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Bird Brown: Athletes, be sure to choose your own destiny | COMMENTARY

When I was growing up, I never wanted to be a college soccer player. My goals were much loftier than that.

I knew as I hit my mid-teens that any day that call could come. I waited anxiously for the call that would change my life. The head of futebol operations for Clube de Regatas do Flamengo would be calling my parents to arrange for my flights back to Rio where I would learn from, not the ones who invented the game, but the people that made the game beautiful.

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As reality began to set in that the anticipated call may never come (I still think if we had cellphones and “Fake-book” then they would have found me) I had to lower my standards and set my sights on trying to compete for a spot in college, just so I could keep playing the game I love to this day.

Times were much different in the world of college soccer, or college athletics in general, but especially in a game that was just beginning to gain attention at the recreational and club levels. I was fortunate to have the perfect storm of a young passionate coach combing the East Coast looking to build a new program and an average student and good soccer player desperately seeking but not deserving a second chance.

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Every recreation program wants its kids to have fun and learn the game with a focus of hopefully making their high school teams. Every club pushes to have its players succeed at the high school level and land college spots to continue their careers. High school coaches want their kids to have the opportunity to play in college but enjoy balancing that with the players who finish their “careers” after high school season is over, playing with the intensity only those that know the time is now or never hold can understand.

Most every parent wants their young players to play at the highest level they can. Oftentimes parents get blamed for pushing their kids to succeed but really seeking the riches of the multi-million-dollar contracts that are blasted all over sports media for the few super-athletes able to take their games to the highest level. That’s unfair.

Most parents ― not saying there aren’t exceptions ― only want what’s best for their child. I’ve seen the same excitement, enthusiasm (sometimes a little over the top) and encouragement that you see on the gridiron, pitch and court also in theater, band, and SkillsUSA.

The percentages of any high school athlete from any sport being able to continue their careers at any level of collegiate competition reflect the changing environment and increased competition. For high school soccer alone, only 5.6% of boys and 7.2% of girls will graduate and move on to play in college. When that happens, we all celebrate the player’s success from the recreation to club, high school and parents and the player gets passed on to the next level and their new “careers” begin.

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It’s cool to be able to follow former players have success at the next level, but to be honest most of us are too busy working with our current players that we don’t have time to follow all of it. The players themselves are ingrained in their own new reality with harder classes and more intense daily practices and a new environment of freedom and flexibility, but also of new self-responsibility.

What happens when athletes find themselves in a situation where all that they’ve worked for to get to this level is either taken away from them by injury, a more demanding school schedule that requires more of the student’s attention, or an unsustainable relationship with the coach or teammates that make it difficult at best and not enjoyable at the worst to continue playing? When they no longer find it worthwhile to put in the time to compete for their spot on the field, what’s left for them at school when their sport is over?

I’ve seen many athletes over the years, some family members, some players I’ve coached, some I’ve watched at school and some who were friends of my kids, that have all gone on to various levels of success at the college level. But there have been enough times where I’ve seen an athlete end their career after only a year or two, for a number of reasons, and when they lose that connection to the team or the sport they love, find themselves at a school that they never would have chosen had it not been for them being able to play that sport in college. And the pandemic shutdowns have made it even worse for some.

Many juniors and seniors, and even some younger than that, are beginning to look at where they may want to or be recruited to play for at the next level. When going through the process, players should seek a sport-specific environment that suits their needs for competition, coaching, and development. And because they are required to have a certain academic achievement level, the student should select a school that not only offers their intended major, but has success with placing students into post-college careers.

More importantly, the player should make sure that in the absence of their ability to play their sport at their chosen school, in the chance that things don’t work out, they’re comfortable with the school they’ve chosen in the daily life of a non-athlete.

Author Roy T. Bennett said it best: “Take responsibility of your own happiness, never put it in other people’s hands.”

Make sure that when you are making the decision on where to play, make sure you are doing it for yourself, not for all of the people who have had a part of helping you along the way.

We get enough satisfaction of seeing you succeed in whatever you do in life.

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