McNerney: Elite Athletes and College Scholarships

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

When my children were in middle school, I was told by their coaches that they were very good at their respective sports. I should begin giving them the advanced training so that they would be in the running for college scholarships. They were each 12 years old when these comments began. I was, of course, very excited to hear this. I was very proud of my kids and a bit relieved to think that I no longer had to worry about how we were going to pay for college.

Then the other shoe dropped. I was told that if I really wanted them to succeed, I should sign them up for additional camps and extra speed training. “All of the elite athletes are doing this,” I was told.

Elite athletes? My son was 12 years old. When did we begin designating 12-year-olds as elite athletes? Although I liked the ring to it, my B.S. alarm began ringing. How many elite athletes are out there? Are they all elite? I think of “elite” as being the top ten percent. But it seems that at least half of the middle school soccer players these days are playing travel soccer of some kind. 

If you have been told your child could be good enough to earn a college scholarship, I’m happy to hear that, and I’m sorry to hear that.

On one hand, I am sure it feels good to hear such great things about your child. It is always great to hear positives about our kids. But on the other hand, going down the scholarship path might end up with more stress and less fun.

If anyone has told you that your child could be good enough for a scholarship, ask yourself these two questions: 

  1. Does this person really know what they are talking about? Most people who might comment on our kid’s abilities don’t have much experience in understanding the scholarship process and the level of skill required to play at the college level. They might mean well, but just because they have coached U13 soccer for 10 years doesn’t give them the insight about college scholarships.
  2. What are they selling? A huge industry has grown up around getting kids ready for earning a college scholarship. Summer camps, summer leagues, travel leagues, extra training, scholarship agents (a new term to me), videographers (your game video just won’t cut it these days), are all more than happy to take your savings that would go to tuition and spend it on the small chance that your child might earn a scholarship. 

According to the NCAA, the chance of a high school athlete playing at the college level, at any level, is about seven percent. The chance of a high school athlete getting a Division I athletic scholarship is about two percent or less, depending on the sport. Let me be sure we understand that number. Two percent of high school athletes, meaning those students that are good enough to play on a varsity level high school team, will receive a Division I scholarship. Ask yourself: Is your child the top two percent of all athletes at his or her school? Most of us (at least 98% of us) will answer that question with a “no.” 

If you are a part of the 98%, maybe it is better to focus your time and money on family-oriented events instead of spending weekends touring the Mid-Atlantic hotels during the tournament season.

If you begin to hear that your child might have what it takes to be a scholarship athlete, fantastic! If your child absolutely loves the sport and you enjoy the lifestyle of a sports parent, then go for it. But don’t plan on using it as a financial investment to pay for college. Enter this arena very carefully and with the knowledge that many professionals would like to benefit from your desire to give your child the best opportunity.


Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor, parenting expert, and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com

2 thoughts on “McNerney: Elite Athletes and College Scholarships

  • 2022-02-17 at 10:37 am
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    Thank you Neil McNerney for this enlightening column. I hope it will help parents & children avoid being led down a garden path. The system Mr. McNerney writes about sounds very exploitive. I would avoid it like the plague. Happy Black History Month Loudoun!

  • 2022-02-17 at 11:56 am
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    Can you say such things in Loudoun County, where we are surrounded by pee-wee Pelés on every cul-de-sac?

    If your kid enjoys a sport, let them enjoy a sport. But don’t take it too far. As the article states, few will get an athletic scholarship and very, very few are gifted enough to play professionally. So, as a parent, you must ask yourself if the amount of time required for athletics worth it? In 99% of the cases, the time is better spent elsewhere. If your kid spent 2 extra hours a day studying chemistry, their chances of getting a scholarship are much greater than devoting that time to athletics. There is a tremendous “opportunity cost” for participating in athletics given the time and dedication required. Plus, realistically, athletics have no real meaning beyond college. Academic skills and knowledge can provide a lifetime of benefits and a fruitful career.

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