Like a lot of people in the soccer world, I read and was a little taken aback by an article in the NY Times this week speaking about 9th grade female soccer players committing to colleges. This is the article here. There was another less talked about article that I felt was just as applicable to the discussion that I will also touch on about coaches who bully that was also featured in the NY Times that can be found here.
So now that you’ve done your homework, read the articles and have an idea of what I’m talking about (or maybe you’ll take the approach I used too many times in college, where I didn’t do the reading but just nodded enthusiastically when the teacher was talking about the material, and then quickly skimmed the book for the names of the characters when my classmates were talking…but I digress.)
So, back to girls barely hitting puberty deciding where they are going to spend 4 years from when they turn 18 years old.
I have two perspectives to offer; one from my own experience, and another from the standpoint that I now have as I am involved as one of the directors of a program leading a special group of 15 and 16 year old girls who have similar aspirations to play in college as I had.
My college recruiting experience was a bit different since I was from Canada and it was back in the 1950’s when I was going through the process (ok, it was the 90’s, but for all my friends cracking the grandma jokes out there, that one was for you). I went through the process in primarily my last year of high school, was able to take 4 paid official recruiting trips, and engaged at the process in the ideal way in which it was created.
My Recruiting Experience:
When I was going into my junior year of high school, my Provincial Team took a trip to New York and Boston for 2 tournaments. This was a big deal to us, because the only big time tournament we attended back in those days was the Nike Tournament in Portland. And don’t get me wrong, the Portland tournament, for a bunch of kids from Vancouver, was the definition of exotic, with our limited exposure to the world, so getting to go to New York and Boston to play, hit a whole new stratosphere of exciting and cool. Despite having 3 players that eventually played at the national team level, and many more than went on to be very successful college players in both the US and Canada, there were no college scouts at our games or tournaments, and we played happily and ignorantly until our senior year of high school.
That being said, on that trip going into our junior year, we took a trip to Dartmouth to take a tour of the campus and play a scrimmage against whatever girls they had around that summer, and that was the place where the lightbulb went off in my head that playing in the US was a possibility. But with at the time, maybe 5 people ever from my province had gone to the US for university, and I had no idea the process. I just knew that I wanted to be the best player I could be, and the US and its resources at the college level sounded like a heavenly kingdom. At least as I looked around the picturesque campus of Dartmouth in Hanover, NH, I set it in my mind that I would find a way to go to the US, even though I had no idea even where to start.
I came back from the trip, and my Dad whose enthusiasm matched our mutual lack of knowledge in the process started taking books out of the library about the US university and sports system, and in the end, we sent letters off to over 100 schools, really having little idea what we were doing.
Karina Leblanc, now of Canadian National Team, and NWSL fame, and one of my best friends on my team, would come over and we’d sit on my dial up internet, and wait for 10 minutes while the web pages of various schools would download and daydream about how great it would be to go to the same university.
There was no pressure in playing, and I have the most incredibly happy memories of that time. The pressure of college coaches coming to our games, and the up and down of the recruiting ride only started for my group of friends our senior year, when coaches started to hear about and watch our team tucked in the western corner of Canada. We were 16 and 17 and even then I remember it being a lot to handle on top of trying to do well in school, the other 5 sports I was playing, and getting to see my friends every now and then as well.
Things that standout to me in that blur of a senior year, were a) taking 4 recruiting trips to UCF, Yale, Marquette and Seton Hall and feeling like a rockstar jetting around North America. b) A WCC coach talking to some of us on my club team, showing us a picture of a girl on his team who resembled a WWF contestant and telling us that if we wanted to play in the NCAA we had to be “strong” (I promptly examined my chicken legs and thought this was going to be a long shot if that was the case) c) A SEC coach, coming to watch my teammates and I play and telling 4 of us, he’d be coming to our house to make offers that night. That night ended with me being the only one who didn’t get a visit and not the courtesy of a call to tell me this, and at midnight on the phone to my club coach hysterically crying when I realized I had been stood up. I felt as rejected as I’d imagine a girl seeing her friends getting roses from the boys they liked, while I had had my house egged. d) getting taken to see a psychic on one of my recruiting trips with the girls on the team that I was with, asking her if I should go to that school and the psychic saying no.
Needless to say, there were a lot of great stories through the process, and for me, I picked the school with the coach I was most comfortable with, who I felt shared a similar passion of the game to me, and who I felt was a loyal friend through a very fickle process. Plus, academically Yale seemed like a decent choice, although I liked the coach so much I always joked that I would have gone to Middle of Nowhere State University if he had been there. I ultimately committed April of my senior year.
But as the New York Times article has shown. Times have changed.
My Experience w/ the Current State of Recruiting
I help direct a program called girlsCAN Football, which is directed by females who have played in college and professionally, who have gone through the whole process ourselves.
We take a different approach to what is out there; our focus is not on going to the “right” showcases or playing in the “right” leagues. We have the girls training 4 times a week through the year, exposing them to the best people in the game that we’ve gotten to know ourselves as top players, and our main goal is to fuel a passion and professionalism in them as people and players that ultimately will lead to a good outcome and with a great foundation of values that will serve them well in life.
But that being said, I have a couple of examples of this outcome-driven madness through my experience running our program in Connecticut.
1. First situation: This is where I felt the bullying in coaching article, the second NY Times article that I mentioned above was applicable. I had a parent email me a couple of years ago, because there was a verbally abusive coach that her eighth grade daughter was playing for. The mom wrote me, telling me how he had called her daughter “Fu&^ing stupid”, and where she had come from the summer in our program, loving the game, had gone into this other program and her daughter, getting verbally berated in practices and games had started hating the game. This kid as a side note was a kid I loved to be around, purely because of her positive attitude and enthusiasm for the game.
The mom was writing me because she didn’t know what to do, and that she felt she had no choice but to keep her daughter at this club with this coach, because so-and-so’s Mom said that if her daughter wanted a chance to go to college, that was the only option. The Mom was torn.
My recommendation to this mom, was that I didn’t care if these coaches were the Pope that was going to lead your daughter to heaven, her self-esteem, and self-worth first and foremost are what is most important, and who cares about college in light of that. Secondly, I told her that the most important thing for her daughter was to be in an environment where her love of the game could be fostered, because if she was hating the game in eighth grade, there was no way she’d be in a position to be successful at it by the time she was a senior. I told her that if her daughter continued to put in significant time as a player, she would get to a point where it wouldn’t matter if she was at the “right” club. She’d get the chance to play in college.
Ultimately the Mom made the decision to pull her daughter from that club, and she is currently thriving. But to me, it really hammered home, just the culture of the current youth sporting world that manifests fear that very wonderful, sane parents have in leaving their daughter in abusive situations because they feel that they will be missing an opportunity if they don’t. As much as I love soccer, if you have to be miserable to participate, and your self-esteem and confidence is in jeopardy, it’s not worth it. But that’s just me.
Second situation: I received an email last summer from a parent whose talented daughter was considering the program, and who expressed worry that the roster wouldn’t be good enough for his daughter, and the fact that we had pulled our players from a league altogether would hurt her chances to get recruited including the fact that we may not get into the “best” tournaments.
Perhaps being in a bad mood that day, I was extremely blunt in my response. First of all, I took offense to the assertion that his daughter was superior to the other players we were considering for our program. It is clear to me at every level, that every player is replaceable. And the second that you see yourself or tell a 15 year old that they are better than everyone else, you are doing a disservice to them. Humility is a key component to success in my opinion and what drives a work ethic that is necessary to succeed.
And then I started to hammer out some statistics that I felt were relevant, and something that I recommend all parents enveloped in the rat race to start to look at. At least in Connecticut, there was one player from the recruiting statistics that I could see who was a current commit to a school as a sophomore. She had youth national team experience, which seems to be the golden ticket into the madness that is early commitments to colleges. Other than that there were no other sophomores committed, and enough juniors to count on one hand. His daughter was going into her sophomore year, so I told him even if the year was a total wash, she wouldn’t be any farther behind anyone else. Secondly, I told him to look at where all the players from Connecticut were going to school. Around 85% of them were staying in-state.
Therefore this, in my opinion, it rendered this idea of needing to fly all over the US or play in exotic leagues useless. His daughter was a very talented high school player, and it would be easy and a heck of a lot cheaper for his family to just message coaches in the state to come and take a look for her. I told him that our focus would be on training and creating an environment for the girls to be challenged in the game and for the players and parents to be educated in the process, and we’d love to have her daughter join the program, but if he thought something would be better suited for his family, we’d be completely supportive.
I was very impressed when he wrote me a couple of weeks later and thanked me for putting him in his place. But, as I told him, I could see that the whole environment could make even the best intentioned parents go a little loopy.
A Few Final Thoughts
As I have delved into elite youth soccer at the high school level, I feel like I have had a bit of a glimpse into the madness that plays a role in the 9th graders getting recruited.
To me, I feel that it is a crazy rat race, where parents and kids are running like hamsters in a wheel, with no idea what they are doing, where they are going, or what the purpose of all of it is. It is a process driven by fear, both by clubs, colleges and fueled by the parents themselves devoid of a realistic look at statistics or any kind of strategizing. It’s like our own Pamplona in America, and the victims in the process are the young, impressionable female soccer players that are jumping from club to club, or sometimes sitting in situations that in another context would be defined as flat out abusive, all in the name of the hallowed college scholarship.
But the saddest part for me in all of this, is that for the players, their soccer experience turns into something that is driven by the outcome. It takes the joy and focus out of the process, as success is measured by something out of their control, and their worth is defined by people outside of themselves. I can’t help but think that the recruiting process is like a giant beauty pageant, with sweaty fifteen year olds in ponytails feeling as self-conscious of girls after the evening gown competition, waiting for their score to have someone else to define if they are “good enough.”
The focus in this part of the process is the opposite to me of a system that encourages the players to throw all of their effort and energy into learning to love the game, wanting to play the game, and having the outcome of college soccer being a by-product of a process that they truly enjoy and invest in. And no player no matter how talented, is going to have success, unless they have the passion and desire to put the time in to become better. Because in the end the player that succeeds in the long run, will be the one who is outside with the ball the most, who watches the most games on TV, who invests in their physical and mental growth as a player. There truly are no short cuts, no magic secret to success and hard work can overcome a lot of disadvantages in the process that money for trainers or the “right” club or natural physical attributes may give a short term advantage to.
So in closing, my advice to parents that are in the rat race: the most important thing is your daughter’s health and happiness. No club, or college scholarship or anything is more important than that. The recipe for success in the game and to get that college scholarship is simple: if she puts the most time in, if she works hard in the classroom and on the field, and is diligent in the process, she will find an opportunity. Building a daughter up who is in love with the process of becoming a better person and player should be the environment that you seek, nothing else.
Success is bred from happiness, passion and love, and opportunities if they are meant to be, will always be there, no matter the timeline that you choose to take.