Playing in college only proves that someone has successfully passed a series of tests.

     With my background, which includes experience as both a collegiate head and assistant coach, I am asked all the time about playing soccer in college.  Players, parents and coaches alike ask me all the time about what it’s like, what they need to do in order to play in college, about the recruiting process, about scholarships, about pretty much anything and everything there is to do with college soccer.  I definitely don’t mind fielding these questions.  In fact I encourage them and will always have an open ear for those who want to know. This time of the year, with most collegiate players either having already reported for camp or will be doing so in the near future, these inquiries have picked up in quantity recently.  So, I guess it’s about time we talk about the ever-famous topic of “college soccer.”  Many of you (parents and coaches) have been wringing your hands while you have worked through the whole college selection process and have not really gotten anywhere in helping your little cherubs.  Some people have lost their minds about college soccer.  College is important, so important that I’ve explained to my kids that if they don’t go to college, we will hire people to do mean things to them until they go.  Seriously, a solid education to begin your adult life and your career will add to the quality of both. I also attended and graduated from college; go figure.

Understand the Purpose of Playing College Soccer Before You Commit to it  

     Before we go any further, I should point out that this blog entry is not going to approach the subject of college soccer from an angle that you may expect.  Some of the things I say may be controversial and you may or may not agree with them.  I don’t care. There is plenty of information available out there on the whole college recruitment process.  I have decided to approach it from a completely different direction.

     I have done college counseling for parents whom I was afraid would need years of therapy if their children didn’t play at the most prestigious school, free for the taking.  One thing I am sure about as we start this discussion is the need to examine our football-culture’s value system on the college issue.  We have sold our young players so hard and so long on college athletics that we have begun to accept some myths about playing in college.  Playing in college does not ensure jobs…or a professional career.  College playing experience certainly doesn’t ensure success.  Being a collegiate athlete does not ensure wealth.  Playing in college only proves that someone has successfully passed a series of tests.  We all know former college-athletes that are broke and unemployed.  They are very disillusioned because they thought they had bought a ticket and yet were denied a seat on the train to success.

     If you are a parent sending your kids to college to play soccer because you want them to play professionally or be guaranteed a job or success or wealth, you will be dramatically let down.  In some cases, the letdown won’t take long because as soon as they play their final college match and graduate they will move back in with you.  Hear me on this – from a former college coach who would coach at that level againcollege soccer is great, but don’t expect too much from your college-playing career.  What if we were to admit that, in most cases, college soccer can only teach knowledge?  If we did, we’d see that failure and heartache are guaranteed–if we expect a college playing career by itself to deliver life’s treasures.  Only if you mix knowledge with attitude, character, perseverance, vision, diligence and extreme levels of work will your college playing career produce for you. We have placed a dangerous responsibility on that thin little sheepskin we call a ”Letter of Intent.  We have asked that it do things it cannot do.

     Because we have turned a college-playing career into some kind of “genie in a bottle” formula to help us magically win at life, we go to amazingly stupid extremes to play in college.  I played four years in college, was named an All-American, set records that still stand, have been inducted into a Hall-of-Fame and even extended my playing career two years into the semi-professional ranks. I attribute 15 percent of that to knowledge I gained from playing in college and 0 [ZERO] percent to the actual act of playing in college itself.  The book Emotional Intelligence reported a similar finding.   In studying successful people, the author discovered that 15 percent of success could be attributed to training and education, while 85 percent was attributed to attitude, perseverance, diligence and vision.  If we admit out loud that playing soccer in college is for education, which is only part of the formula for success, then we don’t have to lose our minds in pursuit of the Holy Grail Collegiate Career.

     What about those lifelong friends your children will make playing college soccer that can “help” them when they graduate?  Let me ask you: have you made any extra money because of friendships you made in college?  Have you been able to better supply for your family because of any of your college teammates?  I’m not saying friendships don’t matter, or even that college teammates won’t ever help you in your career; however, if the price for those kinds of friendships comes in the form of a year-long and multiple year commitment that you may or may not really want to make, it’s way too high.  Besides, you can build quality relationships for the future no matter whether you play soccer in college or not.

     We need this foundation of why we want our kids to play college soccer in order to set goals for school.  In other words, if you don’t expect quite as much from playing collegiate soccer, maybe you won’t break all the branches in your family tree trying to get your kids ready for that level, when they may not really want it.  Again, college soccer is a big deal – a very big deal – but it is not the answer to all of your kid’s problems.  I will be even bolder as to say that a collegiate playing career isn’t even a need; it is a want.  It isn’t necessary; it is a luxury. If my child was good enough, this luxury would be one of the first on my list, but not if my child didn’t really want it, not unless my child understood what it was all about and certainly not if my child just didn’t get it (even if I did).

My Rules for Playing College Soccer  

     Do some research on how the college recruitment process works – REAL research – not just asking broad, random questions on an Internet message-board?  Find out what the overall cost of the school is per year.  Make sure all “possible” fees and extra costs are added into it.  I coached at a school, which had “No Out-of-State Tuition.” However, unless I brought them up to potential student-athletes or they discovered them on their own, there were many little “hidden” costs that when added up, negated the “No Out-of-State Tuition.”

     Find out what the program’s philosophy is pertaining to academic and athletic conflicts.  What happens when a class you need or even want to take conflicts with soccer? Don’t just take the coaches word for it, ask the players.  Be sure to ask multiple players and at different times.  Try to isolate the players in small one-on-one environments, so you can get the TRUE answer from them.  Too many times players are old what to say and some are even given ‘scripts’ on how to answer certain questions.  Be sure you dig until you find out theREAL answer to your question – or any question that you have. 

     You see, when it all comes down to it, a large part of a college coaches’ job is to “sell” their program.  Even though, I refused to do so and was always as transparent as possible with recruits and their families, I’m confident enough in my ability to ‘sell’ that I know I could sit down with a family for 45 minutes, spin a web of truth and ‘half-truths' and have them wanting to 'pay me' to come to my school and play for my program. 

     I’m not the only coach who could sell you in one sitting. I wasn’t the first.  I wasn’t the best at it and I won’t be the last.  However, let me privy you to a little secret: the more time you spend with a person the harder it becomes for them to hide behind a mask – or the more the ‘real’ truth comes out.  That’s why I would always expose any potential student-athletes to as many different players in the program as possible. I would also break-up the time they spent with me.  Instead of meeting with me just once for a solid block of time, I would have them return two or even three times to continue our conversations.  The more players they are exposed to, the higher their odds of getting a ‘real’ answer to questions or a ‘real’ feel for things.  The more they interact with me, the harder it would be for me to ‘put on the salesman hat and sell them exactly what they want to hear.  It’s not that I ever tried to manipulate things in the recruiting process (I refused to do take part in that unethical practice, even when it costs me a talented recruit), but I know coaches who did, do and will and I so disagreed with this tactic that this was my way of opening-up the program and being as transparent as possible.

     If you are ever in a situation where you have limited interaction with only a few specific players and/or limited time with the coach, then run, run, run far away and don’t look back.  If a coach doesn’t have more than 30-45 minutes for you during the recruiting process, when they supposedly “want” you, how much time do you think they’ll have for you once you’re already at the school and they “have” you?  In the same context, do you really want to play for a coach who is “afraid” to open-up and be transparent during the recruiting process?  What are they hiding?  Inadequacies? Problems? You wouldn’t buy a car with an opaque (or even translucent) windshield, so why choose a college soccer program with one?

     Bigger isn’t always better.  Case in point: Duke University has one of the top Men’s and Women’s College Soccer Programs in the United States, yet they only have 6,526 undergraduate students.  In comparison, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), who also boast two of the top college soccer programs in the nation, has almost triple the number of undergraduate students (18, 579).  Here’s another example from the opposite coast of the United States; Santa Clara University, another dual threat in college soccer, only has 5,107 undergraduate students.  Compare them to the University of California at Los Angeles(UCLA) who are also soccer powers in both genders, but have five-times as many students as Santa Clara (26,139).  As is the case when playing the game, so is the case in the recruiting process – bigger isn’t always better…and…sometimes, the little bird gets the worm.

     I could go on and on with so many different positives, negatives, pros, cons, things to look for and lookout for within this whole process…and…one day, maybe I will.  However, this is not the place for that entailed depth.

     Find out what the school offers as academic courses of study – AND –be sure they have offer what YOU actually want to study.  Don’t be swayed away from that by promises of glory, reputation, prestige, etc…  You see, in some areas of study and in very few careers, where you graduate from will matter, but in most it won’t.  Pedigree means less and less in our work culture today.  How can you honestly justify spending $75,000 over the course of 10-12 years paying for your child’s training and football development to chase the dream of that ever-elusive “soccer scholarship” and the chance to play at the highest collegiate-level possible? Have you ever thought that if you had saved up even a portion of that $75,000 that your child could still play soccer in college (however, maybe not at the prestigious program wanted) and you could pay for a large portion, if not all of their college costs.  Isn’t that the same as a scholarship?    Now, don’t get me wrong, if you have the ability to play at the highest level and are awarded a scholarship, then you should take it.  By all means, take it. Very few things in life are free…and this is one of the closest things that are, so jump on it if you have the chance.  Otherwise, reconsider.

     The first rule of college soccer (whether for you or your children [or your players]) is: don’t EXPECT any sort of athletic grant-in aid.  The second rule is: if you’re going to playCOLLEGE soccer, than be a COLLEGE athlete. I once had lunch with the Dean of the College of Business from the University where I was coaching.  At that time, he said the average college student-athlete was graduating with about $15,000 in academic debt after spending three of four years in an apartment, not the dorm and eating off campus, not on the meal plan. The average student athlete paid $5,000 more per year to live and eat off-campus than to live in the dorm and eat cafeteria food.  The scholarships that they “had to have” or they wouldn’t be able to go to college weren’t for college at all. These scholarships, on average, paid for an off campus standard of living; nothing that was needed to play in college or get a degree, but rather only to look good while doing so. College athletic aid was and is designed to cover “on campus” expenses and even though it can be applied to “off campus” expenses, that wasn’t its original intention.

     The quest for athletic scholarships is a cancer.  Once you have it, you can’t get rid of it. It becomes like an unwelcome relative who comes to stay for a “few days” and is still in the guest room ten years later.  We have spread the myth that you can’t be a college athlete without an athletic scholarship.  Not true!  According to FinAid.org, only 30% of college student-athletes receive any sort of athletic grant-in aid.  Still the quest for the all-elusive scholarship has become normal and normal is disappointment.  Stay away from this disappointment, train and continue to develop, do your homework in the college selection process and let the athletic awards come where they come.  If you have the goods, the coaches will pay.

     If you’ve planned to play college soccer, but you haven’t decided to play at the next-level till a little later than others, don’t panic.  Knowledge is just part of the formula to success. With what you have already been taught and with renewed focus from this point forward, it is still very likely that you can get into a good collegiate soccer program – you just might have to suffer through some training and lifestyle adjustments during your high-school aged playing years to catch-up.  This is good for you, however. In past generations, when athletic aid wasn’t as prevalent for non-revenue sports, college athletes lived with relatives, slept in dorms and ate cafeteria food while enduring other “hardships” to play in college.  They even went to play for schools without pedigrees to get the knowledge, which is what they were after.  They also were under no illusions of the experience giving them guaranteed jobs or success.

     Now, after spending so much time harping on mind-set, we can set some reasonable, attainable goals for playing soccer in college.

Goal #1: play FOR college  

     Virtually every soccer player thinks that playing in college is important; however, hardly anyone prepares to actually “play” in college.  Soccer America published an article in 2009 that quote the alarming statistic that only 3.9 percent of registered youth soccer players in the United States ever play the game in college.  According to the same study (which polled numerous current and former collegiate players) only 9 percent of that number actually trained properly to prepare for a collegiate career.  That means only 9 percent of the 3.9 percent of all registered youth soccer players in America actually properly prepared to play the game at the next level.  The rest did nothing or close to nothing in preparation for the college game!  Why are our incoming college freshmen doing so badly?  Why is it when a college coach takes over a young college program, there are more players without the proper training in the program than there with? Because we are chasing the dream of scholarships and having our name on websites and in game programs and announced in newspapers, yada – yada – yada, but we are not really Playing NOW to be ready to Play in College…and coaches…what in the Sam-Hill are you doing?  Obviously, absolutely NOTHING!

Goal #2:  surpass the game BEFORE you play the game  

     The growth and demands of the college game as it evolves to stay in pace with the evolution of the world game is faster than the rate of growth in our youth systems.  Because of this, our players are already behind the starting block.  If the collegiate game in America is going to chase the game on the world and professional level, then the game at the youth levels needs to follow suit.  Unfortunately, there are not enough coaches training and developing their players properly and not enough players whom either understand what it takes to play in college or are willing to put in the work needed to play at the next level.  Thus, the gap between the youth system and the collegiate system widens and what was once a solid, growing, freshly laid sod for the manicured lawn of the game in America is now splotchy and beginning to overflow with weeds.  Our players and coaches both can’t keep up with the weed pulling and/or aren’t willing to pull them.

     Of course, there are worse things.  In 2010, USA Today reported that only 37 percent of the polled NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer Players actually did enough over the summer to feel confident and prepared to report for pre-season.  That won’t get it done.  I know; something is better than nothing.  However, I like another adage better in this case; if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  If you’re going to play soccer in college, than actually play soccer in college – and that means do the work on your own in preparation for the season. The more time you have to spend in season developing your fitness because you didn't do it on your own, the less time you have to work on other really important aspects like technique. Just think, one or more of those 37 percent could be on an opposing team and while you’re running at the beginning of your preseason, because you decided to chase the college game and not get out in front of it, they are already playing and thus, are miles ahead of you.

     I suggest that once you decide you actually want to play soccer in college, that you immediately adjust or completely change your training routine, or at least mold it, to best prepare you for the collegiate game.

     If you are older, say entering into or already high-school aged and you have aspirations of playing soccer in college, then you will have to make the decision to do both the work needed to get ready for that level, but also to make up for the work that you’re behind due to making the commitment to play in college at a later age.  It will be more difficult for you, but it can be done. I have seen it done. Relax, because we’ll delve deeper into your predicament in a few minutes.

     Regardless of how you prepare to play in college, do it.  Preparing to play in college ensures that a legacy of disappointment is not passed down your family tree as part of the story you tell your children and grandchildren (or the part you leave out).  Sadly, most soccer players who play their last collegiate match are deeply in regret once their career becomes a memory.  Unfortunately, too many of them were in regret before they even started their careers.  If you start early and train properly, you (or your child or your players) will not be one of them.

Getting At It When You Don’t Have As Much Time  

     I mentioned earlier that we would dive deeper into this subject and I’m a man of my word. So, what if you’re only a few years away from entering college have made the commitment to ply in college (and by “commitment” I mean PREPARE to PLAY, not just SAY you want to play), but you don’t have as much time as you’d like to get yourself ready?

     First, you can’t turn back the clock and your situation is what it is, so you just have to accept it.  Step-back, take a deep breath and then step forward.  It is what it is and there’s not a thing you can do about that.  However, there are some things you can do about getting yourself as ready as possible to play in college.

     Look for a club-team with the best possible coach.  Forget about the team’s pedigree. Forget about the league the team plays in. Forget about the name on the front of the team’s jersey.  Find the best developer of players for the next-level and join that coaches’ team. Knowledge is what you are after, not pedigree.  Elitism is off-limits.  You must get not only creative and resourceful, but also dedicate yourself to seeking out the most knowledge possible. Yes, the level of competition is important and you should factor that into your choice of team, but at this point, time is of the essence and is not your best-friend, so you need to find a coach who has experience with what you want; preparing to play at the next level.

     Do you have to actually join a team?  No.  Maybe you can just train with one? Do you know someone who either is already playing in college or has finished their college career? Can you train with them or will they help prepare you? They don’t have to have any “coaching” experience.  You’re not looking for a “coach,” necessarily at this point, but rather someone who has been there and done that – hence, knowledge.

     This has just been a short version of what can become a lengthy topic of conversation. However, if you heed these ideas, you can continue to play this beautiful game in college. Even if you start late, perseverance and resourcefulness can get you through your collegiate career.  If you want to play soccer in college badly enough in America today, you can.  The good news is that there is a roster spot for you somewhere, at some level, on some team – it just may not be what you “dreamed" of – but it is still playing. in college.