Welcome to Interview #5.
I am pleased to share with you the wisdom of NCAA Division 3 Soccer Coach, Brittany Nikolic of Alverno College.
*Note: Coach Nikolic has moved on since this interview to Parkside Wisconsin.
Where do D3 soccer coaches most often find players for their teams?
We look everywhere. I go to club tournaments and showcases and I watch a lot more high school games as a D3 coach than I did at Division 1. I will also use some recruiting services to help identify out of state players who might be a good fit and definitely look for recruits at the camps that I work.
You played at a high level in Division 1 and coach at a Division 3 school. What do you see as the benefits of athletes choosing a Division 3 program?
Time is the biggest benefit. D3 athletes are competitive and talented athletes just like Division 1 athletes, but they get more freedom and flexibility throughout the year to choose how to use their time. I grew up playing multiple sports and loved them all, but eventually I felt compelled to focus on one, so one of the great things that I see much more often in Division 3 compared to 1 or 2 is the chance for these athletes to be two-sport athletes in college. But even if you are just in for one sport, you’ll be able to devote more time to studying, working, other campus organizations or whatever interests you because typically your competition travel won’t be as long and off season mandatory training is limited.
What can or should high school athletes do from their end to get on your radar screen?
Be proactive and communicate with the coaches. We are identifying hundreds of prospects and someone who communicates regularly, tells me where I can see her play, and asks questions about our program and academics becomes someone I want to take a closer look at. For the first contact, I recommend sending an email directly to the coach and doing some research before so you can mention specific things you like about the school. Then I know that this player truly has some interest and it’s worth my time to find out more about her.
How important are 3rd party recruiting companies for you in finding athletes?
I definitely use them to search for new prospects and start initial conversations when I need specific positions filled. So I think they can benefit the high school athlete. That being said, many athletes seem to depend on these services to do everything for them when a lot of it can and should be done by the athlete. I would much rather get a personal email from a high school athlete than a website generated blast that is going to at least a hundred other coaches. Much of the leg work the services do can be done by the athlete themselves if they identify what type of school, location, and program they want and then send a profile and schedule to those coaches.
If an athlete personally contacts you by phone or email, what will you do next?
I’ll usually respond right away and have her fill out our questionnaire so I can get more background information on the student. Then I’ll typically reach out to a coach or reference she lists to get more information and if all looks good then I’ll try to see her play.
You have been at a women’s college for 7 years. Why should female athletes consider playing at a college where there are no boys?
Because we get to call all the shots, don’t have to share facilities and resources with men’s teams and are always the prime time event. It is so nice having our soccer field just to ourselves and getting to practice exactly when we want. We are never overshadowed by a men’s game so the whole campus really takes note of what our women are accomplishing on the court and on the field. Academically it’s a wonderful choice because women’s college students perform at higher levels in the classroom, engage more in their education and have more self-confidence which is great for developing leaders in sport and in life.
What is the role of the parent in the recruiting process?
They are important in helping guide their child to find the right fit. And most of the time they are going to be taking care of much of the financial burden of college, so they have every right to participate in the process. I think the most helpful parents give advice when needed but also allow their children to speak for themselves and take ownership of the process. I want the parents involved and to get to know me so they are comfortable sending their daughter to us, but in the end it’s the student I will be coaching and we will be educating not the parent so I really want to get to know the student and hear her voice during the process.
What should recruits and their parents keep their eyes open for when they are on a campus visit?
Clearly you want to check out the campus as a whole, residence halls, classrooms and athletic facilities, but I think watching how people around campus interact with one another is really important. That can give you insight as to whether or not it’s a place you feel comfortable. How do the students interact with each other? Do the players and coaches seem to have good relationships? Many recruits talk about having that “feeling” at a certain school and I believe there is something to be said for that.
What does the offseason, spring season and summer look like for a D3 soccer player?
The off season is long and takes self-discipline and motivation because for much of the year your coach is not allowed to conduct the training sessions. From the end of the fall season in November until the spring season starts up, which is late March for us, there is no mandatory training allowed. You can work out under the supervision of a strength and conditioning coach and the team can do “captains practices” and other such training but your sport coaches cannot be there for those. In the spring season Division 3 programs are permitted up to 16 dates during five weeks and one of those dates can be against outside competition. So we start that up in late March and go through the month of April and then in May the students are getting ready for finals and summer break. Again in the summer the coaching staff can’t work with the athletes, but I help them find teams to play on during the summer and give them a work out packet full of skill work and strength and conditioning stuff to help them prepare for the fall season.
How do academics and athletics fit together?
One of the many great things that athletics teaches is time management. Students who are competing in collegiate athletics have to develop time management skills to be successful. And I’ve seen many times students have better semesters while they are in season as opposed to in the off season because they don’t have time to procrastinate or put off an assignment. You also have to have the support of the faculty and a good support staff so that when you have to miss class for competition you don’t fall behind in class. One of my jobs is to help facilitate the communication between our student-athletes and their instructors and to make sure the students communicate their game schedule and arrange well in advance to make up for missed time. When the students are proactive about that and don’t skip class otherwise I see a lot of academic success and it goes a long way in building the relationships between academics and athletics on campus.
Bonus Question: Is there anything important that you would like to share directly with high school athletes or soccer players in particular as they navigate the recruiting process?
There is an underdeveloped skill I see in many high school athletes. It’s the ability to self-assess and know what level is the right fit. It happens both ways, too. Some kids are really shooting for the stars but need to realize that at a certain point if Division 1 schools haven’t been chasing you down then you probably need to reevaluate where you stand. Sometimes there are kids who are good but haven’t come from a traditionally strong high school or club program so they don’t think they can play in college. If playing collegiately is something you aspire to do then there is going to be a school where you can play but you need to get familiar with the different levels out there and be realistic about where you can play. Go watch local college teams play, at all the divisions, and ask for feedback from coaches so you can find a place you will be happy and successful.
In her first season at Alverno, Nikolic led the Inferno to a school record seven victories (7-12) and a pair of Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference wins, also a school best at the time. She followed it up with eight wins (8-12) — which included three NACC victories — in 2010 to reset the record book.
During her successful playing career as a talented midfielder for Stanford from 2000-03, Nikolic’s teams reached the NCAA Division I Championship Tournament all four years.
Next, take a look at A Letter to Parents: The Struggle to Get Their Teenager to Contact Colleges
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