Some athletes have already committed to a college when they decide to switch from high school to prep school. When their future college coach recommends a prep school or two, the natural reaction of the athlete is to accept the recommendation on faith. After all, if the athlete and family are willing to trust the next four or five years of the athlete’s life to the college coach, why wouldn’t they trust the prep school recommendation of that coach? This is a tough situation for the athlete and family. Here’s why.
Most college coaches don’t know that much about prep schools. Though they almost always know more than the families, that’s not saying much. Many know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to offer well thought out, objective guidance. Their awareness is limited to a relatively small number of prep schools and doesn’t include enough about the non-athletic parts of the schools. These statements are not made arbitrarily. College coaches have called Prep School Sports Connection for decades asking for insight, help and information regarding prep schools, and we have listened to them and studied at length what they know and don’t know, even those who don’t call me for help.
College coaches are looking out for themselves first. While you may trust them and think they’re great (and they usually are), don’t think there aren’t times when they’re going to do what’s best for themselves. This is one of them. They are most likely going to pick a prep school for two reasons. One, they want the athlete at a school where the chances are smallest that the athlete will get recruited away from them by another college before the athlete actually signs and matriculates at their school. That means a prep school situation and coach who will protect the college coach’s interests by shielding the athlete from possible recruiters from other colleges. Many families would respond that by saying it doesn’t matter as they’ve already made their college choice and it’s not going to change. They would be missing the point. There’s a risk, and the coaches know it better than you. They do this for a living. Most families have never been through this before. As much as the coaches like you and want to help you, they want to protect their interest more. So they pick a prep school that minimizes their risk, not one that maximizes opportunity or provides the athlete the best overall fit for this very important year or more of personal development. By the way, many families would be surprised at the number of athletes who change their mind and choose a different college. Why do you think the coaches are nervous? Prep school opens up options and thinking. It’s a big world. If you’re used to a local school, prep school is a real eye-opener for most families. If you don’t keep your options open, you’re cheating yourself out of a significant benefit of prep school. Why would you do that when you don’t have to? The second reason college coaches pick certain prep schools is that they like the prep school coach and want to help the coach out. Perhaps they have worked together in the past, are friends or were college teammates. While this could benefit the athlete, it generally does not put the athlete’s interests first.
Here’s a recent example. Allison O’Connor is a very talented athlete and student. When her father took a new job in a different state, she attended a highly regarded parochial school for one year. A very bad and emotionally trying experience there prompted the family to decide that she should attend prep school. After the year they’ve had, the family has made it clear that they don’t want to go through something like that again. They have to get it right this time, especially since the girl will be 900 miles from home. She will be entering her senior year and has already committed to an Ivy League (D1) school, turning down scholarship offers in the process. Any prep school would be thrilled to have her based on those factors alone, but she also happens to be full-pay (the family can easily write the check for the $55,000 for prep school), making her the student-athlete every prep school looks and fights for. Her college coach recommended just one prep school and it meets none of the criteria the family and I agreed to use for the school search. Specifically, the academic level of the school is significantly below the level that best supports the student, the school has no history of producing Ivy or other D1 players, the overall level of the sport and league is nothing special, the campus is below average, the geographic location is not good, and the endowment is relatively small, and the type of students the athlete would be around are not the type this child is looking for. In short, the overall environment is not a match, and there’s no objective reason for this to be on the list of possible prep schools for this student-athlete’s consideration.
Certainly there are times when taking the coach’s recommendation makes the most sense. Perhaps the prep school uses the same system, philosophy or training methods as the college coach. Maybe it’s physically located very close to the future college, allowing both athlete and coach great opportunity for interaction that will provide a big head start on their four years together. (The Hun School of Princeton and Princeton University being perhaps as good an example as there is).
There can also be other factors. For example, the athlete may be worried about offending the college coach by not taking the prep school recommendation. This could send the wrong message and no one wants to start off on the wrong foot. A simple conversation will usually relieve this situation quite easily.
As always, the choice of the best prep school should be one based on what’s best for the child and the child’s overall development, not simply on a sport. The process of picking a school should be one that minimizes risks while maximizing the possibility for success. In the reality of today’s world, where no one has enough time, most families will accept the college coach’s recommendation. Many don’t have time to go through the process the right way. Smart families will not put all their eggs in one basket. Instead, they will explore some schools in addition to those recommended by the college coach.