Combatting the Early Commitment Epidemic in Women's Soccer

Ali Christoph, a three-time college All-American soccer player who was recruited in 8th grade, weighs in on a 'New York Times' story about early commitments.

Photo: AP

I recently read an article from the New York Times regarding the college recruiting of young women soccer players—players as young as 8th graders. The article focuses on women's soccer, but the controversy surrounding the recruitment of middle schoolers is raging in other sports as well.

The NYT article tells the story of Haley Berg, an 8th-grade soccer player from Sanford, Florida, who at the age of 14 was already weighing offers to attend the University of Colorado, Texas A&M and the University of Texas free of charge. The process ended last summer, a few weeks before 9th grade began, when Haley called the coach at Texas and accepted her offer of a scholarship four years later.

Early commitments are not a new phenomenon in college recruiting. But the article highlighted a seldom-considered aspect of the frenzy—the toll it takes on college coaches as well as on the athletes and their families.

The subject of early commitments hit home for me, and I was moved to respond. I am a former Division I female soccer player who currently works as a college recruiting advisor for the Student-Athlete Showcase. My job is to help high school student-athletes secure college scholarship offers. On the surface, it might seem like I would be a fan of early commitments, right? As an athlete, you can secure your future. As a student, you can guarantee your education. And as a college recruiting advisor, you should want the young student-athletes you counsel to make early commitments.

However, I actually hold the opposite opinion. And here's why.

The NYT article is great at revealing how early the college recruiting process starts for some athletes, and it accurately describes how the process works. I don't disagree that the process of recruiting should start early. It's a critical process in which both the athletes and parents need guidance. This is the first time athletes go through the process, and understanding their options, priorities, needs, and wants is a daunting task. College is the next logical step in their lives, but their choice can have vast repercussions if made hastily or wrong. Most parents have never been through the process, and understanding the ins and outs of recruiting can be difficult. Managing the process is strenuous and time-consuming. The thing is, even if their child is lucky enough to be a highly sought-after recruit, parents cannot expect the process to be easier or less stressful. Their child may have more options to explore, but in the end, making an informed and mature decision takes time, a plan, and guidance.

As a former athlete who was recruited as early as 8th grade, I feel frustrated for today's athletes and coaches facing the pressure of earlier and earlier commitments. Sure, coaches should be allowed to identify and evaluate talent over the years as the kids grow up. Let some communication be established. But stop with the early commitments. Permit commitments only when the athletes have gone through puberty, they know what they want out of a college, and they are old enough to make an informed decision about their collegiate career.

Near the end of the NYT article, the author refers to Kyla McKeon, another Florida soccer player who signed early, concluding: "Kyla said that when she told Arkansas that she was accepting its offer, she was happy about her choice, but it was as if a burden had been lifted from her. 'I love just being done with it,' she said."

I can't tell you how much this statement resonated with me. That's exactly how I felt when I went through the college recruiting process. I was insanely honored and felt very fortunate and blessed to have been recruited at such a young age, which Kyla would probably agree with. My parents were as amazed as I was. It led to a whole slew of opportunities, such as being on the youth Women's National Team and traveling around the world to play soccer. Yet I was being recruited in 8th grade, and the whole idea of talking to coaches, dealing with coaches, and thinking about scholarship deals made me want the process to be over. It also ruined some of the fun of playing. I chose a school early in high school in large part because I was tired of talking with my parents and club coaches and potential college coaches about the whole thing. Call it burnout if you want. I just wish I had had more guidance.

As a former athlete, my opinion is, yes, start the recruiting process early. Get help. Seek advice. Be on top of communicating with coaches and researching different schools and options and opportunities. If you start early, you have more time to seek expert help, do your homework, identify coaching styles, see the ebbs and flows of a college team over the years, figure out what uniforms you like the most, figure out where you want to be geographically, etc.

As a college recruiting advisor for high school student-athletes, I'm obviously a huge proponent of helping athletes successfully secure college offers. But at Student-Athlete Showcase, we are also huge proponents of making good matches—securing college offers for athletes at schools that best fit their needs and wants. That means we explore every possible opportunity to ensure that our athlete clients see what's out there and what's available to them. We make sure that relationships are built between the athletes and their potential future college coaches. Our mission is to deliver the most successful college recruiting outcomes.

So, no, I'm not a fan of early commitments and the pressure and forced decisions they involve. If there were no early commitments, I think transfer rates would drop. At SAS, our transfer rate is 5%. The national average is 50%. Coaches would be happier with their commitments, and players would be happier with their choices.

Quoted in the NYT article, Anson Dorrance, the legendary women's soccer coach at North Carolina, is a critic of the way early commitments have evolved. His biggest and most understandable complaint is that he increasingly makes early offers to players who don't work out years later. Well, duh. They are kids when they commit. And then they go through physical and mental changes. I mean, isn't that what being a teenager is all about? Why would anyone think that having an 8th grade kid commit to a college is a good idea?

Start the process early. But don't force a commitment early.


About the Author:

Ali Christoph graduated from the University of Tennessee, where she played varsity soccer. During her career, she was a three-time All-American, ESPN's Player of the Year and SEC Co-Player of the Year. A two-time captain, she helped lead her team to three SEC Championships and four NCAA Tournaments. She is currently a college recruiting advisor with Student-Athlete Showcase, where she works with student-athletes from across the nation to help them successfully secure offers to play at the next level. She says, "At SAS, we understand the value of having a real plan. We understand that no two student-athletes are alike, and each one's collegiate goals are unique. That's why the solutions we offer cater to their specific collegiate needs."

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

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