The Bootleg Does the Parent Trap
All followers of college athletics know that the athletes competing for the top programs come from a very small pool of elite high school talent, which in the case of Stanford is made tinier still by the academic requirements to gain admission. These athletes are courted by multitudes of schools throughout the recruiting process and must deal with tremendous demands on their time as they juggle school and athletics. What do parents think when watching a daughter compete at this level? When did they know the kid was a star? Was the recruiting process as exciting and stressful as it seems from the outside? The Bootleg chatted with a few parents of current Stanford basketball players to discuss these matters and more. Our helpful parents will remain anonymous, which means we can't include any possibly identifying details, but find a comfortable chair and relax – they had plenty of interesting things to say. Each of our Anonymous Parents (whom we will simply call AP for short) said his or her child started sports very early but for the most part, little AD (Anonymous Daughter) enjoyed a variety of sports, including soccer, softball, volleyball, track, and even various martial arts. Most of these young athletes did not concentrate on basketball until high school and even then played other sports, often very well. More than one AD played on boys' teams and one spent several years with the Y chromosome set before playing on a girls' team for the very first time. It was also common for an AP or someone in the family to be knowledgeable about basketball and active in coaching AD, though the degree of involvement varied. Some coached AD for many years, others for only a short time or only casually. Whether AP coached AD or not, the early emphasis was on enjoyment and variety rather than strenuous preparation to be great at one sport. Even parents with a basketball background tried not to let things get too serious, too soon. Said one AP, "We wanted her to be active but had no plans for her to be a basketball player." "I tried not to be involved in a super-serious way," offered another who did have a coaching background but did not want to put pressure on AD. Did they know early they had a budding basketball star on their hands? When did AP become aware that AD had the potential to garner a college scholarship, perhaps even one to a top program? Generally our group of parents did not know until high school or just before. One AP said not until AD was a sophomore and had undergone a growth spurt and gained some strength did AP understand how good AD could be. Another AP did not realize the family had to take the possibilities seriously until AD started getting letters going into the 9th grade. Said one AP, who realized AD might be special her sophomore year when she started getting offers on unofficial visits, "I stuck my head in the sand on all that. I didn't even want to believe it until something actually came to her." Offered another AP, "Her freshman year of high school, her very first letter was from Stanford. I about fell on the floor. I thought you had to be kidding me!" "She started getting letters in the 7th grade but whether that was going to materialize, I did not know. It became more of a reality by her sophomore year when she had been contacted by 80-100 schools," commented an AP. Most families had good experiences with travel teams and cited the fun of playing, the chance to work with good coaches, the travel, the contacts made with other young athletes, and the opportunities to be seen by college coaches as benefits. "She had a great time, a lot of fun," stated an AP whose daughter was invited to travel with some high-powered AAU squads. "The AAU exposure, especially back east, was key to being seen by college coaches. We realized college coaches were tagging those girls that they really wanted to recruit by no later than their sophomore year." One AP reflected that without some excellent coaching from a family friend who was an AAU coach, AD might not have made it as far as she did in the sport. "[The friend] showed her what she really needed to do to get to that next level," remarked AP, who thought it was critical that AD had a series of excellent coaches in AAU and high school ball. There were few issues with burnout or playing too much basketball, though several parents did mention that they had seen or heard of occasional problems on the circuit. One AP knows someone who predicted three or four years ago after playing Elena Delle Donne's team that the former Connecticut recruit and top 2008 prospect would not play college basketball due to burnout. Delle Donne is now a freshman at Delaware playing volleyball. This AP felt that problems were avoidable if parents clearly told the AAU coaches when their child needed a break and regulated the events in which AD participated. "Some people just let them run them into the ground, but that's the parents," declared AP. "You have to speak up." Contrary to the idea that Stanford tends to wait to recruit young athletes until it becomes very apparent that players have the grades to get admitted, which would have to be later in their high school careers, the Stanford staff is very proactive finding talent early and helping them through the admissions process. One AP said Stanford was the first school to offer, on an unofficial visit when AD was 15. The family was able to discuss academics and the admissions process at that time. Another said Stanford "held our hand" though the process of choosing high school classes, taking the SAT, and navigating Stanford admissions. An AD attended Stanford's summer basketball camps and was offered a scholarship the summer before her junior year, contingent on admissions of course. Several parents felt that their major role in the recruiting process was to help gather information and point out factors to consider that a teenager might not recognize without guidance. Some also said that the help of experienced AAU coaches was useful. An AAU coached recommended that one AD pare her list of schools from 10-15 to 5 relatively quickly else she might be overloaded with information. One AP gathered years worth of media guides and checked things like staff turnover, attendance, rosters, coaching style, who would be graduating, who was coming in or was being recruited, playing time for seniors vs. freshmen, location, weather, student population, academics – anything AP thought might help. "I really poured a lot of heart and effort into it for her," said AP. Coaching style was also important for this AP, who said, "Do you really want this person in your life for four years? We dropped a lot of coaches just because of who they were, not that they could help it." Parents were generally positive about the benefits of campus visits and face-to-face discussions with coaches in that setting. "Everybody that we got to see and visit and speak with was very clear with us. We knew where we stood. I thought that it was very exciting, just to have that level of attention, to be able to discuss future plans with people who were professional coaches from fantastic organizations. It was an eye-opener in terms of how big and how important the college basketball game is," said an AP. "What really hooked it for me was when Tara (VanDerveer) looks you in the eye and says, ‘You have a wonderful player and we'd love to have her here at Stanford.'" The role of unofficial vs. official visits differed for various families. One AP wanted to impress upon AD that Stanford should be in her top 5, so AP took AD on an unofficial visit during her sophomore year. "When we pulled up at Maples and all four coaches were standing at the curb waiting for her, I think she was a little star-struck," described AP. "It opened her eyes." And got Stanford into her top 5. Another AD required no such demonstration. The family waited until AD had been accepted into Stanford before scheduling an official visit for their first opportunity to visit the campus, but they did not need much selling. Despite the usual routine where the staff tailors a visit based on what a recruit requests, they almost needn't have bothered in this case. "She would have gone to Stanford no matter what. We wanted a place she'd want to go if she couldn't play basketball," stated AP. "At Stanford, there's not much that you have to do [to create an impressive official visit]. It's a beautiful place." Said another AP about Stanford, "It comes from my biased eyes but when Stanford comes knocking on your door, I'm sorry, that's the end of the equation. It has it all. Tell me what it lacks? It doesn't lack a thing. Top of the top." Several parents said AD wanted to take her visits and explore her options, so they did, but they could have done without all of that and were happy and relieved when AD chose Stanford. One family liked early offers and wanted to make a decision before recruits are allowed to go on official visits during the fall of their senior year. Explained AP, "To see where you are going on an unofficial and you decide to wait until September or October of senior year, you're going down the path where you have to make a decision [in that compressed time frame]. You are shown around and feel special on officials but you end up trapping yourself to make a decision." That AP felt the grind of five officials over a couple of months with a decision looming was not helpful and also increased the risk of offers possibly being pulled due to injury or a stretch of poor play over the summer. AD took unofficial visits to her top choices and was ready to make her decision as soon as Stanford admissions made theirs. "It's very important to realize the dynamite you are playing with in an offer if something happens," declared AP. Recruiting was not all sweetness and light. An AP described how local schools put enormous pressure on AD and the family not to leave the home state. One coach even cried when told AD had chosen to go away to Stanford. A mid-western school took the opportunity of a visit to push hard for an AD to commit although AP told them it was an information-gathering visit only. A Pac-10 school pressured one AD so strenuously to commit to them before taking her official visit to Stanford that AD decided to drop that school from her final list. Some visits were big on hype that might sway a teenager like a decked-out locker complete with a spiffy new uniform with the name on the back or a television news crew filming parts of the visit to show on the local news that night. Negative recruiting was not common, however one school told AD and family that Stanford would never make a Final Four so she should not consider going there. Guess who got beat by the Cardinal on their way to the title game last season? Oops. Excessive mail, phone calls, and most of all text messages were described as perhaps the biggest issues for families. One parent said all the letters and texts were stressful for AD, who enjoyed it for a while but then found it a huge burden. Many schools did not stop the flood of paper and electronic contact even after they had been informed they were no longer being considered. This AD got 100's of texts daily and ultimately just turned off her phone. "It was interesting. It was an experience of a lifetime. But I'm not sure I'd want to have another kid go through it," stated AP. Another parent felt all the mail was a horrible waste of time for both sender and receiver. Many schools mailed something every day for months on end. "I feel parents need to take control. You have to narrow things down," commented AP. "We kept [AD] really screened out of all that. They sent all that mail to us but she never really saw it. She didn't have time to open up all those letters and everything. She had schoolwork and other responsibilities." The letters ended up piled unopened in the basement. One parent, whose daughter got about 170 texts a day tacked onto her phone bill, got to gripe directly to the NCAA, which sends enforcement officers to discuss recruiting issues and possible violations with select recruits and their families. Since the NCAA recently restricted text messaging, somebody must have been listening. Even phone calls, which the NCAA already regulates, can be tricky for a recruit. "[Some coaches] talked incessantly," declared AP, who described 2-3 hour conversations. "Some of them, when they get you on the phone they would not hang up because they knew if they hung up they could not call you again for another month or so." Perhaps there should be a do not call list for recruits as there is for those wishing to avoid telemarketers. Does forced chatter with a coach for 3 hours make one more or less likely to choose that school? Parents said they were not generally promised playing time by candidate programs, nor did they have any expectations regarding their daughter's role on the team of her choice. Some never even asked. Offered one AP, "We wanted a chance to compete, which was what they explained to us." "We had no real expectations other than that she would contribute," added another. "We expected her to get a great education." "Coaches really didn't promise anything. We were dealing with quality programs and quality people," said a third AP. "There were no negatives. Everybody had a lot of respect for Stanford. For us it was basically the feel of the program, the feel of the coaches, of course the campus and the school." "Parents have to deal with their kid playing a different position or different role. Parents worry about their kid finding a role where they can best be successful but if coaches see them in a different role, that's just they way it is," concluded an AP, who emphasized that the family was very happy with how AD's college career was progressing but added that parents need to aware that the sort of do-it-all role a star player might fill in high school would probably not continue in college. One parent did say that a few coaches promised "ridiculous things" and one even offered to get AD a modeling career. AD and family said thanks but no thanks to that coach. What about the idea of a basketball team as an extended family with the coaches acting as surrogate parents, a theme that we frequently see touted by certain coaches or mentioned by some recruits upon choosing a school – the coach as molder of youths? While acknowledging that some kids need the extra guidance, an AP said that a surrogate parent was not at all what they were after. "It was more about how the coaching staff and the school could help her progress," stated AP. "There is a fine line for a coach – you have to be something different for fifteen different players." Another parent noted that at Stanford there is unity but the coaches are not parental off the court. "They mold them to be great basketball players at Stanford. They encourage them to be really good people," asserted AP. "I think it is a pretty good balance," confirmed a different AP. "During the season the kids are always together, always a group, and I think that is really special. They also all have their own circle of friends outside of the team, which gives them some balance socially." "I told [AD] that when coaches tell you they're the parent, don't believe them because coaches move all the time," noted another AP, who mentioned one coach who sat down to dinner with the family, made a big speech about how happy she was at her current job and how she would never leave, but then left for greener pastures within a year or two. A topic that nobody was really thrilled to discuss but which is a sad fact of life for athletes is injury. How much do parents worry about injuries? How do they cope when a serious injury does occur? "That is a tough question to answer because then you get engaged with that question," said an AP who clearly was not eager to discuss it. "We're not worrywarts but we are aware of the possibility." "Yes, I do worry. I do. Knock on wood. Especially against physical teams," said a parent who felt that some coaches ask their players to be physical without teaching them the right way to do so without hurting people. Said another parent, "No, we don't worry about injuries. It's part of life. The world doesn't revolve around us. You have to take the good with the bad. That's part of the risk involved in being a college athlete." "You do become kind of immune to it," offered an AP. "You certainly hope it doesn't happen. Every time they go up for a lay-up or anything, you kind of go, ‘Here we go,' but it's part of the game. We understand that. The fact that [AD] understands that and is ok with it makes me more comfortable." Another AP does worry about injuries and noted that you don't really understand how life changing they can be until it happens to you. AP believes an athlete can grow tremendously while dealing with an injury and that while some athletes face an identity crisis when they get hurt and cannot play, it helps to be at Stanford where there is so much else on which they can focus. "[AD] is excited about everything rather than just one thing (basketball) and I think Stanford really is what has offered that," claimed AP. Injured players receive great support from the medical staff and trainers, the coaches, and their teammates, but it can be difficult because during the season the team is often traveling. Sometimes a family member must stay for a time at Stanford to act as caregiver. Since the NCAA prohibits schools from paying for the expenses associated with such a visit, the family must bear the burden of time and money on their own. What do these parents looked for when watching their daughters play? Some simply enjoy the game as any fan would, watching and rooting for the team as a whole with maybe one slightly special favorite player. One AP likes to watch for teamwork and moving the ball well. An AP said, "I watch the whole flow of the game. I don't really focus on the ball that much. I like to watch what happens down on the block and to watch the different picks and screens out on the wing." "I like to see how a team works together," offered another AP, who professed a fondness for watching passing and how the ability to catch passes translates into scoring opportunities. "I really could care less about [AD's] points." Guess which of the above two quotes comes from the parent of a guard or the parent of an inside player and you'd probably be wrong. The time commitment required to play a sport at the collegiate level means a student-athlete might have to make some tough choices regarding how best to spend her limited time and how she can get the most out of her college life apart from athletics. How do the parents see the balance between basketball and the all the other great things a student chooses Stanford to experience, academically and otherwise? "It is a good learning tool overall," said one parent. "It mirrors life more than just going to school does. You have to know how to balance your time and handle all the challenges you face – that may be the most important thing you learn in school." Some athletes find the time management challenge easier than others. Simply finding enough time for sleep can be an issue for some. An AP said AD was often rushed and tired but that by the time she had finished her freshman year and gotten the hang of time management a bit more, things improved. That Stanford has such a high percentage of athletes in the student body is also helpful. "The amount of time they spend on basketball helps them budget their time more efficiently when they are not involved in basketball," stated an AP. "It forces them to learn time management skills. I tell [AD] all the time – expose yourself to as many different schools of thought and different speakers and different subjects as you possibly can in your years at Stanford. Really become a critical thinker, an excellent writer, and a voracious reader. Learn about the world. Be inquisitive and curious," said another AP. "You have to give up some things to get others." One parent said the bottom line was that AD enjoyed her busy life. Said AP, "The best statement [AD] ever made was, 'I can't imagine myself going to school and not enjoying the total experience of playing sports and going to school.'" That this experience of school and sport is rewarding for the players is indeed the bottom line. Judging by our conversations with these parents, the experience from their perspective is equally gratifying. We thank our anonymous parents for their insights.
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