Below is an emotional account of one family’s journey through the recruiting process and a year of college athletics. I debated whether to publish this because it details a journey you won’t want to consider. In the end, I decided it is important for all parents of athletes to read. Have realistic conversations with your children and choose their college and sports program wisely. The mom who wrote this decided to remain anonymous for the sake of her son and the school he attends.
My Kid Quit College Soccer, and I’m OK with That
My son was eight years old, and one of his friends convinced him to come along to a tryout for a local competitive club. A four-week stint of YMCA “Bumble Bee” soccer in pre-school was his only soccer experience, but I welcomed the opportunity for my little bundle of energy to run off some of that energy on a field with his friends.
I noticed a coach kneeling to talk to him while my son pointed in my direction. The coach walked over, introduced himself, and said, “He is going to be very VERY good.”
As he got older and continued to improve in the sport, the dream of college soccer became less a dream and more a realistic goal. He and many of his club teammates gathered multiple offers from college coaches across the spectrum of Junior Colleges to NAIA to NCAA. He ended up accepting an offer from an NCAA D2 school a two-hour drive from home. He knew he didn’t want to leave our region, and he had heeded the advice of those who went before him: “Be sure you choose a school where you would want to go even if you weren’t playing soccer.”
As a soccer parent overseeing his recruiting journey, that advice always left a silent and sour aftertaste. After years of chasing the goal of college soccer, considering him attending college and not playing soccer was not a thought I wanted to entertain much less discuss out loud. But the advice was followed, and the school he chose was a great fit for him academically, socially, and athletically.
He left for pre-season months before many of his friends left for their colleges with a spring in his step, gladly sacrificing his last summer before college to begin life as a college athlete. As his season progressed, however, a nagging thought began entering my mind. I was beginning to suspect that he was not enjoying his time with the soccer program. The team was having a very successful season. He said he still loved playing. His teammates seemed happy and supportive, but the nagging suspicion would not leave. Instead, it continued to grow as a season of mourning began inside my heart. I had always envisioned him playing soccer throughout college. My years as a “soccer mom” might be ending before I was ready. I let the temporary mourning wash over me and waited for him to open up about how he was feeling. My suspicions became reality over the Christmas break when my son sat at the family table and calmly explained his decision to leave the soccer team.
All that he had worked so hard for was over.
As we sat around the table that night, listening to him explain his decision, I knew that he had not made this decision lightly. Seeking out mentors and friends who would pray for and with him had been a priority after he had returned home for Christmas break.
All that he had worked so hard for was over, but he was confident in his decision. He knew that leaving the soccer team was the correct path for him. He explained his three-pronged reasoning, and as his did, my heart understood that he had made a difficult but very mature decision.
I asked him if he wanted to consider transferring to another school and soccer program. Many of the coaches who had recruited him told him to keep the door open in case he ever wanted to transfer. Those coaches are outstanding men who run exceptional soccer programs, but the schools did not offer the social and academic opportunities found at his current school. A transfer was out of the question because he loves where he is.
I am not writing this as roadmap around recruiting pitfalls, but if it serves as such a map for some people, that’s great. I am writing this to show that an athlete’s decision to leave a college soccer team isn’t a failure or something of which to be ashamed.
So many families hear about the less-than-glamorous side of college athletics but ignore it by willfully viewing college athletics with tunnel vision — choosing only to see the glory and prestige that comes along with being a college athlete while blithely and barely acknowledging the challenges and sacrifices faced by athletes. My son’s three main reasons for leaving the soccer team are not exclusive to his university’s soccer program — far from it. They are so exceedingly common that discussing them seems almost unnecessary. Yet, discussing them is completely necessary.
REASON #1: TEAM CULTURE
Athletes love to party. Male athletes, especially. College life is already seasoned by a party culture, but the flavor is much stronger among athletes. This was not a surprise to my son when he arrived at college. During some recruiting trips, his host athletes had openly bragged about how much they drink and party. Other prospective schools had less of a party culture. It was still there, but to a lesser degree.
When I bring this up among fellow parents, I hear the same response every time: “That’s what college teams are like everywhere.” My son wasn’t naive enough to think his team would be full of celibate choir boys, but the extent of the partying among his teammates was a surprise to him.
During recruiting meetings, some coaches openly talked to me and my son about wanting to build a team culture built upon Christian values on and off the soccer field. Some coaches from non-religious schools discussed wanting to be mentors to their players off the field, guiding players to make decisions that were good for the team and the individual young men. Other coaches talked mainly about soccer, with very little attention given to team culture or life away from the soccer field. Had he chosen to play for one of the former, perhaps my son’s team culture would have been different, but none of those universities were a good fit academically. Instead, he chose the school that was a perfect fit academically and socially, but with coaches who didn’t seem to give much attention to the players’ lives outside of soccer.
Partying, drinking, and sex were dominant aspects of life on his soccer team. If he wanted to be part of the team, “one of the guys,” he felt obligated to join them at an endless stream of parties. Every practice and early-morning weights session was overshadowed with jovial talk of the latest party and the latest girls. As the season progressed, he chose to spend his time with the friends he had made outside of the soccer team, but that led to him feeling more and more left out of the team. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make to spend time with people who shared his common values. There were a few players on the team who seemed to respectfully reject the team’s culture, but they were upperclassmen and seniors who would be gone in a few months.
When he met with the coaches to discuss leaving the team, he was surprised to learn that they were mostly unaware of the severity of team’s party culture. The coaches discussed with him a plan they were going to enact immediately, with the help of the university’s Athletic Director, to improve the team’s culture and social life. Such positive change is definitely going to help the team and the players in the future.
If he had spoken up earlier, would positive change have come sooner? Maybe. Maybe not.
Had he known more about the team’s culture, would he have chosen a different university? Probably not. He had already been expecting a party culture to some extent, and he absolutely loved everything else about the school.
Had that been the end of the discussion, my son would have considered staying on the team, but his conversation with the coaches shifted to reason #2…
REASON #2: THE INCOMING RECRUITING CLASS
My son had chosen a good fit for himself athletically. He had some interest from NCAA D1 schools, but not a lot. He had near full-ride offers from NAIA schools and lower-level NCAA D2 schools. He chose a school where he was not one of the top recruits but would be able to compete for playing time.
Every college soccer team has a goal of making a deep postseason run, but the vast majority of programs do not reach that objective. My son’s team did achieve that goal, and in impressive fashion. Multiple players topped the national stats charts and were named All-Americans.
None of the starting players at my son’s position picked up injuries, which definitely helped the team, but it also resulted in my son’s freshman year being a red-shirt season with zero minutes on the field.
As the team’s national ranking climbed, so did their presence on the national recruiting scene. The incoming recruiting class boasts European players who have played for their national teams, NCAA D1 All-American transfers, and American players who have turned down offers from perennial soccer powerhouses like UCLA and Wake Forest.
Even the top recruits from my son’s recruiting class are going to have a challenge when it comes to competing for playing time next season. Although my son isn’t the type to shy away from a soccer challenge, he is also highly realistic about his own potential. He had watched seniors on his team play a few minutes a month, year after year, many of them not even getting to travel on road trips because of roster and travel limitations. He was fairly certain, especially with the team’s new national prominence and recruiting potential, that he would end up with the same type of career as those seniors.
The coaches insisted that he still had a solid hold on a roster spot and that playing time was definitely within reach. Although that was wonderful to hear, it was not enough to make him want to stay on the team.
Would he have stayed on the team if he had gotten more playing time? Probably not.
Had his expectations been wrong going into the season? No. He knew that he would probably not get much playing time. The team’s success and recruiting strength gave him a more sharpened view of the remaining years of his college soccer career, and together with the other two reasons for leaving, his decision became clear.
REASON #3: ENOUGH “I CAN’T. I HAVE SOCCER.”
Every athlete on every college roster has made sacrifices to achieve the goal of college athletics. If you ask my son if those sacrifices were worth it, looking back now, he would say YES.
The friends he made, the places he got to travel, the lessons he learned, the near-impossible goals he reached — all were worth the sacrifices he made in pursuit of college soccer. But as we sat around the table that night discussing his leaving the team, he described seeing “adult life” coming at him faster than he’d like. He only has a few years of youth left, and he doesn’t want to spend them on the soccer field.
His university has a rich social life, but he’s been mostly unable to participate because of the limitations soccer puts on his schedule. The benefits of staying on the team do not outweigh those sacrifices any more. He wants to enjoy his college years, pursue his degree, and take advantage of all his school has to offer while he still can.
There are intramural sports with friends, the finals of which attract bigger crowds than any soccer game in the school’s history. Athletes aren’t allowed to participate.
The university’s Student Life office organizes events for drastically low prices — a day of all-inclusive snowboarding for $40, a trip to an NBA game for $20, or a day at a theme park for $30. All of them conflict with practice or games.
Had he chosen a school where the coaches put more of an effort into the team’s culture, perhaps he would have enjoyed his time with the team enough to not regret the sacrifice. But other schools were not as good of a fit academically or socially.
He is loving not having to say, “I can’t. I have soccer.”
Just as with a braid or a 3-legged stool, no single reason is more important than the others. Any one alone may not have been enough for him to leave the team, but all three intertwined made leaving the team an obvious decision for him. He is now loving life as a “normal” college student, and I couldn’t be more proud of the mature decision he made.
Do you feel anxiety building, wondering what you need to do?
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