Unpopular truth: sometimes D1 sports programs are not the best destination.
Perhaps this sounds like it is coming out of left field, and perhaps this is not what your friends, teammates or coaches believe. However, too often have I seen the love affair with "Going D1" lead players away from schools that fit them better academically, socially and athletically. Youth players often act too fast, committing to the first D1 offer that comes their way, and end up at a school that is not a great fit for them.
Before I discuss why D1 is not always the best option for young athletes, full disclosure: I turned down several D1 soccer programs. Not to sound ostentatious, but I was recruited to play in the ACC and had interest from several Ivy league schools, but ultimately chose a small D3 school—Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Mind you, the Johns Hopkins women's soccer program makes the NCAA tournament every year, consistently ranks among the top four in their conference, and regularly recruits top ECNL players.
But the truth is there are a plethora of D2 and D3 programs like this. I know many
D1 schools who play such programs in the offseason, and they often lose. Yes, there are some D1 programs who boast talent and skill far beyond what you'll find on any D2 or D3 program. But to rule out the idea that there's solid soccer being played in D2 or D3 is ignorant and misguided.
So let me comfort you with this: It is OK to go off the beaten path. Although I get the pressure from friends, Instagram, neighbors, etc., can be overwhelming, you need to make the best decision for you. Here are three questions you need to ask yourself during your college search beyond simply "Is it D1?"
1. Does the Team Culture Suit You?
I chose D3 at Johns Hopkins for the "be kind, work hard" culture. The girls on the team were the nicest girls on campus, and the support on and off the field was tremendous. Again, some D1 programs have a stellar culture, but some do not. Just as is the case with D2 and D3 programs.
The coaching staff plays a big role in the culture piece. Do you like the coach? Do you feel you can develop into a better player under them? Do you like the training sessions?
I once had an athlete make a quick decision to go D1, and she ended up transferring after her freshman season because she did not like the coach nor the team. She also felt she was not improving as a player and not growing as a woman. In fact, she spent most of her nights in her dorm in tears because the campus life was not what she expected.
With that said, it is critical to immerse yourself in the team and campus culture before committing. Visit the campus, stay overnight for the weekend, connect with the team on social media, message the team and pepper the coach with questions. You need to play detective and understand the entirety of what you are getting yourself into, otherwise you will be in for a rude awakening. The more research you do, the more confident you can be you're making the right decision for you. If you refuse to go anywhere but D1, and only a couple D1 schools have interest in you, you're really limiting your ability to find a nice fit.
2. What Are Your Thoughts on Playing Time?
The soccer climate is becoming more competitive, and every top player in each state is going D1. What you will find, though, is these top players (ECNL, national team, state players of the year, etc.) are often riding the pine at D1 programs. Are you someone who wants to play right away, or are you OK with sitting on the bench for two or three years before seeing the field? These are questions you need to consider.
It is tempting for good players to go D1 simply because they have the ability to do so, but they also need to consider the impact they might have at a smaller program. Perhaps they could grow to become the team's leading scorer and lead that small school to a national title.
Don't get me wrong. None of this is to say that D1 players shouldn't also reach for the stars and try to be the best they can be for their restive program. It's just something to consider.
So here is an actionable item: If you are oscillating between D1 and a smaller school, attend their games and see where you fit in. I would even go as far as to have an honest conversation with the head coach to see where you might stand in terms of playing time.
3. Does the School Set You Up for Post-College Success?
I had a tremendous experience at Johns Hopkins, blossoming into a confident player and growing into an empowered young woman off the pitch. Sure, the rigor of the academics made me want to bang my head against a wall, but now I am grateful for being put through the challenge of the coursework coupled with the intense soccer work.
Again, this is not to say D1 programs do not value academics, but it is something to consider. Are there academic resources (tutors, study halls, etc.) to help you succeed? Do your teammates motivate you to do well in your classes? Do your coaches truly care about your grades and academic performance? Does your team have a solid alumni network for landing jobs post-college? These are all questions you need to ask before making a decision. Even for the tiny percentage of players who go on to play professionally, everyone's playing career comes to an end eventually.
The college search is overwhelming, I know. But the good news? There are endless options available to you, and there will always be a school that suits you socially, academically and athletically. There are plenty of amazing D1 programs out there, no doubt. But players shouldn't feel like D1 is their only option. Expand your horizons, do your research, and picture where you can see yourself flourishing. Because ultimately, that's what matters most.
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