Be honest about whether your teen can really play at the college level.

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Photo credit: Emerald Photography

Let’s start with the facts. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), eight million students play high school sports. Of those, less than 500,000 compete as NCAA student-athletes. Even fewer go on to play professionally. Only 160,000 high school athletes receive scholarship money in college.

If you have a student-athlete who wants to play at the college level, take some steps now to determine if this is a real option. That includes understanding the various NCAA divisions, talking with coaches or professional evaluators, and taking a close look at your student’s grades.

Why play college sports? To top athletes, college sports present the opportunity to play at the next highest level, hopefully a stepping-stone to becoming a professional athlete.

For some students, athletics is the only way they can afford college, relying on that all-important scholarship.

Other student-athletes simply want the opportunity to continue playing their favorite sport competitively and have an instant group of friends when they step foot on campus freshman year.

The reality The percentage of college athletes who go on to the professional level is in the single digits for every sport, according to the NCAA. The majority of professional athletes come from Division I.

College coaches at all NCAA division levels target student-athletes who play at the varsity level, are a regular starter and/or one of the top athletes on their school or travel team. Your student will need a recruiting video. In addition, your school’s athletic director or your student’s coach should reach out directly to college coaches in the right division.

The NCAA has specific grade and course requirements for high school student-athletes. Your student must put in the time in the classroom if they want a chance at participating in college sports.

Student-athletes still need to follow the college admissions process—taking the SAT/ACTand completing college applications, including writing the essay.

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Where’s the scholarship money? NCAA Division I, the highest and most competitive level, usually offers the largest scholarships. (Note: Division I scholarships are rarely for a full-ride, except in the most successful programs and almost exclusively for football, men’s and women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball.)

Division II also gives athletic scholarships, again, more likely partial than full.

But Division III and Division I Ivy League student-athletes can only receive academic scholarships and need-based aid.

Students who aren’t recruited have the option of trying out as a walk-on, which will come without a scholarship.

Club teams, not part of the NCAA and run by students, compete against other colleges, but don’t provide any type of scholarships or financial aid.

What level can your student-athlete play in college? Proud parents generally overestimate their student-athlete’s ability. To honestly gauge your teen’s skills and, therefore, their college options, you need to work with the people who know.

Start with the high school and/or clubteam coaches. They understand what it takes to compete in all of the NCAA divisions based on a student’s talent and work ethic. They probably have relationships with a few college coaches and also know which colleges recruit athletes from your community.

Enlisting a third party to evaluate your teen’s abilities, talents and skills, and explain how your student measures up in terms of college level sports can be valuable. There are plenty of clinics and camps where students can improve their skills and be evaluated by the independent coaches who run them. Choose one conducted by an accepted leader in the coaching ranks for that sport, who will be able to attract top-flight assistants and coaches.

Explore the athletic sites of the colleges your teen is interested in. Look at the rosters for your student’s specific sport. For individual sports like track and field and swimming, do your student’s best times compare? For team sports, see how many underclassmen already play your teen’s position.

Meeting with your student’s guidance counselor is also important. Despite the perception that a student-athlete’s academics don’t factor into whether they get recruited, the opposite is true. Sure, some star athletes might gain admission despite their grades being less than stellar, but generally college coaches want students who are strong academically, who can keep up with college level work while training/ practicing several hours a day and participating in games and competitions. They also know student-athletes with good grades are eligible for academic scholarships that can complement a partial athletic scholarship offer.

Understanding the college sports commitment First, being a college athlete requires solid time management skills. College, both in the classroom and on the field, is a higher level than what your student is used to. Practices are longer and harder. Coursework is more challenging and involves more time outside the classroom than in. Trying to balance that with practice, weight training and competing in games/matches/events in- and off-season requires dedication. That said, good programs want their student-athletes to succeed and will often offer tutors, academic support and study halls to the routine in-season.

Photo credit: Memorable Moments Photography

Recognize recruiting starts early If your student-athlete wants to play a sport in college, they need to prepare beginning freshman year of high school. That means keeping their grades up, committing to practice and playing their best in every game/competition/match.

As a parent, you will become really good at shooting video of your student-athlete in competition. Using that footage, you and your teen can create a private YouTube channel where you can upload these videos to share with interested coaches. As your student-athlete gets varsity time, your school, like many others, may upload game film to services such as Hudl, which are free for students to access. Students can select plays that highlight their skills, create a reel, then send coaches their Hudl account name for viewing.

If your student is going to participate in camps, showcases or combines, it helps to choose the ones attended or run by coaches or scouts from the colleges your student’s interested in. Your teen needs to let college coaches know in advance when they’ll be participating in these events and take the opportunity to talk with the coach in-person.

It’s acceptable for parents to contact coaches when their student is in middle school or freshman year of high school, but by junior year, your student needs to be the one reaching out.

Students interested in Division I and II must register with the NCAA eligibility center by the end of their junior year. There are also guidelines and rules about when students and college coaches can have contact.

The bottom line If playing a sport in college is your student-athlete’s goal, then encourage them to do the work on the field and in the classroom to have the best chance of being recruited. But be honest with them about their options based on their athletic abilities and grades.

Share your advice for student-athletes and their parents in the comments section below.