The University Commitment Game
There has been a lot of press/posts about youth sports lately - much of it terrific by the way. From specializing too early, to the pressures of developing at the “correct” rate, to young athletes taking correction as criticism, lots of great stuff out there online. One of the things that I did some research on this week was early commitment of student-athletes to universities and colleges. And I was a little shocked by what I found.
First was this online list of college hockey commitments (https://www.collegecommitments.com/CommitList.aspx). On the men’s side (well, boy’s side), there are seven commitments listed of students currently in grade 8. GRADE 8!! And another 42 committed student-athletes who will soon just be finishing their grade 9 year, 218 in grade 10. On the girl’s side, only one is in grade 8, 39 in their grade 9 year and 114 grade 10’s. I find these numbers to be a little staggering. (I don’t know how accurate the listing is (it’s the internet!) but even if it’s close it’s still staggering.)
Now, I know this is a phenomenon (early commitments) that college coaches do not like. TwinCities.com ran the following article last September: https://www.twincities.com/2017/09/15/how-young-is-too-young-coaches-debate-after-13-year-old-commits-to-gophers/. It explains why this is happening and somewhat how coaches feel about it. For coaches, it’s a risky proposition. First, you are committing to a very young athlete who may be a totally different athlete in four years, either physically or even mentally (think “I hate hockey!”). Second, you are betting long term that a student-athlete is going to be an academic fit for your school as well.
Coaches and hockey programs are also missing out on the “late bloomer” or the player who just flies under the radar. As a student-athlete, I was a very average midget AA player in grade 11 but developed through my last two years in high school into a sought after NCAA Division 1 recruit with multiple offers. I know that wouldn’t have happened in today’s environment and I would not have been on any school’s radar.
It may seem like a good thing for young grade 9 and 10 students to be committed to universities earlier, and in many ways, it’s a relief for a family to know that their child has “made it”. But I would argue that there are some really bad things about this trend for the individual student athlete as well:
1) There is a lot of pressure to maintain both the level of athletic ability but also the academic level that is expected by the university. A big number of grade 9 commitments on the above mentioned lists are committed to very good academic institutions. How much pressure is there on those Ivy League recruits to maintain an academic level (and SAT score) that will get them through the admissions process?
2) My son is just about to finish grade 11 and write his SATs for the first time in a few weeks. He is a good student and will have lots of choice of university destinations. We spoke in the car the other day how much fun the next year is going to be finding his university fit. There is no pressure, just a great adventure that could end at any one of a number of great universities - all that will be a terrific choice. Those grade 9 commits won’t have that opportunity to have the same experience. They are locked in at 14 years old. What if the university doesn’t have the academic program they decide they want to study when they are in grade 12? Too bad. Do grade 8 and 9 students even go on university visits? How do you know fit if all you know is the assistant coach that you met at the prospect tournament last summer? My university visits in grade 13 (which my linemates and I did without parents!) consisted of seeing a game, spending a night in the dorms with current players, meeting the coach, maybe attending a class, getting a good feel for the life of the university. I am pretty sure we would not have had the same visit experience if we had been 13 years old.
3) If I am a university coach that has committed a young athlete, I think I might want to have a say in where they play through high school. I would want to make sure they are getting the right development, with the right program, in the right league, with the right coach, at the right school so they are truly prepared to step into my program (academically too!). I would never be able to confirm that this does happen but, it is a realistic possibility and I know that’s not a great prospect for young people and their families.
4) Early commitments take spots away from the “walk on”. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have with college and university coaches about players in grade 12 and even in grade 11 that end with “we have no spots left for that year”. “But”, I say, “if she is better than some players who are either committed or returning I am sure you will find a spot for her”. “Well, no” is almost always the answer. Coaches promise the moon to grade 10 kids and then have to keep the promise - sometimes for the next seven years no matter what.
As I write this I am conscious of the fact that pretty much everyone feels the same way about this - except for maybe those families who are driven by being able to say their son/daughter “has committed to (fill in the blank) university to play hockey!” Simple solution? Don’t allow coaches to have any contact with player until at least the fall of their grade 11 year. I truly believe that someone, the NCAA and uSports, has to step in a do something about this issue. I would guess that there is parental pressure for early commitments to be allowed but, my goodness, some rule decisions have to be made by the adults in the room.
Notes: Here are a few links to articles that relate to this topic that are good reads.
Latest University of Michigan Commit was Born in the Year 2000 (from Jan 15, 2015) http://www.thehockeynews.com/news/article/latest-university-of-michigan-commit-was-born-in-the-year-2000
Committing to Play for a College, Then Starting 9th Grade https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/sports/committing-to-play-for-a-college-then-starting-9th-grade.html
The Cost of Winning https://vimeo.com/233269552 (hang in to the Ohio State coaches talking around the 9:40 mark!)