"In softball there has been an alarming trend of girls 14 & under being forced by college coaches to make verbal commitments, and it is apparently being accepted by the softball community as a positive trend. As a former college assistant, travel ball, and current head high school coach, I see that colleges are able to isolate recruits from pursuing their allotted options. Even though verbal commitments bear no legal restrictions, the student-athletes and their families are maneuvered into a corner into keeping their word. What options do families have who are subjected to these practices? And what can PCA do to intervene?"
PCA Response by Marti Reed, Partnership Manager for Positive Coaching Alliance-Los Angeles and past national champion softball player for UCLA
The softball recruiting process was very competitive back when I was in high school (2005-2008), and it has only gotten more and more competitive over the past 10 years. This competitive recruiting culture is not only in softball, but other sports as well. It is now normal to see 14-year-old girls making verbal commitments, and I think that this early commitment culture is very risky for the university and the athlete, yet it’s both parties that are driving the issue.
Colleges offer early to lock up talent before the talent commits somewhere else, and athletes commit early to not miss out on scholarship dollars (and maybe even for some bragging rights as well). Believe it or not, a lot of 14 year olds are proud and relieved to commit at that age, so not everyone is “maneuvered into a corner.” And I’ve spoken to a lot of head coaches at top collegiate softball programs who all say the same thing—they don’t like this at all and wish they could change it, but if everyone else is doing it, they’ve got to do it too in order to stay competitive. Collegiate coaches feel very distraught about having to go recruit 8th graders because the competitive culture is pushing the verbal commitment age lower and lower.
I committed to UCLA at the end of my junior year of high school (and that was “late” according to the common culture of verbal commitments). I was highly sought out by college coaches starting from my freshman year of high school, and I made sure to wait until I weighed all of my options out before I made any commitments. My goal was always to play for UCLA, and they were actually the first school to send me a letter my freshman year in high school, but even with that goal in mind, I visited five other schools, and met with five coaches and teams before I decided to commit to UCLA.
My parents did a great job of reminding me that it was my decision to make, and to enjoy the process and not let it stress me out, because being wanted is a good thing. While I was taking my time making a decision, some coaches threatened my scholarship offer to add pressure on me to make a move, and I did lose out on one of the offers because I took my time to decide, but the wait was well worth it, and I decided that if they couldn’t wait for me, then I didn’t want to go to that school anyway. When I think about my recruiting process, it involved me setting my expectations athletically, achieving my goals academically, and letting college coaches get to know me personally.
I don’t think PCA can fix the issues of early recruitment, but we can help athletes and families be better equipped in this culture. I think the best advice I can give young people and families during the recruiting process is before making that decision, do your research and know what your goals are! Look at the track record and stability of the program and coaches; you want to commit to a school and a coach who will be there in the future.
Be very clear on your goals before you commit to a college; my goal wasn’t just to play for UCLA, my goal was also to graduate from UCLA at the top of my class and set myself up for success in life after sports. Don’t forget that you are choosing a SCHOOL and not just a coach or program. I would always ask myself, “If I couldn’t play softball another day in my life, but I still had to attend the school, which school would I want to be at and why?” Choosing the right coach and program is important, but you are going to a school to get an education first and foremost, and you need to be happy where you are, no matter what team you are on.
Also understand that athletic scholarships are very limited, and academic scholarships are much more available and conceivable. I would suggest you focus on things that you can control; working hard and showing your passion to compete and improve athletically on the softball field, keeping your academics strong, and not being afraid to get to know the college coaches better on a personal level. I would email the coaches of the schools I was interested in all the time after my games, which allowed them to get to know my personality and develop a relationship with me.