Hey you- before you read this and start disagreeing with my extremely angsty yet good-intentioned advice, know that this is MY specific experience. Take it for what it’s worth. Though I think quite highly of myself and think of myself as a superkewlsuperfunsuperawesome person, I am not God and therefore do not claim to be right in everything I’m saying. This is just MY experience- 10 years worth. If you disagree with me- fine. If you don’t, please share this with anyone you know who could use some insight into the recruiting world.
My friends and I occasionally reminisce about the colleges we dreamed about signing with when we were young and optimistic 16 year olds.
“I remember getting letters from Georgetown and UConn…I visited both and it was always between me and one other girl. The other girl always got the call.”
“I got a letter from Texas when I was a sophomore in high school…I knew they were a huge school with a big budget that could send letters to thousands of girls, but that didn’t make it seem any less real or exciting at the time.”
Then we would all laugh, half cursing and half thanking the volleyball gods who brought us to a mid-major university located in upstate New York. We were born in the Midwest, a proverbial hotbed for coaches to recruit from, and we had all signed our National Letters of Intent senior year, after verbally committing our junior year of high school.
There is a predictable formula in the volleyball recruitment world: play year round, make constant calls and send emails to at least five college programs, and panic over how much money we would be offered. After all, our parents spent nearly the equivalent of a college’s tuition on club volleyball- shouldn’t we somehow be reimbursed? It seemed only fair.
After playing a D1 sport for four years, I have finally come to terms with the fact that fairness is not reality in this particular world. The recruiting process is fraught with disillusions. Luckily, my parents took charge, and dragged me (unwillingly, at the time) through the process. As much as I wanted to play volleyball in college, I was not as eager to work the process. Fortunately, they encouraged me to look at the “bigger picture”. And because I did, I will be graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree from the 10th best public university in the nation without any debt (according to the Princeton Review).
Even though my situation turned out better than I could have ever dreamed, the recruiting process was long, painful, and full of tears for me. Sitting on the piano bench in our front room, I stressed over being 900 miles away from home in order to attain a full scholarship and a good education. I was unsure of my major. Did I want to pursue Studio Arts or English? I was under the impression that my major would determine the job I would get after college. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was only sixteen.
I wish I could go back and tell myself everything would be fine- great, even. I’ve learned so much from my recruitment experience and from my decision to play away from home. I wish someone would have shared the unglamorous side of playing college sports.
No one ever told me that college sports were a business, or about the significant turnover rate of college coaches. So here, I give you a list of some of important lessons learned throughout my high school and college volleyball experience. This is what I wish I would have known when I was sixteen:
- Realize how realistic your opportunity is to receive a full or partial scholarship. Big universities like Wisconsin, USC, and Florida have fully funded volleyball programs- they can offer 12 full scholarships. The scholarships can be divided up or used whole. Mid major schools have 8 full scholarships. In volleyball, it is rare to see full scholarships given to defensive specialists or liberos. Scholarships are usually reserved for hotshot hitters and setters and are typically offered sophomore and junior year of high school. Smaller Division 1 schools tend to offer spring of junior year or into fall of senior year at the latest. Have realistic expectations about your height. There are exceptions (think Deme Morales hitting outside for Wisconsin rostered at 5’7”), but chances are, a big school will not offer a roster spot to a 5’6” hitter at a D1 school.
- Figure out how big of a role you want to have on a team. Sitting out and warming the bench for two years during club taught me a very important lesson: playing time was crucial to me. When I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go, I eliminated anyone who told me I would not be a four-year starter. When I committed to Binghamton, I was told they were looking for a four-year starter. Both coaches told me this on my first visit. Even so, nothing is guaranteed. A coach can bring in another scholarship player or transfer who could take your spot. It’s a highly stressful situation to be in constant competition for a position. If you are recruited your senior year of high school and given no scholarship, chances are you will need to work hard just to see any court time by the time you are a junior or senior.
- Have some perspective- you may be the best player in your area but remember once you commit you’ll be in a large pool of talented athletes. Being recruited and committing while in high school is “cool” and an honor. You may receive more attention as a result. Unfortunately, this sometimes goes straight to an athlete’s head and they become cocky. I’ve seen this too many times to count- even in myself. I am extremely embarrassed to admit this, but I carried myself as if I were better than the players on other teams I played. Playing in college deflated my head- after playing teams like Penn State and UCLA I realize I’m just one of thousands of players who were good in high school. In saying so, I have enormous respect for high school and college athletes who are grounded and realize that their scholarship is a privilege (not to say I didn’t think having a scholarship wasn’t a privilege, because I did). After all, playing in high school or collegiately only lasts for so long before you need to move on.
- Choose a school that fits your academic needs and desires. Your primary goal should be obtaining a degree. Please, dear God, do not choose a school solely on athletics. Only the best collegiate volleyball players go on to playing professionally. Choose a school in which you can earn a degree. Volleyball has to end at some point. Athletes are often pushed towards universities that are not the best fit for them (think of the basketball players who read at a 5th grade level at UNC…yikes). In my case, I could have chosen to play at a school that had a great volleyball program and an average ACT score of 20, or an ivy league with a decent volleyball program. I chose the middle ground and could not be happier with my decision.
- Choose which Division is best for you and where you’ll be truly the happiest. Division 1 is not for everyone. Some kids strive to go to a Division 1 school just because it is “Division 1” and miss out on opportunities to be happier and get more playing time on a Division 2 or 3 team. A kid from my high school signed to play Division 1 soccer and then later decided he wanted to play basketball instead and went Division 2. I think it is so cool that he didn’t care about the “glamour” of being able to say, “I play D1”, and did what he felt was right for himself.
- Get to know the coaching staff but be aware that the staff is subject to change. When I first met my current head coach, I knew he cared about his players on AND off the court. If a player were injured, they would be able to resume their position when healthy. Some coaches will instead replace you and not renew your scholarship if you do not improve. Also realize your coaching staff could change. A couple months after I committed to Binghamton, I received an email from the assistant coach at the time letting me know that she would be accepting a coaching job elsewhere. I was shocked and somewhat disappointed, as she was one of the reasons I committed. I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Because college sports are a business, the turnover rate for assistant and head coaches can be somewhat fast. Assistant coaches at small mid-major schools tend to sign a contract for a short amount of time and leave after they accept another job- often a step up from their previous job. I’ve also had coaching staffs recruit me only to leave their respective school and drop me instantly. The coaching staff at any school is subject to change- I’ve seen a new coach come into a program and purge the previous scholarship players and bring in his own players. Situations like this aren’t common, so don’t worry too much, but keep this in mind while on visits and also be aware of the turnover rate. I have had two great assistant coaches throughout my career and an awesome head coach who will be entering his 17th season this next fall.
- Everything will be okay. I find it extremely necessary to reinforce this point because it is true in 99.9% of cases. I’ve seen a previous team mate get dropped by the team she verbally committed to her sophomore year only to bounce back at another school and earn AVCA All-American honors and break countless records. The recruiting process may seem hard and test your sanity but trust your instincts and remember that college volleyball is only four (or five) years of your entire life.
Now that I’m a “retired” athlete, I can look back and gain perspective on how the recruiting process and college volleyball changed my life for the better. The recruiting process was like a game to me. I felt as though I were “leading on” several schools just so I didn’t get “screwed over”. Keep your options open, and commit once your choice school offers. Play the game by the rules and you will succeed, I was correctly taught.
Volleyball has had an enormous impact on my life, and I have no regrets. I’ve made friends from all over the world (yes, the world). I’ve learned time management.
I’ve experienced the highs and the lows: crying in bathroom stalls (multiple times), and laughing uncontrollably with teammates. I’ve traveled across America, lost an NCAA tournament game against Penn State, and created lifelong friendships and connections because of this sport.
I would not trade my experience for the world. Though I was ready to move on by my senior season, I do not regret sticking with volleyball till the end. Volleyball has provided me with the biggest life lessons of all: everything does turn out okay and someday I’ll be able to really ball out in bar league volleyball.