Guiding the 98%: Counseling Non-Scholarship Athletes

By Brennan Barnard

There is a mantra in the long-distance running community—“drink early and often.” Marathon running requires equal parts stamina and strategy, ample foresight and planning.

So does the athletic recruiting process.

A great deal of media attention is given to Division I athletics, with hype around early commitment, signing ceremonies, and full-ride scholarships.

But what about the majority of college athletes—those who don’t anticipate huge scholarships and national attention? They need to “drink early and often” too.

Collegiate athletics can be extremely rewarding, allowing students to continue something they love, while also creating connection, camaraderie and opportunity, honing character through rigor and adversity.

But all too often, it can also be misleading, complicated, and restrictive—forcing young people to narrow their college search.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), colleges and universities offer over $2.7 billion in scholarships each year. However, only about 2 percent of all high school athletes can expect to be awarded any money to play sports in college.

As admission and counseling professionals who work with the remaining 98 percent, it’s our job to help aspiring college athletes understand the ins and outs of applying to college as athletes.

Passion or Pattern
As with every aspect of the college search and application experience, students must start by articulating their reasons to pursue recruitment and competitive athletics in college.

Pure love of the game? The camaraderie and connection of a team? Admission to a more selective college?

If students aren’t clear about why they are pursuing this avenue, they risk losing ownership of their decisions and outcomes.

Some students—immersed in a sport as long as they can remember—don’t know any different. They need to pause and make sure they don’t get swept up in the influences of recruitment.

High school and club coaches have a vested interest in their athletes’ achievements, and college coaches and admission officers are concerned with fielding strong teams with quality applicants—after all, this is their livelihood. They may not pause either—unless the counselor or student asks for an honest assessment.

Andy Strickler, dean of admission at Connecticut College, advises students to get an objective opinion. “Someone needs to be honest with the student about their ability level. Too many student-athletes have an inflated sense of athletic ability and when they realize they are not the star player they once thought, we may have a retention issue,” he said.

In college admission counseling we explore what experiences a student hopes to have beyond high school. We take into account their abilities, then we help them build a list.

Athletic recruitment is no different.

Search Smart
Student athletes and their families always want to know when they should start the recruitment process. As with most guidance in college admission, the answer is “it depends.”

While the NCAA has clear guidelines for coaches and athletes about when communication is permitted, there are certainly creative workarounds that enable recruitment to begin as early as ninth grade for some sports.

Despite increasing resistance to this timeline for student athletes, the reality remains that they must maintain an earlier focus on college than the average student. A NCAA survey found that a quarter of all Division III college athletes were walk-ons. And another 9 percent report being recruited after enrolling.

This means that almost two-thirds were recruited in high school.

Conventional wisdom is that students should consider the beginning stages of this process as early as ninth grade. Athletes must be sure that they have their high school courses mapped out to meet eligibility requirements and have a plan to attend summer camps and athletic showcases to gain exposure to college coaches.

As with other areas of college admission, there is no shortage of “experts”—websites and other outfits who are happy to take a family’s money with the promise of college recruitment.

While some students find agencies useful in managing the process, there are a host of free resources for the college-bound athlete. The NCAA provides a variety of helpful tools to aid students as they navigate recruitment.

Many sports organizations also offer recruiting information. Art McCann, dean of college counseling at Crossroads School (CA), said students can and should take ownership of this process.

“Research athletic conferences. Conferences are made up of like-minded institutions. This helps you find more schools. Then research the rosters and the players. Ask: How big and tall are they? Google the athletes to learn what accolades they received in high school. Are you earning similar accolades? Weak win-loss records could indicate a better opportunity to make a roster and/or receive playing time, but how much school culture and or selectivity/prestige are you willing to sacrifice to make the roster?” McCann advised.

Carey Thompson, vice president for enrollment and communications at Rhodes College (TN), said students need to get out there and investigate. He suggested, “Be proactive. Don’t wait to be recruited. Recruit yourself by reaching out to coaches early and often. Talk to the coach about the sport. Talk to admission about admission.”

The most effective resources are coaches and counselors, and success is found when the lines of communication are fluid and consistent.

Recruiting Realities
According to the NCAA, out of the nearly 8 million high school athletes, only 6 percent (nearly half a million) will compete in NCAA sports in college.

Of those collegiate athletes, it is predicted that 2 percent will go on to play professional sports.
So for the typical student, college should mean more wins off the field than on it.

Make sure students understand the realities of their path. Those distracted by the strength of a team or recruitment offers may neglect to conduct a comprehensive college search.

Strickler warned, “Don’t let your college search get hijacked by a coach. Too many students end up looking at a particular college because they are being recruited to play a certain sport by a coach. A lot of times, that can steer an applicant to the wrong place athletically, geographically, financially, socially, or otherwise.”

Students may not feel like they’ll ever change plans, but remind them that life is unpredictable, so it’s best to have a Plan B… and maybe Plans C and D.

Rhody Davis, director of college counseling at Viewpoint School (CA), said getting students to consider other criteria is essential to their success. “Encourage students to have a host of options and to develop an alternate list that doesn’t take the sport into consideration,” he said.

And sometimes, plans are changed for them.

Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University (CA), said students need to consider the worst-case scenario. “Don’t forget the ‘what if you blow out a knee’ test. Is your college choice still the place you would want to wake up for four years if you couldn’t play anymore?” he asked.

Recruited athletes often note that the most valuable resources are former teammates or classmates who have weathered the process. They recommend connecting with others online.

Athletic participation can be an important part of a student’s college experience and the best guidance educators can offer scholar-athletes is that of managed expectations and setting clear and realistic goals. We are here to help young people courageously start, but dream smart.

Summer reading for you and your student athletes:
Understanding Athletic Recruiting by Jeffrey Durso-Finley and Lewis Stival
The Game of Life by James Shulman and William Bowen
Reclaiming the Game by William Bowen and Sarah Levin
Game On by Tom Farrey
Playing the Game by Chris Lincoln
The Winning Edge by Frances and James Killpatrick

Brennan Barnard is director of college counseling at The Derryfield School (NH) and a NACAC member.

Expand / Collapse All