If you are the parent of a high school athlete, you and your child may be dreaming about college gridiron – or swimming pool – glory. Or you may be hoping for an athletic scholarship. Or you may just be wishing for a healthy way to keep your beloved offspring too busy to get into trouble.
Whichever category you fall into, consider the following advice:
Don't push it. "You have to make sure that this is your child's dream and not your dream," says Barry Meister, an agent for athletes and entertainers. "It changes the college experience a bit to play sports in college." His oldest son got up at 6 a.m. to do weight lifting. "It's a tremendous time commitment," says Meister. "It's an amazing sacrifice, what some of the kids do. When other kids are going to the football game at noon on a Saturday, these kids are at practice or they're weight lifting."
Be realistic. "It's a consistent narrowing of the pipeline," says Meister. When his oldest son graduated from Miami of Ohio, the athletic director at his banquet said only 3,000 of the 118,000 scholarship athletes at Division I schools (culled from nearly 4 million high school jocks) became pros. "It's a very difficult odds game to play," says Meister.
Encourage your kids to keep up their grades. They make a big difference. "The combination of being a good athlete and having excellent grades is very powerful," says Leslie Donavan, whose daughter, Kerrin, is a sophomore at Stanford and a member of the school's diving team.
Make sure your child loves a school for more reasons than just its athletics. "The reason I think [Kerrin] ended up at Stanford is we said to her, 'You could injure yourself or decide you don't like it," says Donavan. "You better be at a school you like apart from diving. You better like the school if you stop doing it!'"
Take the initiative. "Don't wait for them to come to you," says Denise Schaenzer, whose oldest son, Cole, is an engineering major and baseball pitcher at Valparaiso University. "You have to be the drive of the car on this one. You have to make some decisions up front." NCAA regulations don't even allow the schools to contact high school kids until July following their junior year. So parent shouldn't be upset if they don't hear back from coaches, who may nervous about breaking the rules, she says.
Keep saving money for college. You can't count on a free ride. Even Division I schools often just offer partial athletic scholarships.
Talk to your kids about the importance of finishing their degree. They can't bank on becoming a pro. "You want to do well at the sport, but you have to keep your school up, too," says Schaenzer. It's OK for kids to want to be professional athletes, but they need a backup plan, too.
Consider school absences. Athletes miss class time – often on Thursdays and Fridays —when they travel to away games.
Remember the positives. "When you get into a Division I college program, aside from what they teach the kids on the field, they teach them a lot of discipline and they have these seminars about their diet and their off-the-field behavior," says Meister. "It's a real broad-based education on how to behave." And sports keep kids from turning into couch potatoes. "Being healthy and being athletic is a good thing," says Meister. "Whatever level they're playing, it's mind and body healthy to keep them active."
Talk about on-the-field time. "A lot of parents and kids want to go play Division I athletics at a big school, and they go and never play. They just sit on the bench," says Meister. "All they get is the ability to tell somebody they're playing basketball at the University of Michigan. Make sure it's a place where your kids are actually going to play and that it's something they want to do."
Figure out whether your child is a Division I athlete. Division I schools (such as Penn State) are athletic powerhouses. With the exception of the Ivy League, they offer free "full rides" to top athletes and sponsor at least seven sports for men and seven sports for women. "They're going to give more scholarship money, but you're going to give more of yourself," says Laurie Richter, author of Put Me In, Coach: A Parent's Guide to Winning the Game of College Recruiting. Division II schools (such as San Francisco State University) tend to be less giant public or private colleges, which may give partial scholarships. Division III schools (such as Dan Quayle's alma mater, DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.) are smaller and don't give out athletic scholarships. Richter's older son, a senior majoring in business at Washington University at St. Louis (a division III school), chose to get a top-flight education and to still play basketball.
Tease out whether your child really wants to keep playing his sport. "Sometimes they don't even want to play in college," says Richter. "They're kind of done." Sometimes kids stick with it just because they don't want to disappoint their parents, she says.
Think about the purpose of college. "College is really to get them from childhood to adulthood," says Richter. "They really need to pick a school where they're going to get a good education and enjoy the rest of the hours of the day."
For more stories about sports, read:
For more stories about college, read: