As a parent, what if I told you getting your kid ready to succeed as a college soccer student athlete had almost nothing to do with soccer? Because that’s what I’m about to do.
Jason was a strong holding midfielder with an elusive and rare full D1 scholarship. He was terrific at being the first line of defense, winning the ball and securing possession, switching the point of attack at times with 40-yard pinged balls over top, nearly dominant in the air and able to get forward and be dangerous with laser guided passes or scoring off set pieces. He was technically great, tactically brilliant and a solid teammate with leadership abilities. He obtained 8 college soccer offers and was generally regarded as one of the best players in the state for years.
Despite solid playing minutes as a freshman and quality performances, Jason quit college soccer 2 weeks into his sophomore year and quit college altogether by Christmas of his sophomore year. People in the state soccer community were stunned. The coaches and trainers that for years had held him up as the example of what every kid should aspire to, were left without a single rational notion as to why this could have happened. But in all their laser focus on training, coaching, and winning no one seemed to think about whether Jason was really prepared for life as a college student-athlete instead of prepared to be a great soccer recruit.
Not His Fault
Jason had parents that worked hard for him. They scheduled his trainings, always made sure his gear was packed, made sure his favorite pre- and post-game meals were always ready and generally kept his schedule humming and water bottles full. They did most of his college reach out for showcases and even stayed in the room with him during phone interviews to help coach his answers. Jason wasn’t the greatest at talking to adults he didn’t know, and they wanted him to show up to coaches the best way possible. They were happy to remind Jason when his school assignments were due, or at least the major ones. They even pitched in on a few papers to help Jason make the most of a few class grades. After all, he was so busy, worked hard, and was a good kid. It’s what parents do for their kids these days, am I right?
His coaches would often let Jason skip conditioning or parts of training that were ‘maybe more for the other kids’. The pre-season High School requirement of the mile run in 6.5 minutes was fudged a bit for Jason because his club team went to nationals and didn’t have the time to condition over the summer other kids had. It wasn’t that he couldn’t make the time, he just didn’t see the need for trying that hard. Club coaches let Jason slide on the requirement to watch an EPL match and talk about 3 things they observed at practice. Oh, and the weight room? C’mon, he showed up at all weight trainings but why should he push himself there. I mean, at Jason’s level, did he really need that? Messi ain’t all muscle?
Jason wasn’t ready because the people around him, failed him. Preparing your kid for life as a successful college student athlete is less about technical ball skill and tactical brilliance than responsibility, accountability, and maturity. And guess who plays the largest role in that? If you answered, better coaches or your kid’s soccer club, you’re the problem. Parents. It’s the parents. Better parenting. I should have done better for my college player too. Foul on me, which is why I write this: so you can learn from my mistakes.
What does ‘ready’ look like?
If you want to know whether they have the on-field game attributes, talk to college coaches. Or just open your eyes and watch how they do against other college level players. Or, better yet, do both. But that’s only part of success and happiness as a college student athlete and those attributes are yours to guide as the parent.
Strength & Conditioning Attitude
If they don’t enjoy conditioning, that’s a problem. These young men and women are among the fittest athletes on any campus, and it’s earned in most programs through a relentless program of S&C. If you’re a solid player on the ball that finishes near last in conditioning work, your college experience is likely to become uncomfortable very quickly. Show up to pre-season and fail the fitness test if you don’t think I’m right. But passing the fitness test isn’t enough for high-level programs. Those kids are trying to WIN the fitness test. They’re trying to be the most fit on the team. And the ones that are the fittest are trying to break the team records. The players that just pass and don’t have this attitude are commonly given the same name in programs across the country: practice players.
Most college coaches aren’t like club/high school coaches. This is a business, and their W/L record is the difference between career growth and decline and between more money as a head coach vs. less money being the assistant somewhere else. Many aren’t terrifically consumed with your player’s feelings (regardless of how they act in the recruiting process) and it’s time to shed the idyllic view that coaches are there to build better women and men and winning is only a byproduct or secondary aspect. That’s nonsense. College soccer coaching is tougher, less kind to your kid, and often hangs remarkably high expectations on them. This is also the first time many of them will have to take direction from other teammates. And again, if hearing “do your fucking job or get off my field” from the Senior captain hurts their feelings and feels unfair, some toughening up might be required. If your kid cannot take this transition and feels the need to constantly push back on it or complain about it, there is a graveyard of once-great talent that behaved similarly.
Ready to pick up cones? Make sure the locker room is clean? What about your team laundry duty? Can’t get up for the 8AM class which causes all underclassmen to do extra study hours? Late for the team bus? Being on time for 6AM lift in February snow not your style? If your kid believes they’re above these things or just loves complaining about them, they’re about to join a team full of good talent that has no patience any of that. If they think goofing off during the drill explanation causing the whole team to run is cute, it’s not cute and not funny. In fact, their life is about to be in danger and coaches will encourage upper-class players to make those kids very uncomfortable. And they not only will they deliver on that assignment, they’ll take a macabre joy in it at that kid’s expense.
Kids must handle their soccer business. Mom and Dad aren’t there to do it for you. Eat well, be fit, get stronger, be on time with the right gear, don’t lose your gear, study film, prepare for scout, take care of the locker room, have the right attitude, put out extra effort, be focused on helping the team get better and win on and off the field. Never, ever miss team assignments or responsibilities (unless it’s class). Have a date next Friday when the team is supposed to attend the Women’s Volleyball game in support–reschedule your date. Wanna improve from year to year? Don’t sit on your butt all summer. Grow up, do your job and earn your roster spot every time there is a team activity from first-day freshman to fifth year senior.
Do you have a party animal? Of course not, right? You sure? This is college and college kids will be college kids. The freedoms, peer pressure, party life, mate-seeking and social dynamics that are simultaneously terrible and wonderful for all kids, are more difficult as a college athlete. Good ADs are watching you. Miss a class, they know it. At the party where the weed is, they know it. Cops break up the 3AM bender and light property destruction after the road trip, they know it. And it all adds up to consequences often first revealed at your year-end evaluation. Kids who are party animals and coaches/ADs don’t seem to care much: congratulations on earning the title of practice player. As much as you may want them to be, ADs and coaches are rarely there to help your kid grow up. They are there to hold them accountable when they’re not grown up. If the kid cannot handle this well, it can hurt their athletic and academic endeavors severely. Have fun—absolutely. Have fun at the expense of your job (classes and soccer) and they will learn difficult lessons at great cost.
Classes come first. Always. ALWAYS.
Never miss class or study hours unless part of team activities. If team activities interfere with your course of study, work with your team academic advisor and/or AD. They’ll help you. But in the event of legitimate conflict—classes come first. Do the work to get good grades and it takes real work in many college classes. This isn’t high school. I don’t care how much of a comically high GPA you had in high school, Calc2, organic chemistry, microbiology and like are waiting to kick your @$$. Athletes MUST time manage better than the average college kid. Perfect study times are rare in season. Buses, hotel lobbies, fast food joints, opposing team locker rooms, planes—every minute and every place is an opportunity to ensure your academic house is in order.
But you don’t understand, “My kid is going pre-med with a specialty in oncology or neuroscience”, say far too many parents of soon-to-be college athletes. Most of these kids will be majoring in communications, exercise science or psychology in nine months. Not that there is anything wrong with those majors, but it shows the perception vs. reality gap of the academic rigor required among many courses of study. You’ll see many of these 17-year-old Dr. McDreamy’s eventually choosing Communications because…wait for it…how easy it is. Again, don’t get me wrong, Communications is a good career and major but you have to do it for the right reasons and not because it’s easier to handle while playing ball.
It’s critical these kids have the maturity to examine what they are going to study and the real reasons why. Fame and fortune are bad answers all the time. It’s your job as a parent to guide not only their long term critical thinking here but to ensure they have the time management and responsibility attributes to do the primary job—going to school to GO PRO AT SOMETHING OTHER THAN SOCCER and getting good grades while they’re at it.
Maturity and Discipline
Parents are generally bad at assessing their own kid’s maturity level. We rose-color reality and underestimate the negative impact of having done too much for our kids as they’ve grown up. Yeah, me too. But there are no rose-colored glasses evaluating the kid that didn’t study for their chem lab, or leaves the 2500 word, ten source paper for the last minute, or is incapable of putting themselves into a performance routine. There are only consequences and pain waiting for those kids. Sure, they’ll learn, but at great cost. And probably unnecessarily if we as parents had been more proactive about seeing these things instilled in our kids. Most kids will learn to swim if thrown into the collegiate deep end with little preparation. But wouldn’t it be better if they know how to at least hold their breath first? If you are doing too much for them, consider going them more responsibility around soccer and see how it goes. Better to learn of maturity and discipline gaps now than searching for the consequences of college academic probation or if PA schools will accept sub 3.0 GPAs.
If you’re like me you spend too much time on their progression of soccer skills to make them a viable college recruit and too little time on their progression of traits to be a successful college athlete. Don’t be like me. Find a better balance.
Ask yourself if your kid is ready to accept the responsibilities of a real, every day, difficult, career-like job at 18—because college soccer and college education is pretty darn close to that. It’s a tough ask, but that’s the ask at hand if they want this. Leave the soccer growth more to your kid and their trained soccer pros and you lean harder into the personal character attributes, maturity, and responsibility. And while coaches, clubs and trainers can help with those things, most of the time, they’re not learning those attributes from soccer folk.
They learn them, or don’t, from Mom and Dad.