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Recruiting Your Kid's College

blue chipsWhen I thought of college recruiting before actually getting involved in the process, I thought about Robbie Benson in "One on One" and Nick Nolte in "Blue Chips". Benson's character has college recruiters knocking down his door and he gets a job on campus turning on and off the automatic sprinkler systems to put some money in his pocket. Nolte plays loose with all the rules to compete for all the prime college hoops talent across the country and then deals with all the character issues and ramifications that recruiting elite players might bring.

Either way, a good athlete is picking and choosing between which big school they want to attend for nothing. Sometimes their parents get new cars and envelopes of cash. I'd definitely enjoy a car and a fat envelope of cash.

But that's not quite how it works with 5'2" volleyball-playing liberos.

Unless your kid is one of that very small percentage of elite-type recruits (and the likelihood, statistically, is next to nil that that's the case despite a parents' hopes and opinions) then you're going to be doing a lot of work and spending a lot of time (and you've probably already spent a decent amount of money) DOING the recruiting of your kid's potential college or university yourself.

I consider myself to be fortunate. I have a daughter, Jess, who will be a senior next year. She's that 5'2" libero. She will likely end up playing relatively high level volleyball after high school and likely end up getting a helpful amount of her education paid for. She's not going to play for Stanford, Texas, Penn State or Arizona. She never was. She's smart and she's articulate enough, but she comes by her athletic ability honestly. She's not an elite, athletic freak, just like her parents weren't.

And, to be honest, that's where you need to start. You need to understand that despite your kid being gifted and special and one of a kind, when it comes down solely to athletic scholarships, chances are your kid isn't gifted or special or one of a kind. But they can still benefit greatly.

If your kid truly is in that elite minority, no need to read further. The Stanfords, Arizonas, Penn States and Texases will find you. And they'll do so early enough in the process that your time will be spent decreasing the pool of prospective schools, instead of trying to create a pool of interested schools. You'll know quickly if 'elite' is in the cards.

But if you haven't heard from those schools, or many D1 schools in general, by the time your athlete is a freshman (or a sophomore at the very latest), you better get busy.

Parents spend a ton of money on club sports. There's a washout rate in club sports as well as a percentage of parents that will experience a declining return on investment as the kids get older. Just like not every good player is a D1 player, not every club kid is destined for scholarship money either. Again, realism needs to be a part of the experience. If you're paying club prices and expecting a huge payoff when high school ends, you better be relatively sure that's what's going to happen or adjust the expectations and let the athlete experience playing for the fun of playing ( a novel idea in many circles).

I can tell you from my own experiences that the entire club process and the environments can be frustrating and even toxic. My 5'2" volleyball player can play. Jess can play at a high level (which I define as beyond high school and at a school where volleyball is very competitive) and she's received all conference and district honors and all that stuff that makes parents proud. What she could NEVER seem to do was get noticed UNTIL she played. 5'2" walking into a tryout in a crowded gym of 100 kids wasn't where she showed out. 5'2" at a tournament showcase wasn't going to be any different.

PancakeWhere did she show out? In camps. In camps with college coaches who actually watched the kids in smaller groups and who then moved those kids up to higher level groups and watched some more. At camps sponsored by her club team and conducted by collegiate coaches that resulted in Jess going to that college coach's camp later in the summer. There she was placed (as a rising high school junior) on the court with the school's incoming freshmen who were camping, and with some of the upperclassmen who were helping run the camp. That, not coincidentally at all, is the court where the head coach at that university spends most of her time and watches the action.

That experience she had with the collegiate coach, at the JO camp and the university summer camp, again not coincidentally, leads me to believe that that coach and that program are the leader in the clubhouse in terms of where my 5'2" libero might end up. The coach got to see for herself that Jess is a human bruise. She's on the floor almost as much as the logos that are glued to it. That shows up in games and against competition. Not in a JO tryout gym.

The point being, if your daughter is 6'0 tall or bigger then she might stand out in that crowded room. You can't teach height. Big hitters, big middles and even big setters are coveted. They stand out. The fidgets do not and your money and time and effort is probably better spent in smaller group environments where coaches and camp leaders can see what separates your kid from the pack. If your kid's advantage over other players is exhibited clearly in one environment and not at all in another, put them in the best spot to show it.

Start them young, if you can, and make sure you do your homework on the particular club. Go visit it. Talk to the director. Research what high schools or colleges the coaches work for or with. And starting young gives your kid a chance to overcome the tryout stigma that some face. If the kid can play, it'll be apparent. They may get placed on a lower level Regional or Regional Elite team initially, but their talent and ability will allow them the chance to move to American or National if they're that good. But starting them young and researching the club gives them the time and ability to make those gains and make those moves. If you're constantly changing clubs with a player like Jess, she's constantly walking into that tryout with strangers and internal politics in place at 5'2" tall and she's constantly being overlooked and misplaced skill-wise.

Are there politics in play? Hell yes. Even at the better clubs? Hell yes.  You need to take advantage of it. I bitched about it for a few years. I hate the JO tryout process. Very good players get passed over all the time in the process. But you can mitigate those damages and make that process work for you if you're willing to understand there is no Xanadu in the club world. The grass isn't always greener and the grass isn't EVER perfect. You can benefit from the same thing you hated initially.

Jess was placed on a team that wasn't at the level we had hoped for when she got to her current club last year.

Again.

But she got a lot out of the training and she turned some heads. She played with the higher level American team when they needed a player due to injury and ultimately signed an early offer to play with them again this season. It worked out. When tryouts came SHE was the legacy and already guaranteed a spot. Hypocritical of me to enjoy that? Yep. But I did enjoy it because she earned it. But the bigger point is that last season was a struggle to get through during tournaments. It was tough to watch. It was brutal, to be honest. But it was also a season where the training made her better and where the opportunities provided by the club (that training as well as that camp run by the college coach) were worth every dime of the fees despite the tournament play and team record being closer to depressing than inspiring.

But if you take anything away from the above, it's that there are no perfect clubs or situations. Find one where you like the philosophy, the facility and the coaches and stay there. That can be hard because you might have to look just as intently at yourself and your kid's ability as you do at the program. My 5'2" daughter isn't playing middle blocker no matter what she wants or what I think. Not every kid is a setter or a libero just like not every kid on the soccer field is a forward or destined to score goals for the national team.

Much like you need to know your role on a team and in a club, you need to figure out the best ways to proceed in the recruiting arena as well. Don't follow the cookie cutter approach. You have to identify, or have someone trusted identify (and Jess is ridiculously fortunate in terms of the interest and assistance her high school coach at Madison, Norm Potter, provides), what attributes and strengths your player has and then to play to them. Don't be sucked into the recruiting companies and the promises of them delivering your kid's tapes and highlights to thousands of schools. That's no different than sending your 5'2" kid to the cattle call tryouts. There are reputable firms and services that are out there and that are valuable and effective. But you need to look as closely at those as you do at the schools themselves. If you go that route, research them.

One of the things that endeared me to one of the coaches in this process was her telling me to call her with any questions and to NOT immediately go with one of the recruiting services. I was leery of that at first, but continued conversations with her, and questions asked of her, told me she was being anything other than selfish and that she honestly was happy to be asked. Lean on people you trust when researching schools and coaches. It's worked out thus far but the services can be effective if you find the one that fits your needs.

Along those lines, go with a rifled approach as opposed to shotgun approach but begin it early. Identify some schools that your athlete is interested in. Start with however many they want and wherever they want. Get some tape that can be turned into a highlight film of sorts. Volleyball, especially, plays to that. You can set up your digital camera on video easily and inexpensively, throw in a 32mb SD card and tape a day's worth of matches. Edit that down at the end of the season or seek assistance.

A highlight tape of the player as well as a video of a full match (coaches will want this- life ain't a highlight tape and they know your kid has weaknesses and holes in their game and will want to see those too) can be put up on youtube. Create your own youtube channel and you now have your own video library that services would charge a boatload for. It's not Scorsese-quality but it doesn't have to be. Now copy and paste the address of that youtube channel into your email drafts, because you're about to need it a lot.

I sent a lot of personalized emails to coaches and assistant coaches initially.

That was stupid.

I mean, you'll want to make sure you send it to the coach or coaches of the school you're directing it to, but you can easily get away with a standard letter where only the school name and the coach's name(s) is personalized. I figured that out late in the process, and I also sent out one to a particular coach and forgot to change the name of the previous school I had mailed.

Don't do that. It's embarrassing and probably counter productive to making a good first impression.

But a basic introductory shell might look something like this:

Hi Coaches,

My daughter Jessica is a junior at Madison High School here in NE Ohio. She's played JO for the last two seasons with Vertical Force Volleyball. Last year she was coached by Katie _____ and this year she will play for Ricky _____ in a program that's directed by ______ and ______.

Jess is about 5'3" tall and is an excellent all-around player for Norm Potter at Madison High School.

She's an OH and plays all around for both Madison and in JO but her future is clearly as a libero after high school. I've been advised by multiple camp coaches and opposing coaches that Jess can absolutely play at the D1 level as a libero and that she's one of the better defensive players in the area as evidenced by her her All-PAC and All-District honors. She was quickly placed on Court 1 at a recent camp in _____ with their incoming freshmen. Jess has added 4" to her vertical from the time she started at the Michael Johnson Performance Center at Spire in Geneva, OH a few months back.

I'm corresponding because schools like _________ fit where Jess is looking to go academically and athletically after high school. Jessica is an excellent student, enrolled in multiple honors classes, and she's extremely serious about volleyball. Coach Potter has put together a brief highlight package which I linked below for your review. There are also match tapes for your review. I'd also love for you to see her workout or play, as you need to do so to appreciate her abilities, so a JO schedule is attached.

Jess is a 4-year varsity player at Madison, will be a three year varsity starter as well as a two year captain. Her style of play is appealing to watch and, I'm told, to coach.

It would be appreciated if you could take a look at the youtube videos and I'd be happy to discuss any opportunities that might exist for her to continue her education and volleyball career at __________.

I can be reached at 440 XXX XXXX if you'd like more information, to confirm schedules or for an in-person look.

Thanks you for your time,

Brian

Sell your kid. Not literally, regardless of how appealing it might sound, but in terms of why a coach needs to take the next step and see them play or ask about them. If they're a hair over 5'2" they're 5'3" tall,  if you like watching them play, they're "exciting to watch".

But be an advocate. That takes practice and refining the message and additional emails to coaches can be more personalized and specific.

Don't lie. A shade over 5'2" doesn't make them 5'5" tall. But sell it. There are no perfect players out there and there a  lot of schools and a lot of potential dollars in aid. If the coach is engaged, as Norm is at Madison, they can also utilize their contacts built over years in the game to be an advocate for the player. Norm has sent numerous emails and highlights to college coaches on behalf of Jess.

Sadly, Norm is the exception as opposed to the rule in regard to a coach's advocacy. But there are a lot of opportunities that are available to young athletes by way of their club coaches as well. My youngest, Kacie, plays club soccer. The training and the instruction she has gotten at both of the clubs she has played for have provided her with skills and opportunities. And while she's yet to reach high school age, those opportunities can still be in the form of educational AND athletic opportunities.

One of her club coaches is the head coach at Hawken. He asked Kacie to come take a look at the school. If a club coach wants your kid to go look at schools outside of your local school system, take the opportunity to visit and have the kid shadow at those schools. They are ridiculously expensive. A school like Hawken, Gilmour, University, Hathaway-Brown or Laurel come with a sticker price approaching $30k per year. That's more than my entire four year total at BGSU was back in the day.

For one freaking year of high school.

But they may work with you (and they're damn well going to have to work with me), depending on how much emphasis they put on a given athletic program. And the educational opportunities are incredible. In fact, you don't visit those schools for the athletics at all, even though in many cases the athletic programs are also better. You look at those schools because of education and because of the opportunities that superior education might provide your kid. But it doesn't hurt that Hawken and Gilmour are ten minutes apart and are huge rivals athletically and for prospective students. So when Hawken called, guess who was next?

It just doesn't hurt to take a look and see if those kinds of schools will work to make that ridiculous educational opportunity affordable to the point it's a consideration. Even if they do, it's still about the fit, socially, academically and in many other ways. And if they don't you were not a bit worse off than you were before you went to visit.

sports_money1-300x192When you pay to have your athlete play JO, AAU or club sports you're making an investment in the kid and an investment toward the future. That future may come before college in the form of prep schools willing to greatly reduce their tuition. That investment may also come with the understanding that you'll have to invest even more in terms of time, effort and attention toward creating an interest from colleges that may be unaware of your student-athlete until you make them aware.

Schools will not magically line up just because you made that monetary investment. You need to line them up and direct them toward the player they should be looking at. It can be a daunting and time consuming endeavor. It can be frustrating and it can result in you hearing, "No thanks, but best of luck" far more often than you hear, "Tell me more". But you've likely already spent thousands of dollars and a whole lot of time. To not follow up and take that next step makes it far more costly.

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