This week 11-year-old softball phenom Alexia Carrasquillo was offered an athletic scholarship from the Florida Gators, even though she has yet to play an inning of high school softball. While the vast majority of her fifth-grade peers have barely given thought to sixth grade, Carrasquillo will already have her entire future set for the next 10 years upon signing with UF. Are 11-year-olds mature enough and mentally equipped to make college athletic commitments at this young an age? And are parents who consent to having their child commit this early doing a favor -- or disservice -- to their athletically gifted child? And finally, does anyone really know if an 11-year-old who may love playing softball now will still have a passion to play at college in seven years?
How young is too young?
It is important to expand the conversation of NCAA recruiting and age beyond Alexia Carrasquillo, as she is not the first youngster to be offered an athletic scholarship years before high school graduation. These days, with year-round sport participation, camps, clinics, and high-profile tournaments, college coaches have many more opportunities to size up future prospects earlier than ever before. Throw in social media, Youtube, and other means of contemporary information gathering, and you can see how there is a race to secure future athletic talent -- and nailing down recruits before anyone else is the ultimate goal. Still, we are talking about kids, and questions should be examined about the child's level of maturity, future interests, and even risks for sports burnout before college that would directly impact the child's later experience playing in college.
So how young is too young? If an 11-year-old just signed, will we soon see kids accepting college scholarship before hitting double-digits in age in the near future? Having worked professionally with kids for nearly 25 years, the biggest challenge for kids is often not knowing what they don't know, or in other words, simply not having the life experience and wisdom needed to make important decisions. One response I often hear is that parents can mitigate these shortcomings of the child, but I would respond to that by saying that it is still the child who must eventually fulfill the college athletic scholarship requirements, not parents. While it may behoove a college coach to get an early commitment before his or her peers do, parents may want to look at how their child's age and maturity factor in to this kind of a life decision.
There are a number of potential problems for kids and their families when they sign on early for a college athletic scholarship, including the following:
• Sports burnout:Elite-level student athletes today often specialize in one sport, and sometimes play that sport year-round. Consequently, many kids who initially have fun playing their sport eventually become stale and fatigued (physically and mentally), leaving them in a tough position having to fulfill a college athletic scholarship playing a sport they no longer enjoy.
• Prematurely signing before a better offer is made:Some overzealous parents prematurely jump at the first college offer their child receives, only to learn later that they could have found a better fit had they given more time to process the decision.
• Parents getting in front of their child's goals and interests:For some parents the dream to see their child one day become a college student athlete is more important to them than it is their child, and their excitement can push the child to agree to a commitment they haven't fully understood or want to pursue.
• Early, undue pressure to play at an even higher level:When a child as young as 11 signs on to play college sports, you can bet everyone in the school and community will know about it. As a result of this unique attention, many kids struggle being in the spotlight and dealing with the stress that often accompanies fame.
• Unwanted media attention:Most kids play sports to have fun and spend time with friends, but early college commitments are often sought after by media outlets looking for an interesting story. These requests can sometimes be overwhelming, especially for young kids, and can also lead to unwanted stress that can impact academic and sport performance.
• Is it the best fit?When a kid signs on to a college years before graduating, he/she has no idea what the college landscape will look like once he/she arrives on campus. Will the current coaches still be there? What about other recruits who may end up battling for the same position? Kids who commit early essentially have no idea what they are in store for once they eventually arrive on campus.
At the end of the day the decision regarding whether a child commits to a college athletic scholarship runs exclusively through parents, and this is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Remember, college coaches aren't concerned about long-term consequences of a kid signing early, as their sole focus is to develop winning college teams. Leaving the decision exclusively up to a kid isn't generally a wise move, either, as most kids are not fully aware of the magnitude (and potential related issues) of signing on with a college before high school. Take your time, solicit multiple credible opinions, and weigh all alternatives before allowing your child to sign on early.
Dr. Chris Stankovich is the founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. Sports parents, please check out The Parents Video Playbook and sports counseling services at drstankovich.com.