I could see it all right there in front of me when I was young.First, after dominating the high school scene, I would take my basketball talents to Westwood, Calif., where I would accept a basketball scholarship to play at UCLA and help the late, great John Wooden and the Bruins to several more national championships.Next, I would move on to the NBA as a high-round draft pick where the Los Angeles Lakers would select me as the heir apparent to replace Jerry West at the shooting guard position.And then, after an all-star career that saw me help the Lakers to several championships, I would retire at the top of my game and get into coaching where I would be a part of many more championships before entering the Hall of Fame as a player and coach… And then, unfortunately, my mom woke me and told me it was time for school.Ah, youth, a time to dream. Not that adults don’t, or shouldn’t, dream too, but there is something particularly precious about the aspirations of young people. And, interestingly, the more things change the more they stay the same in this regard.My dreams of becoming an athletic star in the late ’60s and early ’70s were no different than those of millions of young people today. However, once I entered high school and began competing against bigger, stronger, faster and better, players, I quickly saw the handwriting on the wall.And though I never became a big-time college athlete, I was blessed to be connected to college athletics for over 20 years as a coach (basketball), administrator and broadcaster. And through it all, I would hear my dreams repeated by students wanting the same sort of fame and fortune, each beginning with the attainment of a college scholarship.Make no mistake, I have always advocated for students to dream big. And yet, there are a scant number of athletic scholarships available each year, let alone full athletic scholarships.According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only 2 percent of high school athletes each year, roughly 130,000 kids, earn either a full or partial scholarship. An additional study conducted by the New York Times in 2008 revealed that of the more than 1 million boys who played football in high school that year, only 28,299 received a scholarship in Division I or II.The Times reported that girls also face long odds when it comes to earning college athletic scholarships. A strong example of this came in the Times’ research, which showed that more than 600,000 young ladies competed in track and field (the most popular girls’ sport) that year, but fewer than 10,000 won a scholarship. The average award was $8,100 a year.Given the long statistical odds of receiving an athletic scholarship, it is prudent, even vital, that families maintain a holistic outlook on why they are involved in athletics. All too often I hear parents, even those with elementary school-aged kids, state that the reason their children are participating in a sport is so that they can hopefully earn a scholarship. The healthier and more realistic approach is to have students participate in a sports for the enjoyment and the values they derive from it. The spoils, if they’re good enough, will follow. This is not to discourage ambition — just unbridled ambition.If a students are passionate about considering college athletics, it is important for them to be aware of the two primary athletic associations in the county and the levels of competition they offer. The NCAA, www.ncaa.org, has three levels of completion: Division I (Stanford, Cal, UNR); Division II (Chico State, Humbolt State, Sonoma State); and Division III (Menlo College). Division I and II schools offer scholarships; Division III schools do not.The other prominent athletic association is the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), www.naia.org. Schools in this association are generally private schools, often with religious underpinnings. The NAIA offers a Division I level and Division II level, the differences between them resting on enrollment and funding of the athletic program. Both NAIA Division I and II schools can offer scholarships, but not all do.Between the NCAA and NAIA, there are almost 2,500 colleges and universities that have athletic programs, though not all schools offer a full bouquet of athletic offerings. Between these options and those available at community colleges, students who truly want to continue playing sports after high school — and have some demonstrated ability — have options to consider, even if as JV player or walk-on (e.g. non recruited student who volunteers to play for a team, space permitting).If the passion is there, a key player who should be consulted in this process is a student-athlete’s high school and/or club coach. If a student truly wants to pursue an athletic opportunity somewhere, and is willing to disregard geographical preferences to do so, the student is wise to get an objective evaluation from the student’s coach as to where he or she sees the student’s best opportunity to compete on the next level.Conversations such as these have the potential to be difficult, as the coach has an obligation to be objective with respect to his or her outlook on the student’s best opportunity to contribute, or to even make a team.At the end of the day, regardless of athletic prowess or aspiration, it is critical that students select schools based upon the right fit and feel of the institution. Remember, the title is student-athlete. I’ve seen far too many students chase the athletic dream and forsake what should be the true essence of going to college, a quality education, for a chance to maybe play somewhere.When I used to recruit players — and parents — I would often ask the following rhetorical question to help them center their thinking: “If you were to attend (insert name of school) and you suffered a career-ending injury on the first day of practice, would you still feel compelled to stay and graduate from there?”The moral of the story — reach for the stars with your feet firmly planted on the ground.• Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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