By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Much has been written about the trend towards earlier and earlier recruitment of young athletes for college sports programs. This trend is especially pronounced on the girls’/women’s side of the equation, with recruitment for sports such as soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey beginning in the 7th grade resulting in formal offers and required commitments in 8th grade. You can read an article chronicling one girl’s experience here. Our blog is focused on health and fitness, so I’d like to briefly explore the possible pluses and minuses of early college scholarship commitment on the mental and physical health of the young athlete.
The NCAA has formal rules in place governing interactions between coaches and recruited athletes but there are gaping holes in the rules allowing a number of different types of communications between college coaches and young student-athletes. Many coaches either use these loopholes to communicate their intent to the athlete’s family, or some seem to openly violate NCAA policy. No matter the mechanism used the result is that contact with athletes especially on the girls’ side is happening at very young ages. The girls are typically 12 to 14 years old at the youngest age of the contact spectrum.
Potential Pluses: Psychological Relief, Lessened Physical Load During High School
Very few articles state the possible benefits of early commitment to a college. Two that I can think of would be tremendous psychological relief that comes from knowing there is a college you will attend upon graduation from high school, and the second is that there is the possibility that the committed athlete can focus on physical and technical development during high school. Any parent that’s been through the college application process knows how stressful the whole process can be, and has also experienced the joy, excitement, and sheer relief that comes from successful acceptance. If this happens as early as 8th grade there’s the chance that the high school years can progress with far less stress. And from the physical side the committed athlete could have less pressure to overstress her body.
But There Is Real Danger For Psychological And Physical Stress In Middle School
The real problem with the trend in my opinion is that we will simply shift the severe stress of the recruitment process to earlier and earlier ages in the girl’s life. This stress would hit many girls before puberty, precisely the time when we need to be very cautious about physical overuse and single sport specialization. There is strong evidence that single sport specialization has the potential for overuse, and that in turn is a significant risk factor for major injury. The physical injury risk is well known, but there is psychological risk too. Conditions such as eating disorders or burnout can be linked to sport overuse at young ages.
My guess is that the trend to very early college recruitment in girls’ sports will continue unless the NCAA or the colleges themselves take a strong leadership role in recognizing the trend and taking steps to bring it under control. Until then we as parents or mentors need to be on the lookout to encourage the positive aspects and minimize potential harm to the kids.