One Size Does Not Fit All
Memories of the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that accompanied the college decision-making process for my now grown and flown children were recently rekindled. Deciding where to go to college is not easy for anyone, but when you throw in the desire (and talent) to play a sport in college, there is so much more to that process. It goes beyond just being good enough to play in college, but at what level? Will my child have the chance to play? Do they mind the bench in exchange for the prestige? Will they be allowed to pursue any major they want, or does the university dictate it based on practice schedules (ask this question; it is crucial!)?
I have had three collegiate athletes. And the process was different for all of them, but the questions remained relatively unchanged. We let our kids make informed decisions about what they chose, and we did our best to encourage them to consider all the options before getting set on one. While they all had gut instincts about what felt right, they waited to announce their decisions. All three are thriving or thrived at their respective universities.
However, this flood of emotions was sent into high gear last year as I watched Texas take home the women's NCAA DI tennis title. My daughter plays at the University of Denver, and they lost to Texas in the first round. While my daughter and the entire team played competitive matches, they were downed and headed back to Denver. But beyond that, I watched as several names popped up on the TV screen of girls she played, battled, and defeated over the years in the junior ranks. It reminded me how I often felt we had to defend her decision to play at Denver when she had so many other big-name choices. The fact she would not even consider an Ivy was beyond comprehension for our local crowd. Tennis is a headcount sport, full-ride and change. The Ivy League schools offer admission and prestige. She does not love school enough for that pressure and was smart enough to recognize that it would not be a good fit (an Ivy league also recruited my son; flat out, no discussion on his part either). My daughter's experience at DU has been fantastic. She has been an impact player since the beginning. She loves her teammates and coaches. And they love her. No question, she is at the right school.
My other daughter is a super senior this year at Harvard after taking the year off due to the pandemic. She wanted her last season playing water polo for the Crimson. And she wanted to be on campus experiencing all that it is that truly makes Cambridge a magical place. She made the most of that year off, and I was grateful for the extra time.
It would seem like a decision to go to Harvard would be easy. While she is brilliant in her own way, her athletics gave her that extra something to get in. They call them Imposters (learned that expression on a junior day visit to Princeton). However, in every athlete's defense, to be good and better than the next requires years of dedicated training. It meant an hour commute each way to train with a premier team for her. By the time she got her license, I was so over the traffic and late nights that she was doing the commute independently. Harvard has been tough academically. I do not think she genuinely believes the adage that the most challenging part about Harvard is getting in. But her decision to go to Harvard was a no-brainer, and the magnitude of attending that university has not been lost on her. Of my three children, she is the only one where an Ivy made sense.
Everyone dreams of D1, but not every D1 is a good fit for kids. My oldest child, my son, found the perfect fit for college baseball at a D3 despite other options. It was a matter of where he felt most comfortable, where he would have the most opportunity, and where he could see himself if he could no longer play the sport. He got a great education, and despite an option to play a year of D1 in grad school, he walked away because his body could not do it anymore. I could not put a price on the friendships he made those four years. As parents, we cannot predict what will happen to our kids when they get to college, but we can hope that they are sensible enough to go a route that will make them happy and allow them to flourish as human beings.
Where our kids went was not as much about the name-brand school but about the opportunities those schools would give them to continue developing and playing as athletes while getting an education (usually in that order!). I am happy for those kids we watched over the years who found their homes at all sorts of institutions. And it's sometimes sad to hear of the talented kids that didn't get a chance in college because the fit wasn't right. Even though I know it's not always the case, I hope that they had positive experiences wherever those athletes went. Ultimately, though, not all athletes are created equal. It is essential to recognize that every child has a unique opportunity to pursue a place they can call home.
Need I say the best part of college sports is the friendships made training and supporting each other all those hours all those years? Having that group of friends made all the difference in the world during COVID. I was so grateful that Denver could practice as a team and be together as a pod. My heart broke for the kids affectionately referred to as NARPs (non-athletic regular people) living in isolation, especially their first year in college. All three of my kids have been at remarkably different universities, but each has made friendships and memories that will transcend time. That, to me, has been the greatest gift beyond athletics and education.
I'm sure that when the NCAA tournaments begin this year, whether for baseball, tennis, or water polo, I will see familiar names. But my brain will find comfort with thoughts that the college choices my kids made were at universities where they could thrive and pursue their passion. They have always been happy to practice, play, and compete while grinding it out in a classroom day in and day out. That says a lot right there. And as parents, we could not ask for more.