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Men's Recruiting Feb 17, 2012

Hummer: A message to elite, uncommitted youth soccer players

So you’re a ‘high-level’ club player in a state with a spring high school soccer season. You’re a junior or senior who has yet to commit to a college program, but playing in college is absolutely something you require as part of your life plan. You’ve been working hard all winter to get ready for a string of major college showcase tournaments, and now you’re staring at high school tryouts on your calendar and it stresses you out! Why are you nervous? Fixated? Worried?

Like any “tryout,” high school soccer makes it even more nerve-wracking because no matter how “good” you are in your club, no matter how many college coaches are interested in you, no matter how much money your parents spend…It’s high school where you retain a majority of your social status. It’s where you get validated (or eviscerated) by the kids you grew up with, see around town and in the halls.

And of course, you have NO CONTROL over who your coach or fellow teammates will be. It’s where you live, and unless you can afford private school, it’s where you have to play if you want to list “high school soccer” on your résumé.

And that little voice in your head just won’t shut up!

“If I don’t make the varsity team, I’ll be so embarrassed. Megan Whatsherface will make fun of me. Jill Alwayscores on FC Rival Club team that we beat last week was varsity last year, why not me?”

No matter your level of play, that first voice is likely very similar to everyone else. But the other voice is the one that says very different things to different players based on level of play, current college commitment status, and gender.

This article isn’t about whether club or high school is better. And it’s especially not saying that elite club players should choose not to play high school at all the first time a tough decision comes up.

I think high school soccer is a great thing. The relationships, memories, and life lessons gained are things unique to representing your school in any sport. But, for those with a lot on the line, and with coaches or administrators who don’t feel the same way I do about the value of club soccer, there may just be a time when club players need to make some hard choices about long-term priorities, and be willing to accept the consequences if they come up against an irrational public official wearing blinders.

The stress relating to dealing with “priorities” does seem to be much higher for boys than girls, and perhaps rightly so. Boys simply have more opportunities to actually make a living playing this great sport beyond college than girls do. There are thousands of professional teams in the world, with the big stars earning millions, while few pro options for more than a living wage exist for women in any team sport anywhere, including soccer.

However, girls might have some serious cash on the line too, by way of college scholarships, coach-facilitated help with financial aid and grant opportunities, or simply “using” soccer to get into a school they might have struggled to gain acceptance to otherwise… A school where a degree may lead to a lifetime of higher pay and opportunity.

So for both genders, if you’re not already committed to a college program, and you play for a club team that does allow you to play high school soccer, then in the spring of your under-17 year, you need to be VERY careful about the risks you take with your personal health on the eve of major club showcase events. During these next few weeks in states where high schools play in the spring, a badly timed six-week injury could dramatically cut your chances of playing college soccer where you really want to go.

It’s for these players where a second voice usually kicks in, and it says:

“All those high school classmates in the halls have no idea what kind of hours I’ve put into this since I was seven years old. They have no idea what it’s like to play at a big showcase tournament ringed by college coaches with notebooks. They just don’t get what’s at stake if I get hurt three days before the Jefferson Cup my junior year!”

If you’re one of these players, what should you do?

First, take a deep breath. Then ask yourself if playing college soccer is really a deal-breaker in your eventual college choice? And are you realistically good enough to play at the schools you’d be happy to attend based on other very important things like academics, location and lifestyle? Remember, college is a four-year commitment. You need to be sure you want to LIVE there, even if you love the soccer program already.

If all of those things match up for you. And you’re on a club team scheduled to play at spring showcase tournaments where your targeted college coaches are attending specifically to evaluate you, then you REALLY need to listen to that second voice in your head before giving into the pressure of feeling like you have to play through an injury at high school tryouts.

I’m not saying don’t go to tryouts, just that you need to consider all the investment you and your parents have put into this soccer thing you do. If you get hurt playing high school as a freshmen or sophomore, it’s not the end of the world. There’s still time to get healthy, and probably play 30 or more club games at decent showcases. But if you’re a junior – or worse, senior – in a state with spring high school soccer, be very cautious, especially if you’re on an under-17 team.

You will NEVER get a chance to play at showcase tournaments with more college coaches watching than you will in spring of your U-17 year. In the late summer and fall, coaches are busy coaching their teams. Outside of that, they’re at these events – evaluating talent and making decisions. And while the nation’s most elite players are committing to schools their sophomore years (when most are U-16), for the overwhelming majority it’s juniors the coaches are looking at in the spring, and most of those juniors are on U-17 teams.

If you’re nursing an injury, even if you are able to get out there and run at 90%, you need to be doing all the right things to avoid making it worse. Warm ups, cool downs, stretches, rest, ice, heat, nutrition, rehab…even prayer. It is so hard to do as an athlete, especially a young one who has never experienced a serious injury. But it takes TIME and REST to heal properly. There are things you can do to accelerate the healing process, but if you keep going all-out on the field every day, you’re not only delaying the healing, you’re radically increasing the risk of further injury – often in a new muscle, tendon, or joint when your body over-compensates for the existing injury.

You’re right to be worried that if you don’t give it you’re ALL at tryouts, that your high school coach may not put you on the varsity team. And some coaches will specifically say things like, “you better not be dogging to save yourself for your precious club team.” Ouch! Jealous much, coach?

But stay focused. Keep your eye on the ball you want to be kicking when you’re 21 and older, not 17 or 18 years old.

If you find yourself in this situation, you really have to remember your priorities. I’ll say it again – if you pull that nagging hamstring three days before the Jefferson Cup or Vegas Showcase of your U-17 junior year, just think about all you are risking.

Take yourself off the field. Have the guts to take ownership and responsibility of your own future. If you’re a college-bound athlete, your body is a tremendous asset that you need to treat properly and professionally.

If you play for a high school coach who will push a player of your talent down to JV – or out of the program altogether simply because you were being responsible in protecting your future, you should ask yourself if you really want to be around an adult like that in the first place.

And that goes for club too. Don’t try to hide an injury. Don’t feel like you need to be tough or prove something in a practice session on a team you’ve been with for years, who know what you’re capable of when 100% healthy. If your team is in the right tournaments, nothing else matters at this point other than you being as close to 100% fit as possible for the big stage.

The time to play through an injury is that showcase game when you’re down by a goal with 10 minutes left and 5 of the coaches from colleges where you want to play are watching. As long as you’re not hurting your team’s chances, you suck it up and go try to be the hero. Your future really may depend on it.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have both a club and high school coach who wants what’s best for you before themselves at all times, and who is also knowledgeable enough about the game to see and value the real talent you posses in the things you do with and off the ball, not how fast you can run two miles around a field.

So, if it’s college soccer no matter what for you, then get that commitment under your belt, and then enjoy your high school experience even more. Or, if you really value the full high school experience at the risk of reducing our options for college soccer choice, then go for it. As long as you’re aware of these choices, and you then act accordingly, there is no outcome that you should regret.

I hope that outcome ends with no injuries, the college experience you always wanted, and great memories and pride in having represented your high school. Good luck out there!

Want to hear from some of the top girls your age in the USA and what they think of the college recruiting process? Check out some of our interviews from last summer’s ECNL all-star trip to London. 

+ Summer Green ]

+ Nikki Dreisse ]

+ Coverage Central for ECNL tour ]

Write us in the comments section below or send an email to [email protected], and let us know what you think or how you handle these tough choices. We’d love to hear from anyone who’s been through this already or is going through it now. 

About the Author: The Founder and Executive Editor of The Soccer Wire, Hummer has played soccer nearly all of his 42 years, coached for over a decade at both the elite club and high school varsity level, and works regularly within the sport. While his near daily interaction with players, coaches, families, and administrators at every level of the game occasionally inspires an article, Hummer’s opinions expressed herein are his and his alone, and do not reflect those of The Soccer Wire.