Senior year of high school for athletes is typically one of the rich memories, awards, and goodbyes, but it is also one of new beginnings and beginnings that require decisions. The decision on which school you will be spending the next 4 to 5 years of your life is no small matter. For many, it is a new challenge of stress with the lengthy applications, recruiting trips, coach calls, and research about all kinds of schools. Many athletes pitfall into the pigeonhole of focusing entirely on the athletic component of the potential university that they are considering. The flashy lights, sponsorships, premier training facilities, and stadiums consume their emotions while the financial implications of tuition, the academic programs, team culture, nearness to family, and career opportunities are all placed on the back burner. Fortunately, I was helped and mentored in these areas before making my decision in competing in the NCAA. Today, I want to walk through 4 lessons that I learned that led to a smart and successful college recruiting decision.
- Ask yourself, “If I get a season-ending injury the first day of practice, would I stay here?” – This question seems a little ridiculous or far-fetched but in reality it makes you dig deep, think critically, and consider factors beyond athletics. The college experience is far more than the 3 hours of training you put in at the facilities on campus each day. It is also about building friendships, networking with professors, sharpening emotional intelligence, pursuing your dream career, and discovering your passion. My college coach Sean Henning at Biola University asked me this very question and it helped me
- Competition – Too often in the sport of track and field, high school athletes overcommit to schools that seem great but might just be a little too competitive for them. Sure, the pragmatic would say, “But that’s only going to make me faster!” Again, this is a pigeonhole view of college decision-making. I’ve seen time after time great runners go Division 1 and never see a championship race, never travel, or hold up conference titles in their life because of how competitive Division 1 Track and Field is. If they decided to run at a great Division 2 program, they would have likely traveled the country year-round, competed in the most competitive Division 2 races, won conference titles, competed to win regional races and get the perks of racing in national championships every season. This would have likely led to a more fulfilling college career. Choosing a school for a name or sponsorship is not the whole story and is likely an arrogant approach to the college decision-making process.
- Considering life after college – Believe it or not, your athletic career will likely come to an end after finishing college. Sure you can continue working out and stay fit but unless you are in the top 1% of Division 1 college athletes, you won’t be making your sport a lifelong career. That said, this reality introduces important implications in the decision-making process. These include: is the program culture, the character of your coach, the academic program, the geographical location, and the opportunity to grow personally and professionally beyond the sport itself.
- Team Culture & Coaching – Bad coaching & a toxic team culture can ruin any sport, regardless of how passionate you are about it. I came from a football family, my grandfather played for the Dallas Cowboys, and my brother and I aspired to do the same growing up. We lived, breathed, and practiced football day and night, our childhood was filled to the brim with football. As I entered high school with aspirations of playing under Friday night lights by my sophomore year something happened that I never would’ve thought would, I quickly lost my love for football by the end of my freshman year. Why? Coaches. Coaches and team culture can make or break any sport experience. It is incredibly important to think critically about what you value, what you tolerate, and what you know is right when it comes to coaching and culture and to pursue collegiate teams that are marked with those criteria.
- Location – Location matters. Why? Well, if you are a distance runner it isn’t ideal to commit to a university that is in the middle of a city where stop lights, crime, and population density inhibit optimal training. If you are a soccer player, it isn’t ideal to attend a university where it snows and rains half the year. If you are big on consistenly seeing your family it isn’t ideal to attend a university that is across the country. If you are considering you career after college and the market isn’t ripe of opportunity, then it isn’t ideal. Regardless of situation, you will have to weigh the sacrifices you will need to make.
It is incredibly important to not become overcome by flashy lights, premiere training facilities, and nice sponsorships if the holistic package of great coaches, team culture, academic programs, and opportunities to grow are not present at the universities you are considering.