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Advice Feb 04, 2014

How young is too young to commit to a college soccer program?

WendyLeBolt-HeaderDoes anyone really think that committing to college soccer as a middle schooler is a good idea? Yet, this is where we are, and it’s getting a lot of attention.

The most recent announcement comes from Haley Berg, who verbally committed (as an eighth grader) to play for the University of Texas Longhorns in the fall of 2017, comes as no surprise to folks in the maelstrom of college soccer recruiting today.

We know this is how it works: You specialize early, get on a top team, play in showcase events and sparkle for the scores of coaches who line the sidelines of the tournament games.

Haley’s commitment was no big deal for her. She’d been talking to college coaches on her cell phone “nearly every night during eighth grade,” according to the article that appeared in the New York Times. She says she was surprised when friends asked “Why are you famous?”

The uproar about the article is not because she’s unusual, but because the rest of America is dumbfounded.

“This just doesn’t seem right,” wrote a concerned parent who emailed me the article link.

And it doesn’t, especially in light of the cover photo showing Haley, clad in UT Longhorns fleece, lazing on her bed tossing a small pink soccer ball. Next to her is her toddling sister and guarding the doorway, a three-quarter-size standup figure of pre-teen idol Niall Horan of One Direction. On the wall behind him hangs a poster of Mia Hamm. The room looks like a kid’s room, because it is.

Haley and her dad are interviewed on Fox 4 about this exciting turn of events. Haley is taking it in stride. Dad has to tackle the hard questions, like “Isn’t this a bit early?”

“Each kid is different,” Larry Berg says, casually. He continues, “She said, ‘Dad, I’m ready,’ and I was like, ‘OK, she’s a mature little girl.’ Still a little girl at 15, but she’s mature and I trust her decision-making capabilities.”

[ +Dallas News | ]

Really? At 14? He does say she was reluctant to head to Notre Dame because Dad wouldn’t be able to come to her games there and she wouldn’t be able to come home. Now that sounds more like a 14-year-old. Which is the first reason to discourage kids from committing so young; emotionally, they are not prepared for the decision. They don’t know what 18 will feel like; they can’t.

In fact, there are rules to keep college recruiters from approaching young athletes directly. LOTS of rules. But coaches of the most competitive programs get around the rules by approaching the youth club coach, who has the player contact the college coach directly. Coaches can take these calls, even though they can’t initiate them, and the process begins.

Coaches are feeling the pressure to make earlier and earlier offers so the best prospects don’t go to a competitor, the Times article points out. Famed UNC coach Anson Dorrance says, “It’s killing all of us,” referring to the scholarship players who don’t pan out and the programs who are saddled with players who can’t compete at the level they had hoped.

This is especially poignant coming from the coach who “discovered” Mia Hamm as a tender teen and shepherded her through her ‘developmental’ years. Her story, of course, was mythical.

Today, these girls sit their athleticism on the bench watching others play or redshirt hoping that next year will be their year.

The issue seems to be particularly pronounced in girls soccer, where, according to the National Collegiate Scouting Association, 24 percent commit before the official recruiting begins July 1st of their Junior year in High school.For boys, this number is only 8 percent.

Girls mature, that is begin puberty, a bit younger than the boys. The distinction is more evident among boys, and coaches see they would do well to wait with their offers. With the girls, the changes are more gradual. They may attain their full height in middle school, but their high school years are about filling in their frame, so to speak.

That “filling in” is critical to the health of the player. Strength, a.k.a. muscle mass to support and protect, is essential. Too much, too soon, is devastating to their development — physically, mentally and emotionally.

So much can happen in those four years. Even a “mature middle schooler” has a lot of growing to do.

Middle school playerssoccer strike girlCollege play

Here’s a look at girls at three levels of development: Middle school (13), high school (15-16) and college (21/22)…

Height isn’t the difference; it’s breadth. And training that muscle mass to support the

developing frame is critical to sustaining their play and hopefully their performance at the highest levels. But there’s no guarantee, as Dorrance points out: Kids and programs are suffering from mismatches due to the early scholarship offer environment.

So, what’s to be done? We can continue to point fingers at the coaches who recruit young ones or the club coaches who wheel and deal with their protégés or the leagues who host meat market tournaments to display their wares.

How about those parents who seize the big-dollar scholarship money, the counselors who charge you to find the right deal or the kids who are enjoying their newfound celebrity status? Where does the NCAA fit in? They made the rules; if there are loopholes, why don’t they fix them?

To their credit, the NCAA is considering rule changes at their 2014 convention to allow recruiting communication to start September 1 of a recruit’s junior year and lift restrictions on the frequency and types of communication, which we will all agree has seen some changes in the last few years. Currently, the rules are confounding and complex. Whether you can visit or call, whether they can return your call, whether they can text, write or visit with you face to face. Here’s a “simplified” look at the current rules: see page 21-24 here.

Trust me when I say that coaches across the country are heavily burdened by trying to keep up with competitive recruiting while staying in compliance with these rules. Good coaches are being diligent in this, and I know many college coaches with very honorable intentions toward these kids.

But humans, perhaps particularly those who play soccer in the USA, tend to be very creative when it comes to rules. We like to think of it as innovation or creativity. We calculate how can we subvert the rules to accomplish our ends? Pave a new path? Find a way to a standout kid that no one else has found yet?

That’s the Holy Grail and so we seek. And when we find, we make an offer. It’s good business, good for the program and it allows me to keep my head coaching job.

But is it good for the kids? Who’s tending the kids?

Well, in the case of the Bergs, apparently Haley is. And I would argue that she is a bit young and short on life experience to be making this decision just now, mature though she might be. That frontal lobe doesn’t fully mature anatomically until age 25, for crying out loud. (Later, in some, I would certainly argue.)

But Mr. Berg has it right when he talks about decision-making capability. The elite college programs are, in fact, looking for kids who make good decisions — on the field. The question is: how do we support this?

Here, I default to wise words offered to my daughter by coach Mike Calabretta, now on staff with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons women’s team: “Choose a school,” he advised, “where — even if soccer didn’t pan out — you would still be happy about your decision to go there.”

He’s seen, as have I, that kids get injured, burn out, change their mind or just need a break from the pressure. They need to land in a place where their education will supply what they need. It’s a college, right?!

And so armed with that advice, my daughter and I grabbed a clean sheet of paper and she created a grid. Categories across the top were things she was looking for in the college she attended. Things like academics, social life, soccer, geography, size of school, student life, nearness to home, cost, scholarships, etc. Along the margin she listed the schools she was considering.

Then she filled in the boxes with +,  -, or 0, giving extra importance to some things with triple +++ or double ++. The exercise didn’t give us a final decision, but it armed her for those anxious college visits. It quantified things a bit and gave her a process to work through the decision and the difficulty of making comparisons in a choice that was so important.

This, I would argue is an essential responsibility of every parent with his or her child: to help them learn the skill of decision-making. And after this, the skill of waiting. Because everything that glitters is not gold. Sitting with a decision, taking the time needed to let is settle in, without letting it control you and/or your life, is perhaps the most important lesson in this for our young people.

I try to keep in mind what is written on the vast windows of the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.

IMG_2225It reads, “There are over 400,000 student-athletes and most of them are going pro in something other than sports.”

Student-athletes. That’s what we’re talking about here. Gifted children who need a bit of guidance in their new found celebrity, because celebrity can be dangerous for the young and uninitiated. I mean, Haley does have that image of Niall Horan guarding her bedroom door. He was “discovered” at the age of 16 via television talent show “The X Factor.”

Haley, I dearly hope this works out for you. That you go on to have a stellar high school career, lead UT to success on the college scene and get drafted to play in the pros. But for now, I’d just be happy to know you’re hanging out with your friends.

They’ve been trying to call, but you’ve been on the phone.

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