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Playing Sports in College: What’s the Game Plan?

When I was getting up at the crack of dawn to get my kid to track practice, I had no illusions my son was a track star with Olympic dreams. He didn’t join the team for his love of running. He had to fill a hole in his college application.

High school band and drama club were out, and track was in. It was perfect: No cuts, no problem. I was thrilled he was moving his body. He enjoyed making new friends. It was a win-win. (No pun intended.) But for some kids and parents, sports are serious business.

Playing Collegiate Level Sports

“All my son did in high school was eat, sleep, work out and study,” said Cari Kuprenas, mother of a DI water polo player at Princeton University. Unfortunately, living and breathing sports isn’t a guarantee that your next David Beckham or Serena Williams will get the Golden Ticket—the student athlete scholarship or a spot on the varsity team. But, your sports enthusiast could get a chance to play sports in college, if they plan it right and keep an open mind.

Assess Skills and Goals

Cecilia Castellano, vice provost for strategic enrollment planning at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio, suggests assessing the following: “What is their skill level, level of interest, and commitment towards their sport? What are their academic and career goals?”

“Academics and career goals should come first,” stresses Van Wright, assistant to the vice provost for strategic enrollment planning at BGSU. For most students, college graduation will be the end of their athletic career. Choosing a college that is a good fit academically, socially, geographically, and financially is just as important (if not more) than which team your athlete plays on.

Set Priorities

Teens also need to think about how they will balance the dual rigors of sports and academics at college. How much of a priority will sports be in their lives? Wright recommends that students and parents do their research by visiting college and NCAA websites to better understand the time commitment a particular sport will require; it can vary depending on the school and athletic division.

Division I sports are the most selective, offer the most money, and have a huge year-round time commitment (far greater than in high school)—often leaving student athletes with time for little else. Conversely, Division III is the most manageable in terms of time commitment, but rarely involves scholarship money.

Consider Cost

“Parents also need to consider what their family can afford,” says Castellano. You might be hoping for a scholarship for your child, but only around 6% of high school athletes will compete in the NCAA, and less than 2% will receive student athlete scholarship money.

Have a Backup Plan

“Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” she adds. “Families need to be planning and saving some money just in case their child gets an injury, doesn’t get a scholarship, or loses their passion for that sport.”

For student athletes hoping to grab a coveted spot on an NCAA team, their high school coach should be their first point of contact. Coaches often have connections at colleges and universities and can reach out directly to a school’s athletic recruiters.

High school student athletes will need to keep academics a priority because recruiters will be looking at their grades and test scores right along with their sports stats. And be aware that the level of commitment required to have a shot at being recruited may mean sacrificing other interests while your child is in high school.

Commit to Training

Keeping your student injury free and in college-level condition may also be a challenge.

“Kids who are serious about playing need to know how to eat and train properly,” advises Dr. Peter Waldstein, a Los Angeles pediatrician. This is another area where the high school coach or athletic trainer should provide guidance. Waldstein also recommends students have an echocardiogram (a heart ultrasound) to make sure your teen’s heart can handle playing at a highly competitive level.

One final thought to consider about playing sports in college: If your student would be happy to play a sport in college just for the love of the game—and as a way to stay active and make friends at school—consider club or intramural sports. Having all of the fun, minus the time commitment and competitive pressure, could be the winning game plan for your student.

Linda Wolff writes the parenting and lifestyle blog Carpool Goddess, where she blazes the trail from teen years to empty nest proving that midlife and motherhood aren’t so scary. Find her at: FB and Twitter @carpoolgoddess

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