellar education, completely free of charge, but odds of admission are very low — unless you are a desirable athlete.
“Bring great grades, good test scores, and strong athletic skills and you can find many, many programs that would be excellent fits,” she said. “But remember that being an athlete is not easy, and college for an athlete is a very different experience.”
So, if you’re still determined to get that athletic scholarship, what is the best way to go after an athletic scholarship? And does academics matter at all?
“I always counsel athletes that they need to get an early start — sophomore year is not too soon. They also need to pull in the resources of their coaches — both school and travel team coaches. If no such coaches exist, then the student is not a college-caliber athlete,” Connolly said.
“For D1 and D2 sports, academics do matter, as scores and GPA will need to meet minimum NCAA requirements. Attracting the attention of coaches is always easier if you bring a strong transcript and test scores. A strong candidate is an easy sell to the Admissions Office, and the coach can save her begging and favors for the ‘rockstar athlete’ with the 17 ACT.”
Connolly said the biggest message she would like to get across to parents and athletes is that sports in college can be great fun and a wonderful way to immediately feel a part of the campus and find good friends for life. But, be careful.
“The memories are priceless. But unless you are receiving substantial funds for college — and very, very few athletes are — be careful,” she said. “Choose a college that you would still want to attend even if your life turned upside down and you had to quit athletics. A sports injury the summer before college can happen and it can change everything. The college coach you loved as a high school junior could be fired and replaced by someone with a brand-new vision for you — the bench. You might be the hottest recruit in town, and in Year 2, you’re suddenly eclipsed by the new kid. And your scholarship — whatever it was — disappears.”
Chuilli has similar warnings, especially about injuries. He encourages his top-tier athletes to maintain a healthy balance with their training and to not over train and risk injuries that could end a career before it ever gets started.
“Choose a college that you would love even if you weren’t playing sports there,” Connolly said. “The rewards of college sports are many but cashing in on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is highly unlikely.”
A few more points for parents of aspiring college athletes from Connolly:
- Students will absolutely need to do most of the work themselves, which means parents need to take a backseat.
- The student should prepare a sports resume and a cover email, then send that off to every program that sounds interesting. Programs in Maine or Massachusetts won’t know that a student in the Southeast is serious about moving north, unless the student reaches out and says so. Find the direct contact info for the coach on the college team website and then reach out personally. Fill out interest forms online, offer to send a highlights video and then follow up and send it (from the student’s email, not the parents; see first bullet item!)
“I remember one college coach who contacted me as a high school counselor. She asked me very nicely but very firmly to please tell an over-zealous parent to back off,” Connolly said. “’If this mother keeps emailing me,’ the coach said, ‘It’s going to affect her child’s chances of acceptance, and definitely not in a good way.’”
Barbara Esteves-Moore is a journalist, editor and the owner of Two Roads Communications. She has been married for 20 years and is the mother of an active, opinionated and very lively 16-year-old. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.