USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jaimie Duffek was one of the top 50 high school softball players in Illinois who went onto play outfield for Drake University. Jaimie is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
A recent comment from South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin touched a nerve with many in the sporting world, “Kids haven’t changed. We demand less of kids. We expect less of kids. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about.”
Martin’s words only helped reignite the debate around “participation” trophies that hit the national spotlight two years ago. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison posted on social media that he was returning his son’s participation trophies. Parents, politicians, sports commentators, psychologists, and just about everyone else seemed to have an opinion on the subject.
But I wanted to get the candid opinion of those who work with student-athletes every day. I talked to several college, high school, and club coaches to get their thoughts on today’s student-athletes, parents and Martin’s comments and how it shapes college recruiting.
What is the biggest difference between the kids you coach now and the kids you played sports with when you were growing up?
Most coaches agreed that in addition to being bigger, faster and stronger, there were other noticeable differences, including the influence of smartphones and social media.
“Between texting, Hudl and digital playbooks, very little if anything is written down. The most popular excuse for missing a practice or a workout is I didn’t get a text,” said one coach.
Other coaches noted players today seemed very tentative and often afraid to try something new or make a mistake.
“It’s one thing to make a mistake and be embarrassed at practice. It’s another to make that mistake, then have your teammate post about it on social media–even when the intent is not malicious.”
Another common thread was the seeming lack of competitiveness.
“It’s rare to find players who are truly competitive. If you try and teach them to be competitive, you come off as being too mean or aggressive.”
Others also mentioned the lack of all-out behavior on the field, while some felt the ability to compete has been stunted and replaced with the ability to showcase.
“It’s playing to win vs. playing for a scholarship.”
Coaches were not, however, without empathy for today’s student-athletes.
“They’re a generation growing up under a microscope and everything is criticized. I feel at least that I really got to just be a kid and go play.”
Other coaches agreed.
“Players seemed more stressed and almost paralyzed with self-doubt at times, playing a sport used to be a break, but now it seems like it’s just adding pressure for some of these young people.”
What is the biggest difference between parents today and parents you remember growing up with when you were playing sports?
If you ever thought helicopter parents were a lot of hype, just talk to a few coaches.
“Parents today are WAY more involved—and not in a good way. They talk more, listen less. Playing sports has now become an investment and parents are looking for an ROI.”
One coach remembered their parents being involved, showing up, and honoring their commitments.
“However, my parents were not of the mindset that I was owed anything. Even when I deserved to be playing and wasn’t, they were not the type to complain to coaches. And those were important lessons for me: to learn how to handle adversity, that life isn’t always fair, and you don’t always get what you deserve.”
Do you agree with Coach Martin or do you think it’s a non-issue?
All the coaches I spoke with (100 percent) voiced their agreement with Frank Martin.
“Our coaches seem to be the first people in many of our players’ lives who have set high expectations, demanded effort, and provided consequences when those expectations were not met. As a coach, it’s a challenge to break through that because there’s been so much instant gratification in these young players’ lives.”
Other coaches noted, “Players are less prepared to handle adversity than they have in the past.”
Does making it easier for student-athletes now make it tougher for them when it comes to recruiting and playing college?
Again, it was virtually unanimous.
“Instant gratification is still a big issue here. The college recruiting process can move very slowly, and you may not always get what you want out of it. For example, if a student-athlete feels they deserve to play at a certain school, that’s a hard mindset to break. If they don’t keep their options open that can lead to disappointment when that single dream doesn’t come to fruition.
“Making it easier now is just kicking reality down the road. Competition only gets tougher, and sometimes the best way to help your son or daughter is to not help them so much. They need to figure it out. And the sooner they learn to deal with ups and downs, the better off they are going to be–not only when it comes to recruiting and sports, but in life. College coaches look for that level of maturity and independence.”
And what about participation trophies?
Surprisingly, coaches were divided on the topic. Some saw absolutely no benefit at all to the practice while other saw absolutely no problem with it at the rec league and younger levels.
For one coach, not getting a trophy had a profound and positive effect.
“I don’t believe there is a benefit to this philosophy. I still, 20 years later, remember the first softball tournament my team lost. We lost on a bad call by a young umpire, and I was heartbroken. So much of my competitiveness stems from that moment. It’s something I try to instill in my players now: losing should hurt, failure hurts, and the best thing you can do is let it drive you. Of course, I didn’t understand that big picture at 7-years old, but I knew I hated losing, and that I was going to do everything in my power to avoid it.”