The following is a guest post by Rex Grayner, President/Founder of Student-Athlete Showcase, LLC

Let’s face it, moms and dads:  Saving $100,000 (or more) for Junior’s college education is not a realistic possibility for most of us.

Even if your 529 plan hasn’t tanked, or if you have the money stuffed under your mattress right now, how can most of us write that kind of check in this unpredictable economic climate? The solution may be in the right arm of your varsity pitcher or the left foot of your midfielder.

Attention high school athletes: If your dream is to play at the college level, and you want to help mom and dad with this nightmarish bill, there’s likely a home (and money) for you – if you have the right game plan.

Only 5% of America’s high school varsity athletes ever don a college uniform; 95% never play beyond high school.  But, competing for these opportunities has become serious business in light of rising college expenses and more competitive scholarship requirements.

In the past 15 years, college recruiting has changed dramatically, much in part to the advances in recruiting technology, video and the internet.  The old adage “if I’m good enough, they’ll find me” is long gone.  College coaches have tighter budgets, more rigorous admissions standards and their jobs are on the line virtually every year, so the emphasis on winning now is more prevalent than ever.

It used to be that an athlete’s senior year was the most significant season.  Nowadays, despite efforts by the NCAA to strictly regulate when a college coach can begin courting a student-athlete, coaches have discovered ways to evaluate athletes and develop relationships with prospects well before the junior year.  As a result, prospects are verbally accepting scholarship offers, in many cases, before the coach is even permitted to pick up the phone and call them.

So, if you’re a parent of an athlete who aspires to compete at the collegiate level and (just maybe) get a chunk of that education paid for, here are four keys to your recruiting success:

1.       Start early and be proactive. By definition, your child becomes a prospect when they enter high school.  If s/he is talented enough to make the varsity squad as a 9th or 10th grader, all the more reason to begin engaging college coaches well before the junior year.  If earning a varsity spot doesn’t happen until the junior year, however, don’t panic; you still have time to mount an effective college recruiting strategy.  Just understand that the junior year – both athletically and academically – is often the critical months of the process.  Either way, do not wait for college coaches to find your child and do not expect a coach to design a 12-24 month strategy.  You are responsible for developing a game plan, and the earlier your start, the better.

2.       Be open & realistic.  In college football, for example, less than 5,000 incoming freshman roster spots are available to over 300,000 high school varsity seniors.  That means only 1.5% play Division I football.  So why do most parents sit down with their child, pick 10-12 well known colleges/universities, and start sending letters with DVD’s and résumés?

I’m sorry to break it to you folks, but you’re only scratching the surface.  While your hearts are in the right place, 10-12 schools is not the starting gate; it’s the finish line.  And more times than not, if you ask a 16 year old where they want to go to college, the understanding of what’s realistic may be distorted.

It’s important to be open to many possibilities, and allow the recruiting process to reveal legitimate opportunities.  To do so, this may require engaging 100, 200, even 300 college coaches at universities commensurate with the student’s ability level, and this may require professional help from a reputable company.

Ultimately, it’s a constant narrowing process, and the goal is to end up with 10-12 schools that are interested enough to extend offers.  Then and only then will you have obtained the kind of demand needed to select the “best” offer.

3.       Recruiting is about relationships.  College athletics is big business.  Coaches are trying to preserve their employment, and recruiting is where they strengthen or weaken their job securities.

In short, coaches recruit who they know.  If you’re attending a big college camp or competing in a college showcase tournament for the sole purpose of being discovered, you’re going about it all wrong.   The fact is, recruiting budgets are tighter than ever, and when coaches travel to showcases, they are there to scout prospects with whom they’ve already developed relationships.  Many coaches refer to these as “short lists.”

So if you want to get the best return on your investment at these events, make sure the PR and marketing components of your strategy are achieved well in advance.  Instead of trying to get discovered, try to get on as many “short lists” as possible, which means initiating communication with coaches and facilitating relationships ahead of time.

4.       Don’t get “placed.” Instead, create options and choose the “perfect fit.” Playing for a competitive team, or “club,” can be an important component to your college recruiting success.  Most athletes who are serious about earning a scholarship play outside of high school for a “travel team.”  Just understand that the time commitment can be enormous and the cost in the tens of thousands of dollars each year.  And, playing club does not guarantee college recruitment.

Some club programs are more aggressive in the marketing of their athletes to college coaches, and many advertise themselves as excellent “college placement” sources.  Getting “placed” should never be your goal, but rather, you want to end up with enough options to choose the “total package.”  Your goal should be to earn a degree and compete for Perfect Fit U, because in the end, your decision will impact not the next 4 years, but the next 40 years of your life.

I recently interviewed a former Division I soccer star who attended an SEC school on scholarship.  She told me that the club team she played for in Colorado leveraged scholarships for 19 of her 21 teammates the year she left for college.  Only 2 of these 19 athletes, however, finished at the colleges where they started.  If these kids had more choices and had the guidance they needed to carefully assess multiple offers, perhaps more would have finished what they started.

Bottom line: Give yourself plenty of time.  It’s about “packaging” yourself to college coaches, so get as much help as you can find.  Following up with coaches is key to separating yourself from the pack, and remember that the process is a marathon, not a sprint.  Don’t rely on someone to “place” you.  Instead, have a game plan that engages hundreds of college coaches until you have developed relationships with a manageable network of coaches. And then, when you’re ready to make your final decision and accept the offer that’s right for you, don’t just choose a school because of the name, or even the money.  Select the opportunity for the entire experience, the total perceived value.  That’s your Perfect Fit U.

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