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Early Recruiting: When Does Recruiting Really Start for Student-Athletes?

Early college recruiting.

Every year, it seems like there are more and more stories about middle school athletes receiving college scholarship offers. Some athletes have made the news by receiving offers when they are as young as 9 years old! Early recruiting is a controversial topic, but it’s important to understand why and how it works. Most athletes are not ready to get recruited by college coaches at age 9. However, you need to factor early recruiting in when you’re reaching out to colleges, communicating with coaches and determining what level you want to compete at.

What exactly is early recruiting?

Early recruiting refers to the trend of college coaches recruiting athletes before the NCAA rules allow them to initiate communication with those recruits. For most Division I and Division II sports, coaches can start proactively reaching out to recruits sometime around the beginning of their junior year of high school. However, many coaches—think: Division I and some top-tier DII schools—offer scholarships to athletes as young as 7th and 8th grade. And it’s technically not against the rules for all sports except for lacrosse and softball.

When coaches get word of a young, stellar athlete, they reach out to that athlete’s high school or club coach. They get more information from the coach, and have them set up a phone call with the athlete. Remember: if a recruit calls a college coach, the coach can always pick up, no matter how old the athlete is. From there, the coach might ask the recruit to send more videos, transcripts, etc., in order to make a full evaluation. The athlete can send the coach as many emails as they want; the coach is just prohibited from responding to them until the athlete hits the right age, according to the NCAA rules.

If the coach is truly interested in that recruit, they can extend a verbal scholarship offer. A verbal offer is a non-legally binding scholarship offer, and college coaches can extend verbal offers to a recruit of any age. It’s essentially a way for the coach to say, “I’m reserving a spot on my team for you.” However, because verbal offers aren’t legally binding, coaches—and athletes—can back out of them at any point. 

Why are coaches offering athletes so young?

Early recruiting is a way for coaches in highly competitive programs to snag the best athletes before their competition does. And it makes sense from that perspective! Find, recruit and commit the elite student-athletes ahead of your rivals. The problem is that in order to stay ahead of the competition, coaches have to recruit earlier and earlier.

While most coaches acknowledge that they don't particularly like the practice of early recruiting, they have to take part in the practice to stay competitive with other programs. “Sometimes you feel so hypocritical as a coach, when you're saying you don't think it's healthy to recruit kids at [a young] age, but then you're actively in that process," Western Kentucky women's volleyball coach Travis Hudson told ESPNW.

What are some people against early recruiting?

Early recruiting has put a lot of pressure on coaches, athletes and parents to push the recruiting timeline forward. This means athletes need to start competing at a high level sooner, coaches need to starting thinking about recruiting classes years out and parents are trying to help their young athletes make very mature decisions. Early recruiting has, in fact, significantly altered the youth sports landscape:

  • Youth sports now focus less on skills development and more on showcasing the athletes' talent.When athletes are in 6th, 7th and 8th grade, they should be working on developing their skills and cultivating a love of the game. With the rise in early recruiting, many are pressured to work tirelessly to attract the attention of college coaches, oftentimes accruing overuse injuries in the process.
  • Early recruiting urges immature athletes to make major life decisions.Most middle school students don't know what they want to major in or how to choose a college. Nevertheless, athletic programs press these middle school athletes to make a life-long choice at a young age.
  • Moving the recruiting timeline up has cranked up the intensity in youth sports. Early recruiting breeds hyper-focused athletes and parents. To snag an offer by the time athletes reach high school, parents pull out all the stops to help their athlete succeed.
  • Students who excelled academically in middle school may not be academically eligible when they get to high school. Eligibility is a huge component of the recruiting process, and an eighth grade 3.8 GPA is a lot different from a junior year 3.8 GPA. This could mean committed athletes lose offers at the last minute because coaches incorrectly projected their academic qualifications.
  • Athletes who develop later can be left in the lurch. Many athletes aren’t fully developed by the time they hit middle school and can fall through the cracks in the early recruiting process.

Is anything being done to delay the rise in early recruiting?

The NCAA created new early recruiting rules for lacrosse in April 2017, effective Aug. 1, 2017. They also passed the same rules for softball, effective April 25, 2018. The rules ban college coaches from contacting lacrosse or softball recruits in any way before Sept. 1 of their junior year. Many speculate that it will have a very positive impact on lacrosse and softball recruiting for coaches, parents and, most importantly, the athletes. 

The NCAA also approved a new set of rules that will change the way all Division 1 college coaches can recruit athletes in an effort to cut back on early scholarship offers. The rules take effect April 25, 2018. Here's a quick breakdown of the changes:

  • Official visits: Recruits can now start taking official visits starting September 1 of their junior year of high school. In the past, official visits weren't permitted until the athlete's senior year of high school, so this rule is actually bumping them up!
  • College camps and clinics: Recruits and college coaches are not allowed to have any recruiting conversations during camps prior to September 1 of the athlete's junior year of high school. Previously, there weren't really any rules that prevented coaches from talking about recruiting to underclassmen during camps. In fact, it had become common practice for college coaches to extend verbal scholarship offers to top recruits during camps.
  • Unofficial visits: College athletic departments are not allowed to be involved in a recruit's unofficial visits. Quick refresher: Unofficial visits are any campus visits paid for entirely by the recruit's family. Before the rule change, unofficial visits were an easy way for underclassmen to visit a college camps, meet with the coach and get an early verbal offer. However, if athletes want to take unofficial visits now, they cannot schedule them with the coach-they should treat the unofficial visit just like any other student would. If the recruit happens to bump into the coach on campus, they can't have any recruiting conversations at that time.

With the early recruiting rules, proponents hope that athletes will have the opportunity to focus on skill development at an early age, and take more time to determine what they want out of their college experience. They will be able to go on unofficial visits and decide on their future course of study as high school upperclassmen. For more information about these rules, check out our blog post

How do the new early recruiting rules impact families?

The new rules impact all DI sports except football, men's and women's basketball, and men's and women's lacrosse (as they already passed similar rules in 2017). High school juniors will now be allowed to take official visits beginning Sept. 1 of their junior year. Under the old rule, athletes needed to wait until their senior year to take an official visit. In addition, coaches are no longer allowed to be involved in an athlete’s unofficial visit. In every sport except DI lacrosse and softball, coaches will still be allowed to discuss recruiting with an athlete who initiates contact with them. 

These rule changes will likely put more emphasis on athletes and families needing to be proactive early in the recruiting process. With top prospects beginning offered official visits their junior year, this means even more schools can lock down their recruiting classes early. In other words, if you want to compete at a top tier program, you need to start the recruiting process almost immediately. If you wait until your junior or senior year, there may not be any spots left on the roster for your recruiting class.

And early recruiting doesn't just affect DI and upper-level DII schools. Lower-level DII, DIII and NAIA schools usually wait to see who doesn't get picked up by the top-tier programs and start recruiting there. However, the quicker DI recruiting classes fill up, the faster the other division levels can start their processes, as well.

The best way to stay on top of recruiting in the current climate is to do your research and get started as soon as possible. Every recruiting journey is different, so your family may not be ready to commit to the recruiting process as a middle schooler. However, if you're a freshman or sophomore in high school, start doing your research about recruiting and figuring out the schools you're interested in. Make academics a priority and, for most sports, start pulling together your highlight/skills videos.

If you need any help creating your recruiting game plan, our recruiting experts know all the in’s and out’s of the process. Give them a call at 866-495-5172 to figure out where you’re at in the recruiting process and determine your next steps.

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