NCAA scholarship reality check.

Study abroad, they said. Apply for a scholarship, they said. It will be easy, they said…

They said a lot of things but they also said very little about a lot of other things!

The associated prestige of being scouted and awarded a sports scholarship to study at a university in the USA is an ideal, vivid in the minds of many school leavers across the globe, fuelled by the movies. 

I have no wish to detract from the commitment and determination, sacrifice and dedication that goes into applying for, and being accepted into an American university, especially on a sports scholarship. It’s TOUGH, competitive and downright scary, on many levels!

Looking back over the past five years as a parent of a student athlete, I am now free to give my point of view, without jeopardising my child in any way. Bear with me, especially if you are a parent in a similar situation as I was, back then, you’ll thank me for it later!

I can only offer an opinion based on my experience as a South African, and more latterly, from a Dutch perspective. 

We all know what a privilege it is to even have the chance to attend a university, or any tertiary institution, as the fees are crazy, along with all the add-ons, like accommodation, food, allowances, transportation, and so on. In some countries, these privileges are awarded to those who show the required ability and commitment, and are awarded on merit, whilst in other countries, this tertiary education is viewed as a right, and often demanded as such.

In America there are possibly more opportunities to attend a university than in any other country in the world, simply by the sheer number of campuses across their very vast country. I have read many heart wrenching accounts of students not being able to afford the fees, and also those whose families have sacrificed all that they have in order to make the grade. Perhaps there are equal numbers who have slogged the studies and continue slogging to pay off their student loans for decades to follow – those stories are even more heart wrenching as they represent the majority of students: those that have been overlooked or are talented, only to fall within the parameters of the average.

Back to my experience with the “American Dream”. 

First off, one needs to familiarize oneself with the various levels of university in America. In the case of seeking a sports scholarship, this would involve pitching the application at a level where the athlete would be comfortable with their ability. Obviously everyone wants the prestige of attending an Ivy League institution, as in the case of the newly aired Netflix documentary titled “The College Admissions Scandal”, however those lauded institutions do not offer scholarships (only “payoffs”). Top 10 is exactly what it’s name suggests. Division 1 would be the next level to approach for a decent chance at a decent level of the sport for the student’s athletic discipline.

If one is available to attend a recruiting camp, all the better to gauge the level and the campus. The alternative is to leave your dream in the hands of a recruiter who will take the video footage sent by the athlete, and promote them on their behalf. This is the beginning of the gig…

Big excitement and celebration when the offers start to come in from the well paid recruiter – there could be very few, or plenty to choose from. My advice is not to become overawed by the first offer. Easier said than done!

Sign on the dotted line and amidst the usual American fanfare, you will receive confirmation of your place in the university, on the team and part of the mighty student athlete machine, all “owned” by the NCAA.

It is interesting to note that this is where the parents are firmly requested to step aside and rightly so. It is now time for the student to step up and take responsibility for their choice and to get on with the job that they have applied for and been accepted into.

In the event of an injury, the parents may not inquire after the student’s health or progress as the student is now the “property” of the NCAA and communication is only permitted between the athlete and the university. Sorry for concerned parents! Perhaps this is to combat the helicopter-types who feel the need to involve themselves in every aspect of their children, now young adults, lives, in which case, I’m a fan! As an international student athlete’s parent, it is a little disconcerting due to the geographical distance from one’s injured offspring.

Moving on through the years, it has been a joyride and a terror tunnel roller coaster experience. Mostly the joyride, since there is a choice in all things in our lives and remaining focused and positive certainly helps to make the terror tunnel bits easier to bear. 

What has come to pass is the realization that this is a numbers game: there are SO many talented, willing, desperate young people out there, that these institutions can cherry-pick the best of them, in their numbers, grill them with insane training schedules that inevitably run them into physical injury, without a shred of conscience, since there are still so many more talented students ready to step in and fill the gap left by an injured teamie.

Bring on the 20 hours per week training and playing schedule, coupled with a full academic study program demanding a minimum GPA, and you have a recipe for burnout and mental health issues.

Yes, the tough survive and these kids signed up for this gig so they ought to suck it up and get on with the prestige that they enjoy with the title of “student athlete”. Who wants to be a NARP anyway?! (Non Athletic Regular Person)

It seems that the South African’s are made of tough stuff (we know that, right?!) as they knuckle down and get on with the job at hand, usually for the full four or five years.

The Dutch a little less so since most last a year or two before opting for a return to their lives of European familiarity. In fairness to the Dutch, I believe that they are a little less complaint and a lot more outspoken about what they find reasonable and acceptable for a student athlete to undertake and, in the case of field hockey, they actually want to enjoy their chosen sport and not turn it into a four year work grind.

My summary would be to bring back the love of the game, applaud the natural talent of those participants and allow students to be students, within the parameters of good grades, fun on the pitch and an adjustment to the life of adulting that lies ahead of them all.

Thanks America, the adventure has been an enjoyable and enlghtening one!

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