Chasing the coveted college sports scholarship
We’ve all seen the tearful football or basketball player thanking his single mom for supporting his athletic career. The successful athlete may even buy his mom a house or a car as a token of gratitude for her dedication and sacrifice. It’s easy to fantasize that your athletic child will make it to the big time or at least get a college scholarship. You’re not alone. Parents of athletic children often view sports as an avenue for opportunity and upward mobility. Since Solo Moms have the added challenge of negotiating this journey by themselves, their financial, psychological, and organizational commitment is heroic. But no matter how athletically gifted your child is, a full athletic scholarship comes from a combination of talent, desire, hard work, and luck. In other words, even if you do everything in your power to support your son’s or daughter’s excellence in sport, there are no guarantees.
At Northwestern University, a Big 10, Division I school, I had the pleasure of teaching hundreds of student athletes as well as students who had to give up the dream of playing college sports. I learned that the road to college athletics is fraught with emotional peril and physical injury. Each year, I started my course Sociology of Sport by asking former athletes who had turned away from sports why they had done so. The top three answers were always injuries, coaches, and parents. Young athletes who didn’t quit because of injury typically told me that they quit because parents and coaches ruined their experience. These stories gave me a powerful picture of what can go wrong for young athletes who once wished to play college sports. However, as a former college tennis player and mom to five competitive tennis players, I know that the journey can be enormously fulfilling and may even end with a dream come true.
Here are 12 dos and don’ts that may increase the probability of snagging a D1 scholarship and, more important, preserving a healthy relationship with your young athlete.
Setting your child up for failure: Common pitfalls to avoid
1. Don’t let your child play when injured. We’ve all seen it: kids taped up and powering through injuries. We may even applaud them for their toughness and tenacity. Even at the elementary school level, teammates, coaches, and parents push young athletes to play when they aren’t fully recovered. You don’t need a medical degree to figure out that this will catch up with a child. Minor injuries often become major sidelining injuries, so make the investment in a full recovery, or one day your sport-loving child may sit in a Sociology of Sport class explaining how sports ruined his or her body. Be a good Mama Bear and stand up to coaches who downplay injuries.
2. Don’t underestimate the risk of repetitive injury. Ask any doctor about kids’ sport injuries, and you will hear that specialization at too early an age has created a generation of kids who suffer from debilitating repetitive injuries. Whether it’s torn rotator cuffs from serving hundreds of balls to swimming hundreds of laps every day to destroyed knees from millions of soccer kicks or excessive miles on the track, too many young athletes are being felled before their time. Asking young athletes to repeat motions with muscles and bones that aren’t fully developed or protected is a recipe for disaster. Cross-training is an excellent way to make sure that their bodies don’t overdevelop in some areas while remaining weak in others. With your kid’s pediatrician or a professional trainer, create a plan for developing stability and strength that takes into account space within growth plates, the stress of growth spurts on muscles and tendons, and the omnipresent danger of repetitive injury. Coaches may resist, but you are your child’s advocate. If they complain, be strong!
3. Don’t stick with coaches who demoralize and bully. The truth is that there are more wonderful coaches than coaches who do damage, but it would be naive to expect all coaches to have your child’s emotional and physical best interests at heart. Too often, a win-at-all-costs mentality devastates young athletes. Be on the lookout for behaviors that humiliate your child. Does the coach rant and rave at games? Does the coach call out and embarrass players? If a coach wants your child to train every day for many hours or to play when injured, that’s a sign you need another coach. The best coaches inspire through positive reinforcement and role modeling, not harassment and bullying. Be aware of coaching that may lead to long-term psychological or physical injury. Don’t let a coach talk down to you or ignore your questions. You know what’s best for your child. My students told stories that would break any mom’s heart—tales of coaches who misused their power and destroyed young athletes’ love of the game.
4. Don’t assume that “playing up” is best for your young athlete. It’s very exciting to see your child excel and be asked to play for teams with bigger and older kids. Some of us get so caught up in these opportunities that we don’t analyze whether they make sense long term. Some children can handle this, but there are costs. Physical and emotional differences can place the younger child at risk. Additionally, young athletes need to build confidence, and taking your child out of a situation that builds confidence is a gamble. Being the best in a league or on a team can instill confidence that carries over as they move into more challenging arenas. Kei Nishikori, a world-class tennis professional, is one athlete who benefited from being a big fish in a little pond. His coaches purposely kept Nishikori off the most advanced court at his training facility. They understood that confidence was the skill he needed most, so they made sure he wasn’t overshadowed by older, stronger players. Playing up isn’t always the most direct route to success.
5. Don’t bank on a D1 scholarship. Too many parents believe that their child is destined to receive a D1 college scholarship. This is especially beguiling to the single mom who has dedicated herself to her child’s athletic career. Unfortunately, this is akin to playing the lottery: don’t count on it. The odds of playing a D1 or D2 sport get tougher every year. Only the elite few—including athletes from other countries—are recruited and given scholarships. It’s very risky to bank on a free ride, even when a young athlete shows exceptional promise. Discuss the chances of injury, burnout, or falling out of favor with a coach as potential realities. It can even be challenging for well-trained athletes to make a D3 team. For example, the number-one tennis player on Wesleyan University’s D3 women’s tennis team is a talented player from Hong Kong who plays professional events during the summer and has her own Wikipedia page! Be realistic about the range of teams your athlete can potentially play for, and be careful if a coach is making vague promises. Your child may be just one in a vast collection of recruits, so convince your child to keep several options open. Make sure your child has other interests and doesn’t view sports as the only route to success.
6. Don’t tie love and affection to sport performance. Raising a gifted athlete is exciting and validating for many reasons, especially when you are on your own and making sacrifices on a daily basis. But becoming overinvested in your child’s athletic pursuits can lead to unconscious behaviors that will hurt your young athlete. Have you ever said “We won” after your child’s game or match? Don’t do it. Screaming or berating a child for missing a goal or not winning a race is a surefire way to reduce his chances of success—not to mention, to damage him emotionally. Love and affection should never be tied to athletic performance. In fact, our kids need us the most when they fail to perform well. Do what you do best! Love your child unconditionally.
Increasing the odds: Preparing your athletic child for college sports
1. Do teach your athlete to handle loss. Self-esteem is tied to sport performance, so help your sporty kid feel good about herself whether she wins or loses. Who your child is as a person shouldn’t be tied solely to whether he hits home runs or scores touchdowns—a guaranteed setup for feelings of failure and blows to his self-esteem. Most young athletes feel great when they win, but it’s how they handle loss that defines their long-term character. Successful athletes turn loss and failure into a desire to work harder. Be a cheerleader, and help them understand that every great athlete must overcome bad days and setbacks along the way. Perseverance is an invaluable skill that will serve our kids well for the rest of their lives.
2. Do recognize the challenge of performance pressure. Sports psychologists are in high demand because parents, coaches, teams, and schools put undue pressure on young athletes to perform well every time they step on the field, court, or track. They are children, not professional athletes. As a mom to child athletes, I understand the inclination to demand more of them, but kids are kids. Some days they will miss every serve just because; other days, they will look as if they’re destined for greatness. Not everyone can afford sports psychologists, so work with your child to help her maintain perspective and understand that it’s only a game. Explain that each game or match is just one of many. Their job is to learn from each playing experience. Successful athletes will tell you that they learned much more from their losses than from their wins.
3. Do your best to keep them grounded. Our society’s obsession with sports puts a premium on athletes and athleticism, which can imbue young athletes with an inflated sense of self. Schools and towns may even give young athletes privileges and leeway that other students don’t receive. There are too many instances of successful athletes who thought they were above the law or the norms of a school. Be on guard for behaviors and attitudes that demonstrate that your young athlete has lost touch with his humility and empathy. It’s up to us to make sure that sports don’t bring out the worst in our children. I’ve heard of many cases in which young athletes were deprived of full rides because they behaved badly on scouting visits or thought their poor sportsmanship would be forgiven simply because of talent.
4. Do aim for a reasonable and thoughtful training plan. If your child is in elementary school, he shouldn’t be training in just one sport. Encourage your athletic child to have a lot of fun trying different sports. This affords her the chance to find out what she loves, see where she excels, give her whole body and brain varied training from a variety of coaches, and learn how to take instruction. If your kid is in middle school and thinks that a college sport is in his future, it’s time to narrow down to one or two sports. In high school, he can pick his favorite and focus on becoming the best he can be. Make sure that cross-training continues and that your child has at least one day off each week. If you see that your child is in pain or burnt out, give him some days off. You may get flak from a coach, but you are the mom and know best!
5. Do allow your children to take ownership of their training schedules. Young athletes do better when they feel included in decisions about their training. When parents and coaches make demands without discussion or explanation, kids can begin to feel alienated from the sport they love. My oldest son and daughter, who both play D3 college tennis, made a conscious decision to spend more time on academics, so, unlike many of their friends, they didn’t play tournaments every weekend. Could this have meant the difference between D1 and D3? We’ll never know, but the important thing is that they took ownership of their training strategy and are very pleased with where they are. My middle school–aged son plays tennis and basketball, whereas my two younger daughters begged to focus just on tennis and now train in just that sport. Young athletes will work harder and stay committed longer if you maintain an ongoing discussion that makes clear their goals are valued. Of course, there will be days when you have to lay down the law and make them train when they don’t feel like it. But it’s a lot easier to make them stick to a plan that they made themselves!
6. Do cheer and encourage instead of coach. Believe me, I know this is hard. When my kids play soccer or swim, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy, but when they compete in my own sport of tennis, it takes a lot of self-control for me to not act as a coach. Folks will always point to successful athletes who were coached by a dad or mom but don’t mention the far greater number of athletes who quit a sport because a parent inserted him- or herself in the training. Too many parent-child relationships are strained and even severed by Dad or Mom taking on the coaching role. Don’t shout instructions from the sideline or spend the whole car ride home debriefing the game. Leave the coaching to someone else, and instead be present as a source of support and inspiration. A warm hug will always be more productive than a dig at what your child could have done better.
It’s not easy being mom, cheerleader, sports psychologist, financial sponsor, driver, and chef! Even if your child doesn’t end up playing college sports, the journey is still worth it if you can ensure that he or she has a safe physical and psychological experience. In fact, the rewards of sports are numerous and far-reaching for kids: an ability to take criticism and work collaboratively, self-esteem and efficacy, a strong work ethic, positive body image, resilience, self-regulation, and organization and time management. Enjoy the ride, Solo Moms!
Do you have athletic children who played college sports? How did you help them reach their goals?
A sociologist who taught at Northwestern University for over a decade, Marika Lindholm is the founder of ESME, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, a confidential community of support and connection for Solo Moms.
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