How To Raise a Future College Athlete

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Amanda Ripley: What is keeping you up at night about this?

Speaker 2: Oh, my goodness. Just that I’m going to miss something because I do see that a lot. You know where these kids sign to go play sports at these really expensive schools and it’s like, did they really want to go there? Was that their only option? Did they know that there was other options? Are there other options?

Amanda Ripley: Welcome to How To. I’m Amanda Ripley. Here in the United States. We are obsessed with high school and college sports. And college is incredibly expensive. All of it is a massive business, but dreams do come true sometimes. So it’s understandable that millions of parents secretly wonder if their kid might be a future star athlete someday, or at least good enough to get a scholarship to college. This is Elizabeth.

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Speaker 2: I am a mom to a high school athlete in Kokomo, Indiana. My son is currently a sophomore, and it’s time to start looking at school. And a large part of his drive to continue his education is to play sports in college. You know, I started this spreadsheet with, like, schools that he might want to go to if they had a track program. What the vision is, I mean, I found myself like, okay, well, how do I do this? Do I contact coaches and find out how the recruiting process happens? Or does he just apply and try out? And there really isn’t much information out there.

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Amanda Ripley: It sounds like you’re starting to get that creeping anxiety that parents worldwide recognize, right? Like, am I is there something I’m supposed to be doing that I’m not doing? And, you know, the clock is ticking. Is that the feeling?

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Speaker 2: Yeah. And, you know, every parent just wants to set their kid up for success. You know, as much as they can.

Amanda Ripley: Her son, Lucas, is an average student, but an above average athlete. He plays football and loves it. But according to Elizabeth, Track is where he really excels. His best events are the 200 meter and the four by one relay. But sometimes it feels like Lucas is running away from any discussion of his future, which worries Elizabeth.

Speaker 2: He is the type of kid that is like, you know, waits right up until the deadline to get something done. And he’s an average student. I was looking at acceptance rates and then I got into what’s the GPA requirement, what’s the S.A.T. Act? Are you required to submit test scores? And then I was sitting at my desk and he was sitting behind me. You know, I was just typing away. And I was so proud of this spreadsheet. It’s beautiful and I’ve put a lot of work into it and I’m, you know, pointing out the columns. And when I showed him, he was less than impressed by all my work. And he said, Mom, you know, I’m a sophomore, right? I just kind of spun my chair around, like, looked at him like, yeah, but like yesterday you were five. So, you know, it’s it’s kind of like he doesn’t understand how fast this comes up.

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Amanda Ripley: So if you haven’t picked up on this by now, Elizabeth is a planner and for good reason. She wants to provide Lucas the kind of guidance she never got.

Speaker 2: I was actually the first person in my family to graduate from high school. I was really social. I wasn’t a horrible student, you know, but I was just average. And I never knew what was out there. I never knew what was available. So my experience is probably some of my anxiety for him.

Amanda Ripley: And so today in the show, we’re huddling up with someone who’s been on all sides of the recruitment process.

Steve Magnus: My name is Steve Magnus. I am a coach and writer. I spent almost a decade coaching at the collegiate level for the University of Houston and still coach professional and post-collegiate athletes.

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Amanda Ripley: Steve has helped hundreds of students and their parents through the college athletics maze. And he has some good tips, as well as some critiques of this Byzantine system. So take a second to stretch and then report to the starting line. We’ll be right back.

Amanda Ripley: Steve started out a lot like Lucas. He loved all kinds of sports, but track is where he really shine.

Steve Magnus: I was actually a fervent soccer and baseball fan until I had to do the physical fitness mile and ran too fast. And the coaches are like, What are you doing trying to play these other sports? You need to run track.

Amanda Ripley: And so he did, and it went incredibly well at first. You got the attention of a lot of college track recruiters.

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Steve Magnus: In high school. I ran a mile in 4 minutes and 1/2. Which. Wow. That year? Yeah. That was the fastest time in the country that year. So I got catapulted from trying to contact college coaches and figuring this thing out to being inundated with, you know, calls and recruiting from all over the country. At the time, my world was all, all athletics. It was all running. That’s all I cared about. Similar to your son.

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Steve Magnus: When you’re when you’re really good in high school, you set expectations, right? You’re like, oh, I’m going to be able to achieve this. I had dreams of, you know, winning NCAA championships and qualifying for Olympic Games. So I got a scholarship to Rice University and went there for two years and did not meet my expectations in terms of my performance. I really kind of plateaued and stagnated and running meant a lot to me. So like that kind of put my world in for a tailspin for a while.

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Amanda Ripley: So this feels like a cautionary tale. I mean, you know, your identity is yoked to this thing that has a huge amount of social capital. And, you know, not to mention actual capital, capital attached to it in our in our culture. Right. And then all of a sudden, it’s like you have to reinvent your whole sense of self.

Steve Magnus: You’re spot on. The identity piece is so important. And at that young age, you’re you’re not really prepared for what happens if I fail at this thing, like what happens if I have to pivot so it can really, you know, cause you to, you know, spiral for a bit? Yeah. I took a year off, I transferred schools, graduated from the University of Houston, got back into running and and competing and all that good stuff.

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Amanda Ripley: You went back to school, you ended up getting not just an undergraduate degree, but a graduate degree. You’re an expert on performance. You’ve written books, you coached track at the University of Houston. I wonder if you could go back in time. What would you tell your younger self when you were in high school about the college process?

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Steve Magnus: So if I was to go back, I think the biggest thing that I tell myself is like running is great, you’re really good at it, enjoy the ride. But it’s not only who you are. You’re also going to find other things that fulfill your, you know, your passions and your needs and all that stuff. It’s not that running isn’t the be all, end all. You’re going to be okay.

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Amanda Ripley: It’s a hard thing to hear when you’re that age.

Amanda Ripley: Elizabeth, what are you thinking here in this?

Speaker 2: I think that’s kind of, you know, my worst fear for him, you know, and sorry, maybe get a little bit emotional. But I want him to you know, I want it to be more about the whole experience instead of just running or playing football or whatever he does. I don’t want him to have that her of if he doesn’t succeed one way or the other.

Steve Magnus: Yeah. It’s, it’s a very tricky balance.

Amanda Ripley: Yeah.

Steve Magnus: And, and might be impossible. Yeah. My heart goes out to all the parents who have to navigate this because that anxiety around, you know, your child going to college and are they going to miss out? Are they not doing the things that they’re supposed to be doing is incredibly normal. It’s something that as a coach, I dealt with every single week talking to people about it often parents. So what you’re experiencing every single week.

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Amanda Ripley: Wow. Yeah.

Steve Magnus: So yeah, parents, you know, a lot of times it’s the same situation that the child the kid is laid back. Yeah. They’re just like, Oh, it’ll work out, you know, I’ll figure this out. And the parent is like, No, you, you need to get on this. And the reality is, the answer is probably some happy medium in the middle.

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Amanda Ripley: Uh huh, right. Right. The best parenting advice I ever got was a parent of a kid at my son’s school and her child was older and she said, The more you care, the less they have to.

Steve Magnus: Yeah, I love that.

Speaker 2: That’s good. Yeah.

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Amanda Ripley: I don’t always follow that advice, but it’s true. Here’s our first rule. Steve often tells parents to chill out. Not all the way, but just a little. Otherwise, despite the best of intentions, parental anxiety can crush the thing that matters most.

Steve Magnus: I’m a science nerd, so I conducted some research on my own athletes for years. And the number one predictor for whether they not only improved in college and track and field, but also if they stuck around in the sport and ultimately got their degree, was their level of intrinsic motivation. Hmm. So did they find joy in the activity itself? Not because it gave them, like, notoriety and they won some of awards or whatever have you. But, like, this is fun to do. Not all the time, but, like, cultivating that enjoyment so that it becomes a positive and not something that becomes this burden of like, Oh, I have to do this, I’m good at this. So this is my only path. This is my only sense of self-identity. And that right there is the key.

Amanda Ripley: Hmm. Interesting. And there’s been research, right, on intrinsic motivation and how to cultivate it.

Steve Magnus: Yeah. There’s a lot of a lot of work around this area, and I think the basics are the best. Does the activity fill your need for competency, which is, can I feel like I’m making progress at something? Am I getting better? Is this helping me not only on the track, but as a person? Other things like belonging. Does this give me a sense of community? Are my friends like a part of this as well? Like, do I feel connected to something that’s bigger than just myself?

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Steve Magnus: And then the last one, which is autonomy, which is do I have some sort of say and am I in some sort of a position to make decisions and matter in this?

Steve Magnus: And I think this is really important when it comes to college, because depending on what program you go to in the coaching style, like some programs give you more say and freedom and autonomy and others almost treat you kind of like, you know, you’re subordinate and they’re the dictator and figuring out what program, you know, might support you and support you in more ways than just being an athlete is very important.

Amanda Ripley: Here’s our next insight. If your kid wants to pursue college sports, great. But make sure they’re doing it because they really find fulfillment and community and not just because they like getting trophies. Elizabeth, knowing your son, do you think he would do better with a sense of autonomy?

Speaker 2: Yes. We actually had a private coach for a while and he was telling us about a girl that went to school on a scholarship. She was an 800 runner. And when she gets there, the coach says, nope, you’re going to do the steeplechase. And he’s like, What? Like they do that. They tell you, you know, you’re just not going to run the event you ran your whole life. So I think, you know, that kind of freaked him out a little bit. And he has always performed better for coaches who take an interest and him as a person, you know, not the coaches who are just demanding performance, but, you know, they they care about him as a person as well.

Steve Magnus: Yeah. So this is the trickiest thing to do. And figure out your most important part for understanding that is when you take visits to the college. So an athletic senses what happens is programs can offer official visits generally during their senior year where the the high school kid comes in and spends a day or two, sometimes overnight, with the team and the coach. And this is the best place to understand that, because you can’t you can fake it as a coach on a phone call or an email. You can’t really fake it over a couple of days when you’re observing how practices actually work and how things really unfold. And the other part is the kids, 18 to 22 year olds, they’re not going to fake it. So whenever your child goes on a visit to check out a program. Yes. Pay attention to what the coach is saying, but more so pay attention to how the team is interacting.

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Speaker 2: That’s great advice.

Amanda Ripley: It’s reminds me, you know, when I covered education for a long time, the the best advice, you know, friends would always ask me, like, what should I look for when I visit a school for my kid? And the best advice was always watch the kids. Don’t you know? Yeah, you can look at the teacher, you can talk to the principal. That’s all important. But people do that kind of naturally. The best advice is to watch kids and you get a real sense of the culture in that classroom, in school, and how they interact with the teacher and the principal. And do they even know the principal’s name? That’s always vice versa.

Steve Magnus: 100%. And another way you can do this without taking a visit to is if especially if you’re looking at local colleges, is go to college, track, meet and just sit in the stands and watch the team and how they interact. When people are competing, are they cheering for each other? Watch the coach and see what he does after the races. Does he come up to the athletes and give them a high five or a pat on the back? Or does he, you know, ignore them or, you know, yell and scream at them like you’ll see all these things, especially in the heat of the moment during competition. So sometimes the best thing you can do is go to a track meet, just observe.

Amanda Ripley: Oh, my gosh, that’s a great idea. Yeah, there’s no hiding.

Steve Magnus: Exactly.

Amanda Ripley: The beauty of that advice is that college competitions are usually open to the public, so it’s pretty easy way to start gathering intel and it’s fun. So we’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about the biggest question on most parents minds, scholarship money. Don’t go anywhere.

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Amanda Ripley: We’re back with Elizabeth and our expert, Steve Magnus. One of the things that comes up a lot that I want to make sure we touch on is money. You know, I visit a lot of education systems all over the world for my work. And the United States is unique. There is no other place where sports are such a huge revenue generating industry. And it starts even before high school, and it affects everything else. But one of the things I hear a lot from from parents is, you know, that sports is their kid’s ticket to financial scholarships. And I know in the research, only about 2% of American students receive athletic scholarships to college. Steve, how much should parents be thinking about scholarships as opposed to other things?

Steve Magnus: Yeah, you know, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but scholarships are very hard to get. There’s limits on how much scholarship each school can give out. So, for example, in men’s track, in Division one, you have a total of 12.6 scholarships to divvy out. You can divide that however you want. But if you consider that a track team generally has, I don’t know, 40, 45 people on it, you start thinking 48, 45 with 12.6, you do the math and you start to understand that even those who make it on the team aren’t all getting full rides.

Steve Magnus: The good thing, though, is that there are multiple levels. So Division one, Division two, NAIA all offer scholarships and there are a lot of different schools. So that helps your chances a little bit. And what I always suggest to athletes and parents is be targeted. If scholarships matter to you, if you need that, then find the college or the team that is at about the appropriate level for whatever your son or daughter is competing at. And like target those schools because you’ll have a higher chance of getting scholarships.

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Amanda Ripley: Elizabeth, have you checked your son’s running times to set your expectations?

Speaker 2: So I did. I learned that he does have D-1 potential. That was kind of a motivator for him. It’s very nuanced, though. Like every school had a specific time, you know, for the 200, you know, one school’s recruiting time may be 22. The other one in the same division may be 21.5. So it’s not like a a straight like this is the time for Division one. It’s, you know, really based around the school.

Amanda Ripley: Now, this was surprising to me. Seems like track of all sports should be standardized, right? You know your time. So it should be obvious where you could hope to compete. But Steve explained that schools tend to specialize in certain sports and specific events, and then they stack their scholarship money accordingly.

Steve Magnus: The best thing that you can do is look at conference championship results and see what it takes to score in each conference. Now scoring is top eight and there vet and see what that eighth place for scoring is. And that’s like the baseline of, Hey, this gets you in the door. This means you’re worth the scholarship.

Speaker 2: That’s great.

Amanda Ripley: Elizabeth, I could totally see you doing this analysis. Oh, the spreadsheet would be fantastic. I’m wondering, what are the chances you could get your son to do that analysis?

Speaker 2: Slim to none.

Amanda Ripley: Okay.

Speaker 2: You know, he would be more interested in, you know, watching races from that conference with me.

Amanda Ripley: Okay.

Steve Magnus: So what I would say is do that like have that as a starting point. You might be the one who does the data behind the scenes, but start that process of, Hey, he’s interested in watching this conference. Me. And then it can kind of go, Hey, do you think you had the possibility of running at some of these schools? Like how do your times compare? So as a parent, I say like look for opportunities to take the baggage off of you and, you know, allow them to explore. And, you know, you might have to carry a bulk of the load until he’s ready to kind of transition to that. But like, you’ve got a very slowly just keep feeding that motivation of like, hey, this is interesting. Let’s check this out. Let’s do this together. And if you do that over time, you hope that he kind of gets almost, like, captured by it.

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Speaker 2: That’s. That’s great. Yeah. Oh.

Amanda Ripley: So where does all this leave us for the recruitment process? Well, here are some practical tips from Steve. First, you can’t count on sports to pay for college. Unfortunately, that’s extremely rare. If it’s going to help, it’s much more likely to help a kid get admitted into college. Secondly, junior year and into senior year is when coaches really start to pay attention. They’ll notice bigger competitions in particular. So those are the ones for athletes to focus on. And that’s also around the time when your kid could start to reach out to coaches at schools that are potentially interested in with a simple email.

Steve Magnus: Hey, I am so-and-so. I go to so-and-so school. I’ve run these times. Here’s where my academics are. I’m interested in your school and learning more. If your son will do that, that’s best. I’m just going to caution you as as a parent, if we get if a college coach gets a parent reaching out about their son, it’s a little bit of a warning flag because we wonder, hmm, why isn’t the child doing this? Okay. So if your son doesn’t isn’t interested in that yet, keep kind of working on it and nudging. Not shoving, but nudging. Another thing that I that is also very helpful is whenever we get a high school coach who reaches out to a college coach.

Speaker 2: That’s great advice. He has a great coach who, you know, he’s totally the type of coach who would do that for his athletes. So and I am totally that mom who would just do it. So thanks for the warning.

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Amanda Ripley: Steve, how many of those emails did you get as a as a university track coach from Penn State?

Steve Magnus: Quite, quite a bit. Quite a bit. But we have to we had to filter we have to understand, you know, is this this kid going to be a good fit? Will he fit into what we’re doing as a team? Will he come in and, you know, be kind of someone who needs more care? Will he be a little bit of a problem? Will he be motivated like all of those things you’re trying to slice and dice? Because if you do offer scholarship, you’re investing in someone and you want an investment to not only pay off athletically, but also, you know, in terms of that this child will stick around for four years and get their degree because college coaches are also kind of graded and scored on that as well.

Amanda Ripley: I’m glad, Steve, you brought up getting inside the coach’s head because they are part of this system and have a lot of demands on them. If you could change some of the pressures on coaches and the culture of higher ed athletics in the United States, what are some of the changes you would make first?

Steve Magnus: Oh, gosh. How long do we have?

Amanda Ripley: We got 6 hours go.

Steve Magnus: No, I mean, I think a lot of it is, you know, coaches are put in a place under pressure to perform. Even in non-revenue sports outside of football, football is even worse. But in other sports, like, we are judged and graded on our performance. If we don’t perform well, we get fired or let go or whatever have you. So the whole system is set up, although it’s part of the university system, and the goal is to get kids to have degrees and we have slogans about that and all that good stuff. Often in athletics it’s that that’s true, but it’s not the main thing. And I think that that is a big problem because the incentives don’t quite align for, you know, helping people perform academically.

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Steve Magnus: I’ll give you a quick example. At some schools, not the one I was at, fortunately, but at some schools, athletic programs will dissuade athletes from becoming an engineer or going premed or what have you, because that interferes with practice schedules, with game schedules, etc.. And they almost like put the sport ahead of this, this athlete’s future career of being, you know, something great. And that is a big disservice.

Amanda Ripley: And so how would you assess a coach on that like it would be what percentage of your athletes graduate on time, things like that?

Steve Magnus: Yeah, I think it’s it’s graduating on time. I think you’re also looking at things like how many of your athletes transfer because a very high transfer rate indicates often that, hey, there’s something wrong here. I look at degree diversity team GPA because I think people often forget it’s like, yes, we’re coaches in the athletic field, but when your child comes to college or university, they’re going to spend way more time with a coach than any professor, than any advisor, than anybody in the academic sphere. So often as coaches, we have the most influence to teach them, like what’s important and what’s valuable to make sure that they are, you know, attending class and doing the things that are necessary to, you know, get a degree and and become a productive person in society.

Speaker 2: I love that you acknowledge that coaches have so much influence over your child. You know, when you send them off and you want them to be making the best choices and you just have to have a lot of faith that, you know, you’ve done your job and you’re kind of essentially handing them off.

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Amanda Ripley: Here’s one last piece of advice. If your kid wants to play college sports, make sure they think as much about the coach and the culture of the program as they do about, say, the cafeteria or the school’s record. And all the while, remember, the most important thing, you are not the coach.

Steve Magnus: Don’t be the parent who’s like critiquing your athlete and how they performed and how they played. All that does is send the signal of like, Oh, this is really valuable to my mom or dad. Like, this sport is how I connect with them and this is all they care about. You don’t want to send that signal, so be the parent. Like leave the coaching up to the coach.

Amanda Ripley: That is good advice.

Speaker 2: That is so important. And we actually ran into a little bit of an issue with that this year where after a race I had made a comment about his start and he heard that he did a bad job when in reality I was really proud of how he ran the race and Lucas was just angry with me and I was like, I’m not talking about it anymore. Let’s just go, you know? Like he was completely shutting down. And at that moment I was like, Oh, no. Like, that’s also worse fear of a parent. You know, it’s just my job to say, you did a really great job. I’m really proud of you.

Amanda Ripley: Hmm. Yeah. It’s so hard.

Speaker 2: It’s so hard.

Amanda Ripley: The best advice I got on this, there’s a parent coach named Mary Smith who’s really fantastic, and and she says, here’s the thing to say. When you see your your child after a game, just say, I love watching you play. That’s it. Don’t say anything else. That’s it.

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Speaker 2: Yeah.

Amanda Ripley: And I love that advice. It’s like a script. Don’t you know whether they win when they lose, you can just say that one thing.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I’m his biggest fan and, you know, I’m cheering in the stands. And it just like it was heartbreaking to hear that he thought that all I cared about was how bad a start was. I don’t care if he loses, I’m going to love him at the end of the day.

Amanda Ripley: Yeah, no, I can tell that was it. Was any of this helpful to you? How are you feeling now?

Speaker 2: So much, I feel so much better. It has been extremely helpful. I mean, I went from not even knowing where to start to feeling like I have a direction.

Amanda Ripley: Good luck to you and your son, Elizabeth. Keep us posted on how the college process is going. And a big thank you to Steve Magnus. Steve actually has a new book out later this month called Do Hard Things. We asked him what it’s about and he gave us a little sneak peek.

Steve Magnus: It’s essentially kind of what we talked about in this conversation, which is I’m trying to redefine what develops toughness and resilience away from kind of the old school model of, hey, let’s just like grit our teeth, put our head down and bulldoze through things instead to one that is about how do we like lean in, pay attention, listen to what we’re feeling, and then figure out, how do I process this and get get on the other side of it?

Amanda Ripley: How about you? Do you have a hurdle that needs jumping? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail. 6464954001. And we might have you on the show. How to’s executive producer is. Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show with help from Katie Shepherd. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Mira Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.