Matthew Allen, a 17-year-old rising senior at James Madison High School in Vienna, has been playing soccer since he was 5 years old. He has been dreaming of playing in college since eighth grade.
“Soccer takes up the majority of what I think about when I’m not in school,” Matthew says. “I love doing it so much that not playing in college wouldn’t feel right to me.”
To secure his spot on a college team, Matthew and his father, Mike Allen, are doing everything they can to help Matthew rise above the thousands of other high school soccer players hoping to get recruited by college coaches. For instance, after playing on his high school junior varsity team, Matthew decided not to pursue a spot on the varsity soccer team to focus exclusively on travel soccer and tournaments where college coaches can see him play. Although his father has never officially tallied up the investment the family has made in Matthew’s soccer career, a quick calculation shows a price tag easily in excess of $30,000, which includes travel team fees and other practice-related budget items.
In addition to the financial outlay, Matthew also keeps a grueling schedule. There’s attending classes and doing homework, of course, but he also lifts weights for an hour on Mondays and then attends a two-hour training session. On Tuesdays, he has a 90-minute club team practice; Wednesdays he does an hour of strength conditioning and then takes an hour-long ACT prep class that begins at 9 p.m.; Thursdays is another 90-minute club team practice; Fridays are slightly less intense with only 30 minutes of weight lifting, and Sunday is game day. His only free day is Saturday, when he typically sleeps in and spends time with his friends and girlfriend.
This doesn’t account for the days Matthew and his father travel to soccer tournaments or the time that he spends emailing coaches or visiting colleges to meet with coaches. “There are days when I wake up and don’t want to go to whatever I have that day,” he admits. “But I power through it and I feel accomplished that I had the mental strength to get through it and I made the best of it.”
An unrelenting schedule and tens of thousands of dollars spent on sports may sound like a lot to the uninitiated, but for the families of high school athletes in Northern Virginia, this picture is fairly par for the course. Over the years, high school sports have become less about getting a letter jacket and more about scoring a coveted spot on an elite college team. But with minimal spots available at top-tier schools, the pressure has also slowly ratcheted up—schedules like Matthew’s are not uncommon—and it’s left some parents, students and even mental health professionals cautioning that it may not be worth it.
The Competition is Fierce
Getting recruited to play on a college team is highly competitive, especially for a sport such as soccer where most coaches only recruit six or eight new players each year, says Douglas Homer, director of soccer at The St. James, a high-performance training center in Springfield, where Matthew trains. In fact, local residents and co-founders Kendrick Ashton and Craig Dixon built The St. James because they recognized that the DC market lacked a comprehensive training facility for elite sports. “We live in a very expensive and educated market,” Homer adds.
College recruiting used to be limited by the team’s budget and how far the coaches were willing to drive to see players. Now, coaches can cast a wider net because technology allows them to view videos of student athletes across the county and even overseas through recruiting websites, such as GotSoccer and Next College Student Athlete. It’s not unusual for coaches to talk with 500 or more potential players, Homer says. “Technology has changed the playing field for the coach and the student athlete,” he says. “Sometimes your kid is competing with someone who doesn’t even live in the United States.”
Competition off the field is tough, too. Being a great athlete is not enough to make the team; you also have to be a great student. College coaches typically only consider student-athletes with strong GPAs. “Coaches want to make sure you can get into their school, stay in their school and make good enough grades to be able to play on their team,” Matthew says.
“Parents always ask coaches what their kids can do to prepare for college soccer and every coach has said, ‘Get your grades up,’” Mike says. “None of them has suggested students work on passing or shooting.”
Yet, high school athletes still need to hone their athletic skills if they want to play on a college team. “The reality is not everyone is going to be a college prospect,” Homer says. “We want people to reach their potential but we have to be honest. You might see yourself as a Duke basketball player but perhaps you are more mid-major Division I or DII.” Getting to that higher level of competition often means spending all your free time practicing, including skills training, conditioning and refining your mental skills and coping skills. “If you’re not willing to do those things every single day, someone else is doing that and taking your spot,” Homer says.
As intense as Matthew’s schedule is, the reality is he’s likely competing with students who have made athletic training the focus of their daily schedule, Homer says. For many elite sports, including soccer, it’s becoming the norm for students to spend eight hours a day practicing, playing in matches and traveling. Before joining The St. James staff, Homer worked at a private school where students began their day with a soccer training session, studied for four hours and then finished the afternoon with another training session. This type of schedule is becoming increasingly common for swimmers, golfers and squash players, and many are home-schooled to allow them to train most of the day and still keep their grades up, says Alister Walker, a highly ranked professional squash player and director of squash at The St. James.
Scholarships Aren’t the Main Motivator
For many students, including Matthew, their goal isn’t to get a scholarship; it’s simply to get on a college team. In fact, with the exception of a few blockbuster players in high-profile sports, a full-ride sports scholarship isn’t generally a possibility. For Matthew, who is looking at joining a DIII team, there is no possibility of scholarship money. However, the rewards of playing on a college team aren’t monetary. “At every school we’re looking at there is tight bond amongst the players,” Mike says. “Then you think about the alumni, [and playing a college sport] becomes an alumni network for jobs. For me, as a parent, knowing there is that immediate network to help these kids, there’s a real benefit to that.”
Madison Kercher, 18, a recent graduate of Herndon High School, wasn’t looking for a full scholarship; she just wanted to play college lacrosse. In fact, she was so excited about the idea of playing in college that she verbally committed to play lacrosse for Arizona State University in February 2016, when she was only 15. Madison admits she felt pressure to join a college team because most of her teammates on her travel team, Capital Lacrosse, had already signed letters of intent and she worried that she wouldn’t get a spot on a DI team if she didn’t commit to a college the fall of her sophomore year. “I felt like I had to get it done,” she says.
Nearly two years later, when Kercher went on her official visit to ASU in September 2018, she began to have second thoughts because it was so far from home. Two days after her visit, she severed her relationship with the team and asked the Capital Lacrosse recruiting coach to help her find another college team to join, knowing there was a good chance she wouldn’t get a position on a Division I team. “Players are a commodity to these coaches, and there is no shortage of people who want to play in college,” observes her father, Tom Kercher.
She was able to get a spot on the Rutgers lacrosse team.
“What was important to us was Maddie wanted to play in college at the highest level and we wanted her to have the experience of being a D1 student athlete,” Tom says. In fact, when it looked like Madison might not get to play in college, the family felt a sense of loss. “For us, as parents, watching Maddie when going through this, it was very hard to see how stressed out she was,” says mother Kim Kercher. “There were times when I thought it was too much, but I knew if she didn’t have a stick in her hand and try to play in college she would never be happy.”
Not Just in NoVA
The prestige of scoring a coveted spot on a college sports team is apparent in Northern Virginia and the entire DC region, but recent headlines show that the competitiveness has reached a fever pitch in affluent circles all over the country.
Earlier this year, news broke of a sweeping bribery scandal that saw more than 30 parents accused of paying William Rick Singer, an admissions consultant, an estimated $25 million combined to bribe coaches at competitive colleges to recruit students into sports programs. Schools implicated in the Varsity Blues scandal include Georgetown University (which declined to comment for this story), as well as Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest University, University of California Los Angeles, University of Texas, University of San Diego and University of Southern California. Increasingly elite sports, such as crew, tennis and lacrosse, have become a means for affluent students to get into competitive schools. Many of these families can afford to spend thousands of dollars on club team fees, travel, a personal coach and maybe even a sports psychologist and nutritionist to help their fledging athlete mature.
In NoVA, student athletes who hope to be recruited are spending anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 a year, says Homer.
It’s easy for families to get swept up in the process, says psychotherapist Michele T. Cole, LCSW, and founder of Moving Forward, PLC, a private practice in Old Town, Alexandria. Parents need to make sure their child is making a decision that isn’t just good for them athletically, but also academically and emotionally. “Sometimes kids are getting recruited and they don’t even know why they are doing it,” she says. Continually ask your son or daughter why they want to play for a certain college and whether it fits into their overall goals, Cole says. “Are they doing it for the right reason or just because they are so caught up in the moment, they can’t take a step back?”
Madison Kercher’s story is familiar to Cole; her daughter was recruited to play lacrosse for the University of Denver, but before her daughter’s freshman year she decided to step away from the sport. “Listen to your kid,” Cole says. “They know what they need. When they say, ‘I’m ready to put my stick down,’ it can be hard because the whole family is walking away from it.”
Dreams Require Sacrifice
Football is the one sport that offers full scholarships, but not every player will be recruited by a DI team. Myron Flowers, strength and conditioning director at The St. James, sees no shame in playing ball at a smaller school. “It doesn’t matter what school you go to, as long as they [the school] are willing to pay [the tuition],” he says. There are a lot of schools that have football teams that parents and students have never heard of, he says, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t competitive teams. This year, Flowers worked with 20 seniors; 16 received football scholarships. He counsels his athletes to “be the best player, student and person they can be, and see where the chips fall and accept whatever it is.”
And then there’s the quintessential high school athlete success story that every parent dreams about—the quarterback who gets recruited by a dozen DI schools. Mitch Griffis, 17, a rising senior, has been playing football for nearly 12 years. He was recruited by a dozen schools, including Harvard University, University of Maryland and Vanderbilt University, and received his first college offer January of his sophomore year. Last June, he accepted a full scholarship to play for Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in January 2020.
Mitch is clear-eyed about why he chose Wake Forest. “Definitely the coaching staff was the biggest reason why I felt it was the best fit,” he says. “They believe in the same things I do—moral character and work ethic.” He also liked that Wake Forest is close to home and it’s an Atlantic Coast Conference school.
None of his success has been accidental. Mitch’s father, Matt Griffis, started taking him to one-day recruiting camps at colleges the summer before he started ninth grade. “The purpose was for him to see what kind of talent was out there and what the college coaches were looking for,” says Matt, who is also the head football coach at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, where his son plays on the varsity team.
Don’t assume Mitch had it easy because his dad is the high school football coach. His weekly schedule leaves little room for free time. Every morning, except Wednesday, he lifts weights before school starts, from 7:15 to 8:45 a.m.; he does speed training three days a week; works on his football throws three days a week; and watches football videos three days a week for an hour to get a better understanding of the game. “There is always something you can learn,” he says. In between, he goes to school, studies, does homework and tries to sneak in time to hang out with friends.
Mitch understands that he has to make sacrifices to play football in college. “Lifting and throwing has to come in front of hanging out,” he says. It’s sometimes hard to say no to friends, he continues. “They give me a hard time but they understand.”
If They Don’t Make the Team
Playing a sport is a great way for students to make friends, learn leadership skills and life lessons. The danger comes when parents and students start setting unrealistic goals. “We really need to shift our culture away from asking, ‘Is my son or daughter good enough to play for the best team?’” Homer says.
Raising a student athlete can put extra stress on the entire family, Cole says. Someone has to get that student to games and to practice, and often the entire family’s weekend schedule revolves around tournaments. That’s a lot of pressure on the family, and it can feel like a full-time job to the student, she says. Sometimes when parents invest a lot of time and money into getting training and instruction for their student, they lose sight of the big picture and why their student started playing that sport.
It’s also not uncommon for students who play sports competitively to become isolated from other kids because they’re spending all their time practicing or competing, Cole says. Even when they’re with their teammates all weekend, they might not be developing friendships because they’re competing for a place on the team or playing time. “Make sure they’re doing things with friends outside their sport,” she says.
Playing the game can become such a big part of a student’s and the family’s life that, if high school ends, and they aren’t recruited to play in college, it can be difficult for the student and the family to handle. “Remind your student that they did their personal best,” Cole says. “Help them find a way to walk away from it.”
Meanwhile, Matthew spent Memorial Day weekend at a college showcase, where five coaches came to see him play soccer. Soon after that event, Matthew was offered his first college-roster spot. He and his father are reluctant to name the school because Matthew is still going through the recruiting process. Also, the offer is for a college they still need to visit, his father says. “It’s good to have one offer at this point,” Mike says, “because once other schools hear, it creates competitiveness among the coaches.”
While every sport has a different recruiting timeline, most high school athletes start thinking about college recruiting in middle school. By junior year, many will already have written offers from colleges. Here’s a timeline of what to expect and how to prepare your student athlete.
- Develop a list of colleges your student would like to attend and play for. “Figure out what they like about the school,” says Doug Homer, director of soccer at The St. James. They will need to be prepared to verbalize why they want to attend the college and what they want to learn while they are there.
- Join a travel team and start attending camps.
- Start building a highlight reel.
- Visit a few colleges and start to whittle down your list.
- Begin to reach out to coaches by email. Let them know you want to play for their school, send them your highlight reel and let them know what tournaments you will be playing in. Make sure the email comes from the student, not the parent. Keep in mind you might not hear back from coaches because some sports prevent coaches from communicating with players until their junior year.
- Keep attending camps and showcases to get in front of coaches.
- Start looking at college rosters and determine how many players who play your position will still be on the team when you enroll in two years.
- Research the graduate rate for athletic teams.
- Evaluate the strength of the coaching staff. Have they been coaching there for a while? Is there staff turnover every two to three years?
- Visit colleges, talk with coaches, meet with players and experience student life on campus.
- Focus on your grades—understand what the school’s requirements are for GPA and SAT or ACT scores.
- By now, you should begin hearing from coaches and might even begin to receive formal offers.
- Continue visiting colleges and talking with coaches.
- Ask your student athlete why they want to be recruited by that school and whether it fits with their goals.
This story has been updated from its original print version.