College recruiting starts too young (Steve Swanson Q&A, Part 1)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Steve Swanson, who guided the USA to the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup title in September, has coached women's college ball since 1990. After stints at Dartmouth and Stanford, he has coached the University of Virginia since 2000. He spoke with us about the perils of a recruiting system that has girls commit to colleges when they’re still sophomores or 9th-graders.

SOCCER AMERICA: It’s become common practice for college coaches to offer scholarships to 10th and even 9th graders – and for players that young to commit to a college …

STEVE SWANSON: I think it’s one of the biggest potential problems that college athletics has as a whole. It’s happening with our sport in particular. We’re getting earlier and earlier.

It’s a serious enough problem, the [college] presidents have to be involved.

If this was strictly a job situation, who would make a $50,000 investment after seeing a player play for five minutes, or one game in one tournament, three years out before they go to that college?

That’s insane. But because we’ve gone down this road, because the ball is rolling, coaches feel, “Hey, we’ve got to do this for us to stay up.”

It’s a disservice to student-athletes, to the parents, to the coaches. You’re don’t have all the information. You’re going to make poor choices.

SA: Considering how expensive it is to send a child to college, wouldn’t one expect parents to be fine with their 14- or 15-year-old daughter accepting a scholarship?

STEVE SWANSON: Would you want your daughter to figure out who she’s going to marry at 14 or 15? They don’t even know themselves.

I get the financial side. But I don’t think there’s one person — I don’t think there’s a college sophomore who gets up in the morning, they go out, they have a coffee, and they breathe in deep and they say, “I’m happy here because I’m on a full ride.”

That ain’t happening. They get up in the morning and they’re happy because they’re at the right place that fits with what they want, what their needs are, on and off the field.

My concern is we’re only doing this because of the finances.

I see more and more people transferring. More and more decisions that are reversing themselves because it wasn’t the right fit one way or the other.

SA: Does this early-recruitment have a negative effect on the USA’s effort to improve at the highest level of women’s soccer?

STEVE SWANSON: One of my biggest concerns in our sport is we tend to rely so much on the physical aspect. There are some other aspects that in the long run are going to benefit more.

The tough thing we have in college is we’re being asked to evaluate players when they’re freshman in high school and pull this crystal ball out for four years down the road, and say, “Hey here’s where you’re going to be!”

I think any coach in our sport who’s saying where this player’s going to be technically, tactically, mentally – they’re just fooling themselves. And I think we have to be really careful with that.

The easy thing for a lot of college coaches, a lot of club coaches, is to go for the physical side. You know what that’s going to be. It’s probably not going to change that much.

More often than not I think the selection process, the evaluation process is looking at the physical. It’d be one thing if we were swimming or track. The college coach says, “Hey you run the mile in 3:53, so I don’t care what your technique is, how you run, because that’s better than any college runner I have right now.”

But soccer is so much different. There are so many things that go into it.

I worry about the kids. How much growth can happen between [high school] freshman and junior years? You can see amazing amounts of growth. A freshman may believe a mid-major college is about as good as they’ll get, but by their junior year they’re unbelievable and now they want to challenge themselves and play in the best conference.

SA: I’ve heard one reason players so young commit to a college is to get the process over with …

STEVE SWANSON: There’s a lot of pressure. It’s sad that for them recruitment has gotten stressful. It should be enjoyable. It should be fun to explore, go to schools. It’s become stressful and they just want to get the thing over with.

We don’t even have official visits. A student can’t make them until you’re a senior. They’ve already made the decision two years ago.

They visit all those schools on their own. The beauty of an official visit is I can pay for you to come out here. Pay for you look at this school.

SA: So players, because they pay their own way to visit colleges, may be less likely to explore opportunities farther away from home?

STEVE SWANSON: How would they know another option wouldn’t be a better fit without visiting?

SA: The pressure to commit early is applied by the coaches because they want to lock in who they think are the top players?

STEVE SWANSON: If I really wanted you and was willing wait for you, I would tell you that. Some other coach might say, “I’m moving forward here and you’re going to have to make your decision.” There are a lot of coaches out there pushing the envelope. They want to get a body into their program as soon as they can. They want to get their recruiting tied up as soon as they can.

In football you don’t wrap that kid up until they sign. Our sport is different. We have this kind of collegial agreement if somebody verbally commits, that’s it. The recruiting’s done. But a coach might gain a verbal agreement by less than moral means. Maybe they say to a sophmore, “Here’s the scholarship. You have a week to decide. I’m not going to let you look at other schools.” I think there’s some things ethically wrong with that.

This is the same person who, if you committed at a very early age, for financial reasons, gets all upset if another coach came in to recruit — even though that’s completely within the rules.

SA: What’s your advice for young players who are being pressured to commit at a young age?

STEVE SWANSON: Never commit somewhere unless you have all the information about the school, the soccer program. There are a lot of players out there who have made those commitments early and are very happy. But I think what’s happening is there are a lot of players that are equally unhappy.

If a coach really wants you, they’re going to wait for you.