By Michael C. Denison
For young female and male soccer players who have their sights on playing soccer in college, the recruiting process can be confusing, intimidating, and frustrating. Of course, if you are one of the fortunate ones who are extremely gifted and on the radar of every college coach in America, you don’t have to worry about recruiting, other than perhaps having to make the tough decision of which college and college soccer program is right for you. But for the vast majority of you who are playing soccer in club and/or high school and would like to continue in college, this is intended to give you some hints that may be useful during your recruitment experience and college search. Although these hints should apply equally to male and female players, since I am a scout for a female college team, I will use female references in this article, rather than “she/he,” for simplicity.
Identify target colleges.
The object of your college search is to find the perfect fit for you. You want to love where you go to college, and enjoy every year you are there. Thus, you are searching for the perfect college for you, not for your parents or your college counselor or your friends. That search encompasses considering the location, size, academics, social life, perhaps spiritual life, and, of course, the soccer program. As a parent, I would place academics highest, meaning get into the best academic college you can, and if you can be on the soccer team as well, that is a bonus. But, the order in which you place these categories is a personal preference, and there is no correct order. Keep in mind that by one survey, 1 in 10 high school female soccer players plays in any Division in college, only 1 in 45 plays in Division I, and only 1 in 1,756 plays professionally.
Despite these statistics, every female who has gone through club soccer and school and is thinking of playing in college, likely has her sights on playing for one of the top Division I teams in the country. But since very few are fortunate enough to gain those slots, other options should be considered when entering the recruiting world. In addition to NCAA Division I, you should research colleges in NCAA Division II and III, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (“NAIA”), and for many possible reasons, perhaps the National Junior College Athletic Association (“NJCAA”), to name a few.
On the theory that you should never put all your eggs in one basket, and unless you have a particular reason that you must play in Division I (e.g., need an athletic scholarship, as opposed to need based or academic scholarship, or none), it may be advisable to select colleges that fit you in different Divisions to keep your soccer options open. In the end, you may have to chose between a college you love, without playing soccer (although club and intramurals may be available), or another college you like a little less, but with playing soccer. Hopefully, you will find the college you love, which will include soccer.
Once you have identified the colleges that interest you, and that fit all the categories mentioned above, be sure to complete the colleges’ recruiting questionnaires. These typically are on the colleges’ websites and can be done on line. Some permit downloading photos and/or videos as well. This will be the first notice to the coaches that you are interested in their college and their soccer program.
This may be a familiar scenario for some of you. You are playing in a college showcase, or other tournament, which is attended by college coaches. You play the game of your life, and yet, after the game, the college coaches’ attention seems to be on other players, who, in your opinion, and definitely in your parents’ opinion, did not play as well as you did. That is frustrating and you can’t figure out why. Chances are, the other player or players communicated with the college coaches before the tournament, and the coaches were there specifically to see that player or those players.
The lesson to be learned is that as soon as you know you will be playing in a tournament, email the coaches for the colleges in which you are seriously interested (and are a fit) that you will be there. Let them know in which division you will be playing (e.g., 17U), your jersey number, the name of your club and coach, the venue (if there is more than one), the game times and fields. Make it as easy for the college coaches as possible because they simply don’t have time to be searching schedules for your games, particularly if they may be at the tournament to scout other players on other teams as well.
If you get a response from the coach or an assistant, great! If you don’t, you haven’t lost anything other than a little time. And whether you receive a response or not, you will have expressed interest in the college a second time (the questionnaire was the first), and there is a possibility that the coach or his or her assistant may be able to make it to one or more of your games to watch you, even though they did not respond to your email. It is very exciting for a player (and her parents) to see a coach with whom she has emailed on the sideline watching her game.
Warm up like you will play in the game.
Whether you receive a response from a coach or not, at the tournament during pre-game warm ups, take the warm ups as seriously as you will the game. Assume that college coaches are there watching you during warm ups; you may not see them, but if they are hidden from sight and are watching, they want to see players who are focused, serious about soccer, and get along with their teammates and coaches. Players who don’t take the warm ups seriously, and are only joking around, can give a coach an initial bad impression.
Warm ups can be particularly important for goalkeepers. The reason is that scouting goalkeepers can be difficult because if they are playing a weaker team, the keeper is not challenged. And if they are playing a much stronger team, and the defense is dominated by the opponents attacking players, the keeper may be at a serious disadvantage. Accordingly, as a goalkeeper, sometimes the best display of your talent will be in the warm ups, so keep that in mind.
If possible, have your number on during warm ups.
Sometimes it isn’t possible to have your jersey with your number on it during warm ups because the club uses warm up shirts with no numbers, or it is cold so everyone wears sweatshirts or jackets with no numbers. But, if it is your choice, warm up in a jersey with your number on it so the college coaches who are there can identify you easily. If you have communicated with coaches, they will be looking for you by number, and if they can spot you during warm ups, they can watch you warm up, and will have you identified before the game starts.
This tip is for club coaches and team managers. It is extremely helpful for college coaches to receive a roster of the players with their names, numbers, and photos. This helps the coaches spot the girls during warm ups (if their jersey numbers are visible) and during the game, and can serve as a visual reminder later during the evaluation process. If a player on the roster isn’t there, or is using a jersey with a different number, it is helpful to have those identified.
Some teams also include high school grade point averages on the roster sheets. This can be helpful for college coaches to evaluate academic eligibility, particularly for colleges that have very strict academic standards. For example, if a player that the coach is not there to scout has a GPA that would make her academically eligible for his/her team, and the player stands out during the game, it could cause interest that otherwise would not have occurred without the GPA, because the coach’s attention would be entirely on players he/she is there to watch.
Relax and play your game.
If you see college coaches watching your game, particularly one or more with whom you have emailed, try to relax and just play your game the way you normally would. In one game I was scouting, a player was on the field directly in front of me at the start of the game. When she saw me (I was the only scout at that game), she visibly tensed up and when the first ball came to her, she swung and missed it completely, and when the second ball came to her, she stopped it with her foot, but put too much weight on the ball and fell over backwards. She was visibly shaken at first; but then she relaxed (perhaps figuring that nothing else could go wrong) and she played terrifically the rest of the game. The irony was that I wasn’t scouting her, I was scouting someone on the other team. So, if you make a mistake, forget about it, and just keep playing your game to the best of your ability. Sometimes, strong effort will be more impressive than one good, or one bad, play.
Know when to speak to college coaches and scouts.
The NCAA has specific rules regarding when a college coach may speak with players and parents off campus. And, those rules vary from Division to Division. The specific rules can be found on the NCAA’s website.
Briefly, in the “Frequently Asked Questions” a “contact” occurs “any time a college coach says more than hello during a face-to-face contact with a college-bound student-athlete or his or her parents off the college’s campus.” So if you or your parent approach a college coach at a soccer tournament, and he or she declines to speak with you, do not take it personally or be offended – they are just being cautious and trying to follow the NCAA or other conference rules.
For Division III, with which I am most familiar, typically a college coach or scout can only speak with a player or her parents at a tournament after she begins her junior year, and only after the club coach has released her for that day. So if you approach a coach or scout, be ready for the questions: “Have you started your junior year in high school?” and “Has your club coach released you for today?” If the answer is no to either, the coach or scout will not be able to speak with you in person. But, you can email or call and get answers to any questions you may have that way.
Remember, there are countless terrific colleges out there and your job is to find the one (or more) at which you will be happy, you will thrive, and, if you decide it is for you, you will be on the soccer team.
Good luck, be well, and most of all, have fun!
Michael C. Denison is a litigation attorney in Los Angeles, who serves as a volunteer scout for the Swarthmore College women’s soccer team. Swarthmore College is a small liberal arts college located southwest of Philadelphia, PA, and is a Division III program in the Centennial Conference. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Swarthmore College or its coaches.