PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 188 | Why Do Recruited Athletes Struggle When They Get To College?

Why do recruited athletes struggle when they get to college?

Show Notes:

In this episode, I review the three phases that high school athletes go through on their way to becoming a recruited college athlete:

Phase I: The Pursuit

Phase II: The Commitment

Phase III: The Reality

Most of the conversations about this topic focus on the hype, the Instagram "commitment" posts, and energy around an athlete's decision to play sports in college.

Unfortunately, not a lot of attention is paid to what happens when the athlete actually shows up at that Div I program and tries to make their dream come true.

At least anecdotally, I have found the number of recruited athletes who have a positive experience as a college athlete is vanishingly small.

Find out why that seems to be the case and how you might help your child avoid a similar fate.

Show Notes:

00:00:00:00 - 00:00:49:22

Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. In today's episode, I want to discuss the three primary phases that student athletes go through on their way to becoming a recruited and ultimately a committed college athlete and why it seems to be such a challenge at least anecdotally, to thread the needle when it comes to success in their sport at the next level.

00:00:49:25 - 00:01:17:11

I don't know about you, but I am privy to a lot more despair stories than fairy tale stories when it comes to high school athletes transitioning to college sports. In my practice and in my network, I'd say the ratio is about 10 to 1 despairing stories, to fairy tale stories. So let's go through these phases and see if we can identify some of the obstacles and how we might sidestep them.

00:01:17:14 - 00:01:48:21

Phase one Phase one is the decision to pursue college sports. Phase two is committing to a college, and phase three is when reality sets in. Also known as 48 hours after the Instagram post and the tweet. Let's start with phase one. The decision to pursue college sports. This decision can span anywhere between sixth and 10th grade, sometimes even earlier.

00:01:48:23 - 00:02:15:17

And because of this, it's often fraught with a lot of indecision and anxiety about the future and about the . Much of which is justified. It does seem like athletes are deciding earlier and earlier these days about their desire to play college sports, and probably for good reason. We could debate back and forth whether this trend is a good idea or not, or whether the ultimate goal is worth the sacrifice.

00:02:15:17 - 00:02:44:07

But that is a topic for a different day. In my consulting practice, I typically urge families to make this decision by about ninth grade, and I say families specifically because this is likely a family decision. The sacrifices a family will make to help a child become a recruited athlete, particularly a Division one recruited athlete, especially in a sport that offers scholarships, is not to be taken lightly.

00:02:44:09 - 00:03:18:11

Now, there's no hard and fast rule about deciding by ninth grade because there are so many differences between girls and boys. Sports, the sports themselves, the recruiting timelines, the maturity of the athletes, their development profiles and many other factors. Suffice it to say, I think ninth grade is about the time when athletes need to say out loud, I intend to become a recruited athlete in swimming, lacrosse, baseball track, whatever it might be.

00:03:18:13 - 00:03:49:22

And by the way, this goes for all competitive levels, not just Division one or scholarship schools. Division three schools and some sports have become extremely competitive and in some instances can give Division one programs a run for their money. And while this can be a tough decision to make, once it is made either way to go for it or not, it often comes as a relief because then the player and the family then has a plan.

00:03:49:25 - 00:04:13:27

If they decide not to go forward, they can start focusing on other things. If they decide to go for it, then they can put together their action plan to make this dream a reality. And obviously, a lot goes into that action plan. And I've worked with many students, including my own sons, on these very plans. Okay. That's phase one, the decision phase.

00:04:13:29 - 00:04:42:28

Let's move on to phase two of the commitment phase. The commitment phase happens about two years later when the athlete is a junior in high school, typically. And that can vary a bit based on a few factors. The sport, the recruiting conventions, the quality of the athlete, the admissions practices. Of course, we've all heard of those crazy stories of the seventh grade quarterback getting an offer to play football at X-Y-Z University.

00:04:43:01 - 00:05:06:20

Most of those stories are more hype and more PR than anything else. It's fun to talk about. It makes for a cool soundbite, but it's not very common. The reality is that by junior year in high school, a competitive athlete who is being recruited to play sports in college at the Division one level at least will often have the opportunity to commit to a school that they want to play for.

00:05:06:23 - 00:05:40:10

Hence the commitment phase. When and if an athlete gets to this point, it's probably the most fun phase for the athlete because presumably they're being called on by a bunch of college coaches and players and boosters and the like, and they're feeling good about themselves. They feel wanted, which is great at this point. So much time and effort and money has gone into this journey that it's nice when the time comes where athletes can see the fruits of their labor or at least the promise of the fruit.

00:05:40:12 - 00:06:04:13

Different sports have different conventions as to how and if and when it's appropriate for the athlete to announce their, quote unquote, commitment to a particular school. These days, Twitter and Instagram seem to be the places where athletes will announce their commitment to play at any particular college, sometimes to great fanfare and hype and conversation and debate. Sometimes not.

00:06:04:15 - 00:06:28:25

Some athletes get multiple offers from several schools, and each of those offers is often published on the social media platforms with verbiage that says something like I'm blessed to receive an offer from X, Y, Z College to play Division one football, and people can follow all of the schools interested in this particular player. Some athletes never go public with their commitment.

00:06:28:27 - 00:06:52:19

Sometimes the college puts the brakes on any public announcement unless it's on their timeline. Sometimes the athlete doesn't feel it necessary to announce to the world their intentions. There are all kinds of variables that go into how an athlete wants to represent the culmination of their journey. If you will. I have my own opinions on how this process goes down, but we'll leave that for another day.

00:06:52:21 - 00:07:18:05

What I don't want to do is to breeze over what it takes to make this final commitment decision, because it can be a tough one, not for every athlete, but for a lot of them, because there are a lot of moving pieces and personalities and priorities to manage. For example, an athlete fielding various offers if they should be so fortunate, should be thinking about several things.

00:07:18:07 - 00:07:39:16

The coaching staff. How long have they been at the school? How successful have they been? How many years are left on their contract? Are they on the bubble and maybe at risk of being fired? Have they been so successful that they may jump ship to a bigger and better opportunity if given the chance? What's their pitch? Do they sound truthful and honest and realistic?

00:07:39:18 - 00:08:03:02

What do the players think about the coach? What do other coaches think about the coach and his or her staff? Does this coach plan to make use of the transfer portal? What is their history with the portal? Have they developed other players like you? What is their coaching philosophy? What type of culture does the coach cultivate? How many players does the coach usually play?

00:08:03:05 - 00:08:28:00

A lot. Or a few. Where do they think you might play? When do they think you might play? Do they think you'll be an impact player? Do they think you may redshirt? Meaning that they don't let you play games for the whole first year so that you have an additional year of eligibility? Are you okay with that? Now, I don't want to put too much emphasis on the coach because you can't always count on that coach sticking around for another four years.

00:08:28:02 - 00:08:48:12

But the coach can have an outsize impact on your experience, both good and bad. That's not to say that you can't make the best of a bad coach, but you should be aware of the depth of influence that a coach and a coaching staff may have. Of course, all of the answers to these types of questions have to be taken with a grain of salt.

00:08:48:12 - 00:09:12:18

After all, these coaches are recruiting you, they want you to come to their school. So buyer beware. What else does an athlete have to think about the other players? How many players are on the roster? How many travel? How many get significant minutes? How many? Play your position? How old are they? Some schools these days have teams with an average age of 23 and 24.

00:09:12:21 - 00:09:37:24

How many are international players? What's the culture of the team? Do the players share your values? Do you see yourself fitting in with the team? What's the locker room like? Are the players good friends or is it a locker room full of individuals who have their headphones on 24 seven and treat the team like a job? Will you be friends with these players after graduation?

00:09:37:26 - 00:09:57:12

Do you care if the team is good or not? These are all questions that you should be considering and thinking about, particularly on a recruiting visit when you have a chance to get to know some of these other players. What about playing time? Will you ever play? When will you play freshman year. Sophomore year? Senior year. Do you care how much you play?

00:09:57:14 - 00:10:18:02

What position will you play if you never play? For any number of reasons, you're not good enough. There's a big coaching change. There are new recruits who are better than you. Maybe you get injured. Would you transfer? Would you quit? Would you stay? What about finances? Are you getting any financial compensation in the form of an athletic scholarship?

00:10:18:03 - 00:10:37:24

Is it a full scholarship? Is it a partial scholarship? Are they only paying for books? Is it a contingent scholarship? Is it guaranteed for four years or is it contingent on you playing up to expectations? Or will you pay your own way? Years one and two, with the hope of getting scholarships in year three and four with no guarantee?

00:10:38:00 - 00:11:00:05

What about an ally? Name, likeness and image opportunities? Does the amount of money that you get every year vary based on the whim of the coach? And what is your overarching goal here? Is it playing time? Is it winning a championship? Is it playing at the highest level possible? Is it setting yourself up to play overseas after graduation?

00:11:00:11 - 00:11:22:29

Is it setting yourself up for a coaching job down the road? Do you want to go pro? Do you have your sights set on the Olympics? Do you want a great education? Do you want to be networked for a job on Wall Street? Many students don't give this a second thought. They get caught up in all kinds of other factors, like the locker rooms or how much TV exposure they'll get.

00:11:23:01 - 00:11:48:03

You may remember the Duke coach, Mike Krzyzewski. He famously would ask players that he was recruiting to make this a not a four year decision, but a 40 year decision. Does this decision sound good for the here and now but not so great over the long term? Or maybe the amount of playing time you might get or not get is not as important as the longer term prospects of going to school.

00:11:48:03 - 00:12:08:27

A, over school, B, for example, maybe going to an Ivy League school would be a bit below your level and you'd rather be more challenged. But the prospect of graduating from an Ivy League school outweighs this issue. If your goal is to become a doctor and thus you'll need to take a rigorous premed course load with a lot of labs and other intense classes.

00:12:09:03 - 00:12:31:08

Does it make sense to go to a school that views academics as an afterthought and may not even allow you to major in what you want to major in? It happens all the time. It's important to get your overall goal in alignment with your decision. What about the worst case scenario? Have you thought through what you might do if things don't go as planned?

00:12:31:08 - 00:12:54:05

Because they probably won't. Let's say you're not up for the challenge physically or mentally. Maybe the level is too high, maybe the levels too low. Maybe you don't like the locker room. The coach gets fired, you get injured. The college cancels the sport because of lack of funding. Your promised scholarship gets taken away. A young recruit comes in behind you and takes all your minutes.

00:12:54:08 - 00:13:19:01

The culture becomes toxic. You can't handle the school academically. You can't major in what you want to major in. There's a sexual misconduct scandal and the team gets put on suspension for three years. These are not rare occurrences. In fact, the point of this podcast is to bring to light how common many of these scenarios are. As fun as this commitment phase may be.

00:13:19:02 - 00:13:43:12

On the surface, dropping that Instagram post that was meticulously designed by a graphic artist at just the right time, I have to wonder, after years and years of experience whether athletes are prioritizing the right things, do they care more about the likes and the comments on their commitment posts than they do about the long term consequences of this decision?

00:13:43:14 - 00:14:14:02

And this is no laughing matter. The stakes can be quite high in the world of college recruitment. It could be a matter of paying for college or not paying for college. In some cases, this could be a $500,000 swing. It could be a matter of a massive interruption in your college career due to an impulsive move. I guess my point is the commitment phase can also be a time when emotion trumps pragmatism.

00:14:14:05 - 00:14:53:27

Teenagers can be influenced greatly by a particularly engaging coach or the promise of an ally, money or the hype of a slick looking locker room or unrealistic expectations of their playing time. They need your guidance to make sure they're seeing the full picture. Let's move on to phase three. Phase three is dealing with reality. Once the commitment is made and the IG post drops and the tweet goes out, the hype will last for 20 to 48 hours and then it's over.

00:14:54:00 - 00:15:16:24

The athletes think that their big news will last for weeks and months and that they'll be able to bask in the glory of being a committed college athlete for the foreseeable future. They can't wait for the day. They can announce to the world that they've committed to ABC College. And yes, friends will be excited. The Post will garner likes and comments.

00:15:16:27 - 00:15:48:29

And then guess what? 48 hours go by and it's over. Poof! No more likes, no more comments. Everyone has moved on. It can be quite a letdown for athletes who have been dreaming about this day for many years. It's been their sole goal for many years. There has been so much riding on this one decision and the journey has been so long and often so risky that there is a catharsis When the athlete finally drops that commitment post.

00:15:49:01 - 00:16:15:24

However, this is also exactly when the hard work actually begins. This is when you find out what you're made of. Because the optics of you being a Division one athlete in college have been achieved. Check. But there's a lot more work to be done. This is not the end of the road. In fact, it's just the beginning. And in the following months and years, the pressure sometimes starts to mount.

00:16:15:26 - 00:16:42:11

And when athletes are faced with this reality, sometimes the foundation begins to crack and things start to go sideways. This happens so often that I decided to podcast about it. The hype is over. You've gotten into college. You've made it through the recruitment process. You've made your IG post and now you have to produce at the next level.

00:16:42:14 - 00:17:01:22

And that can be very challenging. Will the same coach who recruited you still be there when you arrive? Will you be redshirted? Will they have recruited someone better than you? Will you like the other players? Can you play at the level expected of you? Can you avoid injury? Can you pursue the education you want? Can you major in what you want to major in?

00:17:01:24 - 00:17:24:12

Are you being forced to live with players off campus instead of on campus housing? Are the players drinking and smoking and carousing and not taking the team seriously? Are you starting to partake in the drinking and smoking and carousing to numb your reality? Are you actually getting the money that was promised through scholarship or an ally or both?

00:17:24:14 - 00:17:45:20

Is the commitment too much? Are you homesick? Do you still love the game? Are you physically up to the task? Are you mentally up for the task? Can you handle the coach's coaching philosophy? Is it too much pressure? Is the tricked out locker room not so impressive anymore? Are you getting along with the other players? These questions go on and on and on.

00:17:45:22 - 00:18:09:24

All of these thoughts, all of these challenges come directly from athletes that I've worked with over the last few years. And if I trace back their decision making process, I can usually identify where they made a miscalculation. And oftentimes it was because they made an emotional decision and not a pragmatic decision. They didn't create a list of pros and cons.

00:18:09:26 - 00:18:36:09

They didn't imagine worst case scenarios and how they might react. They didn't go through contingency planning. They didn't seek the counsel of their parents or a trusted advisor like me who can give them unbiased advice. They weren't realistic. They believed everything they heard. They gave in to the peer pressure. They made a decision to bring closure to the stressful process, even if it was premature.

00:18:36:11 - 00:19:06:22

The reason I'm doing this podcast is because I've heard one too many stories about college sports careers gone bad. Everyone loves to talk about where so-and-so committed and how many offers so-and-so had, but nobody talks about the aftermath. What actually happens after the Instagram post, after the dust settles, when the real work begins and reality sets in? When things are not going according to plan?

00:19:06:24 - 00:19:41:13

Nobody is talking about this. Now, look there. There's not a foolproof method. You can't mitigate every risk. At some point you need to make a call and you may not be right. My son made a risky call deciding to go to the Naval Academy to play water polo. That was a gutsy call. It's a big commitment with a lot of extracurricular activities that most 18 year olds are not up for, not the least of which is a five year commitment to the Navy after you graduate.

00:19:41:16 - 00:20:06:25

He's in the middle of Cleaves Summer as we speak, and it probably sucks. It's 90 degrees and humid in Annapolis, and he's running around in a uniform with a shaved head. For all I know, he could quit tomorrow and decide it's not for him. Every decision is risky, especially at these high level, highly selective programs. But his other choices were just as risky.

00:20:06:27 - 00:20:34:18

Harvard, Stanford, UCLA. Going to Harvard may have been very challenging academically. Who knows whether he would have fit into that academic environment. He may have really struggled. We don't know. Committing to Stanford or UCLA would have also been risky. Those schools recruit the best players in the world every year. They get 23 and 24 year olds from Serbia and Spain and Montenegro.

00:20:34:21 - 00:20:57:11

Yes. If he had his sights set on the Olympics, Stanford and UCLA would have probably been the better options. But the odds of that coming true are vanishingly small. And so we discussed these options for weeks and tried to play out the pros and cons of each program. In the end, it came down to this What is the long term goal?

00:20:57:13 - 00:21:19:06

Do you aspire to be a private equity master of the universe? Then go to Harvard. Do you want a chance at the Olympics? Go to UCLA or Stanford? Do you want a shot at becoming a Navy SEAL? Go to the Naval Academy. Every one of these options was fraught with risk, and at the end of the day, the athlete has to make the call.

00:21:19:09 - 00:21:42:14

And who knows what will happen with my son at the Naval Academy? Hopefully they'll get through it. We'll check back in five years from now and see how he's doing. My point is that there is most likely no such thing as the perfect decision one without risk. Nevertheless, you should think long and hard about your options. Weigh them out, stress, test them.

00:21:42:16 - 00:22:07:22

Get a second opinion. Don't panic. Don't shortcut the process because you're so eager to drop that Instagram post or that tweet. Remember, the glow from your post will last 48 hours maybe, and then you're left with the consequences. Everybody else goes on their merry way. Well, it's not the end of the world. If things don't work out in your first year of college.

00:22:07:22 - 00:22:32:26

It happens a lot. Certainly not ideal. With the transfer portal, you may find another place to land, but a move like that is not without cost. It can be very disruptive to change schools after a year or two, and you should do so with great caution. The moral of the story here is this When you are thinking about where to commit, try to solve for overall fit.

00:22:32:29 - 00:22:59:12

Try not to get laser focused on one particular facet of the experience the coach, the facilities, the league, the finances, the players, the level of play, the geography. These can all be a part of the decision, but try to rely less on emotion and more on pragmatism. If you get into the enviable position of having a lot of choices, take the decision process seriously.

00:22:59:14 - 00:23:29:04

Do your due diligence, ask around, list the pros and cons and make the call. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for the continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me. Or I break down important topics like this one and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships.

00:23:29:06 - 00:23:58:20

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00:23:58:23 - 00:24:18:06

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00:24:18:13 - 00:25:02:00

Connect with me on LinkedIn. I'd love to hear from you. Until next week, goodbye. Good luck and never stop preparing.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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