This article is for high school athletes (and parents of athletes) who are thinking about playing sports in college. It is relevant mainly to football players, but many of the things I talk about apply to all sports. If you want to know what it takes to transition from being a high school to a college athlete, keep reading.
I have a unique perspective on this subject. Not only do I work with high school athletes, but for the past 11 years I’ve been a coach at a D-I school (Army). I’ve seen both sides—see them every day, really.
I’ve worked with some top-shelf athletes. Many were local champions and had a lot of notoriety in their home towns. They dream big dreams. They talk about how they are going to be impact players at the college level, and play right away, many attending prominent schools. As underclassmen, they talk about going to big schools far away, and they have a fantastic picture of how it will be.
Sometimes this comes true, and they become great college athletes. Often, it does not.
Why? A lot of reasons. There are a number of myths flying around at the high school level, and other things many athletes aren’t aware of. That’s why I’m here—to dispel nonsense and inject some truth into your visions of the future, based on some of the occurrences I see over and over with the athletes I deal with who want to play sports in college.
When you go on an official visit, believe only a portion of what the recruiting coach promises you (read how to make the most of your official visit). They’ll all tell you you’ll be an impact player. They think you’ll be in the running for playing time or even a starting job, and you’ll be able to help the program right away. They’re telling you what they think you’re hoping to hear. Unfortunately, much of it won’t be true.
You may be an All-Section or All-County or even an All-State player, but the fact is that at the college level so is everybody else.
Here’s a possible scenario: You’re a 17-year-old grad enrolling at Some State College. You walk in and say, Here I am, where do I play? But then you meet Tyrell. Tyrell graduated at 18, went to a prep school, then redshirted his freshman year. He’s now 24, and turning 25 as a senior. He's been with the program for five years.
Tyrell was All-Conference last year. He looks bigger, and on tape he seems faster and downright nastier than you. That’s because he is. There’s a huge difference between him and you, developmentally speaking. He is a man. You are a teen—a talented teen, but still a teen. Do you really think you’re going to take his job?
Stacked behind Tyrell on the depth chart at your position are #52 and #54. They’re just as big and only sophomores. They’re in their 20’s and already sick of playing behind Tyrell. Plus, Fiddy-Two doesn't like the idea of your even being there, so he is going to give you a hard time right out of the gate.
The recruiting coach, at this point, will not be out recruiting other players. The things he told you way back when? He believed them, sure. But if he’d told you about Tyrell, you probably wouldn’t be here.
Did coach talk to you about a redshirt? Oh, you don't want to redshirt? Well, just keep working your butt off on the scout team, and maybe sooner or later you will get a shot. You won't have much involvement, but during those 5-hour meetings, remember, no cell phones are allowed. And do not fall asleep. That’ll get your coaches really annoyed.
Those coaches who loved you back in high school? They’re gone now. Now you have Coach Angry. He’s the position coach who screams at you and curses at you all the time. He doesn't really care if you are unhappy. You're not even sure if he likes you, because he doesn't talk to you, he just yells.
You tell the head coach you were a really good running in high school. That's nice. But in college, you won’t be big enough to be a running back. They’re looking at you as a cornerback or maybe a slot receiver. Wait, you don't play cornerback? You do now. In college, there’s a good possibility you will be switched to another position.
It’s okay, you say. Football isn’t really the main focus anyway. You’re just playing to foot the bill for college. You’re going to major in engineering.
Here’s some math for you then: The average college football player spends four and a half hours a day in meetings, two hours a day on the practice field, 90 minutes in the weight room and five hours a day in class. That adds up to 13 hours. Now add the roughly two and a half hours of homework you'll have each night. If you’re really good at time management, you might sleep eight hours a night. That will leave you with 30 minutes each day to eat all three meals and shower twice (after your morning and afternoon workouts).
Your girlfriend? She gets part of the 30 minutes.
Oh right, there are Saturday and Sunday. Well, from August through December, Saturday is game day. If it’s at home, you’ll be required to be with the team watching them get ready, then play, then meet and clean up post-game. On away games, you’ll either have meetings or watch the game as a team. Sunday is meetings all day as well. There’s a small break around the holidays; then, starting Feb. 6, it’s six weeks of spring ball. Then spring break comes. You get to go wherever you want for 10 days. Just don’t get too crazy.
Don't forget there are exams twice a year, which are pretty important. You don’t pass and meet NCAA GPA requirements? You don’t play.
Spending money might also be an issue, since you probably won’t be able to work that cushy summer job back home. Didn't anyone tell you? The coaches really want you to stay at school and watch film and work out with them. They say it’ll really help you for next year. The guys who stay will get a really good look. Don't worry, you’ll probably be able to go home on a weekend in June.
Oh yeah, one last thing. The head coach is looking at a possible NFL assistant spot, so that means there could be a new coach and a whole new regime and system next season. Be ready for that also. But don't worry about that too much—if it gets really bad, you can always relinquish your scholarship and apply to other schools.
I see this type of stuff all the time. So if you want to play D-I, what should you expect? Expect to spend a great deal of time on a scout team during your first year. Do not think you will travel with the varsity any time soon. Don't expect to even see the field until you are a junior.
In most cases, I recommend athletes go to a prep school if they want to play D-I in a mainstream sport. Get another year of experience under your belt. Most prep school coaches can also help you find a proper college fit—better than your high school math teacher—oops, I mean your high school coach.
A year of prep will not affect your college eligibility. You’ll still have four years left. Most prep schools have solid sport programs and will help groom you for college sports. That’s what they are set up for. You’ll get solid playing time, and you may even learn that new position that your future college coaches want to switch you to anyway.
Many times, athletes get a better offer after a year at a prep school. Many coaches look at prep schools to find players, because they like the idea of a player being a year older. And some prep schools are football powerhouses, which go so far as to guarantee you’ll receive outbound scholarship offers.
A good prep school might also recommend that you look at a D-III school instead of a D-I. I can’t say this strongly enough: There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Some of the best programs around are at D-III schools. They have great coaches, and they might be more cost-effective. One might suit you better.