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. Jesse Churchward is a former Division 1 lacrosse player. In addition to his senior head recruiting coach duties at NCSA, Jesse also serves as the head coach for a U15 travel team. Jesse 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 young athlete named Bunchie Young recently made some big waves in the news when he received a verbal offer from the University of Illinois to play football—at 9 years old. And Bunchie isn’t alone. More and more athletes are verbally committing to colleges before they even get to high school.
Early recruiting is a controversial topic. While most coaches acknowledge that they don’t particularly like it, they have to take part in the practice to stay competitive with other programs.
“Sometimes you feel so hypocritical as a coach, when you’re saying you don’t think it’s healthy to recruit kids at [a young] age, but then you’re actively in that process,” Western Kentucky women’s volleyball coach Travis Hudson told ESPNW.
Some people who dislike this practice have turned to the NCAA to create and enforce regulations that would hinder or stop this trend altogether. However, the NCAA explains that regulating early recruiting would be almost impossible.
In April 2017, however, the NCAA decided to crack down on early recruiting in lacrosse. The rule bans college coaches from contacting lacrosse recruits before Sept. 1 of their junior year, effective August 1, 2017. Many speculate that it will have a very positive impact on lacrosse recruiting for coaches, parents and, most importantly, the athletes. And it may open the gates for other sports to follow suit.
What’s the problem with early recruiting?
Before the early recruiting rule in lacrosse, nearly 50 student-athletes every year verbally committed to schools before their freshman year of high school. In a smaller sport like lacrosse, this is a huge number, and for high-profile sports like football and basketball, this number is much higher. Early recruiting has, in fact, significantly altered the youth sports landscape:
- Youth sports now focus less on skills development and more on showcasing the athletes’ talent. When athletes are in 6th, 7th and 8th grade, they should be working on developing their skills and cultivating a love of the game. Instead, they work tirelessly to attract the attention of college coaches, oftentimes accruing overuse injuries in the process.
- Early recruiting pressures immature athletes to make major life decisions. Most middle school students don’t know what they want to major in or how to choose a college. Nevertheless, athletic programs press these middle school athletes to make a life-long choice at a young age.
- Moving the recruiting timeline up has cranked up the intensity in youth sports. Early recruiting breeds hyper-focused athletes and parents. To snag an offer by the time athletes reach high school, parents feel the pressure and are willing to pull out all the stops to help their athlete succeed.
- Students who excelled academically in middle school may not be academically eligible when they get to high school. Eligibility is a huge component of the recruiting process, and an eighth grade 3.8 GPA is a lot different from a junior year 3.8 GPA. This could mean committed athletes lose offers at the last minute because coaches incorrectly projected their academic qualifications.
- Athletes who develop later can be left in the lurch. Some athletes aren’t fully developed by the time they hit middle school and can fall through the cracks in the early recruiting process.
How can early recruiting rules help athletes in the recruiting process?
While the intensity of youth sports is probably the new norm, slowing down the recruiting process for athletes is projected to have some major positive impacts. Students have much longer to focus on skill building and development. Those athletes who are late bloomers have a few more years to grow and mature, which can open up opportunities for more athletes. Meanwhile, athletes also have a chance to enjoy their sport and be kids, without the pressure of early recruiting dogging every game and practice.
More importantly, students have more time to really understand what they want out of their college experience. They can take unofficial visits to schools, determine what they want to major in, and better understand where they want to go. Putting this decision back into the hands of high school upperclassmen is a major benefit of early recruiting rules.
However, as mentioned before, it will be tough for the NCAA to thoroughly regulate these new rules, and some speculate that club coaches will take a much more prominent role in communicating with college coaches on behalf of their athletes. Just because college coaches aren’t able to talk to athletes before their junior year, doesn’t mean they won’t be watching them play. This could mean that athletes in prestigious clubs that have the resources to help their players get recruited could gain a serious upper hand.
Will early recruiting rules become a reality for other sports?
While strong advocates in the lacrosse community helped push the new rule through the NCAA, no other sport is close behind on regulating early recruiting. Especially for revenue sports like football and basketball, early recruiting ensures that powerhouse schools get the jump on recruiting top talent. However, as we watch the impact of early recruiting on lacrosse, it may help other sports plead their case.
For now, coaches, athletes and parents can still agree on one thing: early recruiting is a tough reality of the college athletic recruiting landscape.