Welcome to SwimSwam’s feature, called simply SwimSwam Discussion. We might rename it at a later point in time (Hospitality Room, anybody?), but for now that’s what we’ll call it. In this series, we’ll take a question about swimming, usually geared toward the more hardcore of our nerds, and pose it to our audience. These questions will be based on real-life conversations SwimSwam staff has had with real-life swim fans, usually coaches, and we will invite our audience to discuss the subject in the comments section.
Please note: these discussions will be held to a higher standard of civility because of their constructive nature. If you’re not typically a constructive commenter, plan to be moderated.
Let’s talk about recruiting. But not seniors. Juniors.
Down the road, in 2028 or 2032, when you and your coaching buddies are sitting around a bar at the Olympic Trials (probably still in Omaha) and talking about ‘when did it become a thing to commit as a junior,’ you’ll remember that you read this article, and that the answer is 2017.
There have always been a few outliers. We knew where Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin were going to college by the time they finished their junior years of high school. Swimmers of that caliber were never going to have time around international competition schedules to take the 5 allotted official visits.
Last year, that started to grow – but it was mostly attributed to “wanting to make the decision early and focus on the Olympic Trials.”
This year, though, it’s a whole different ball-game. Committing as a junior has become the en vogue thing to do.
Open contact doesn’t start until July 1st, 7 weeks from now, and we’ve already received 25 commitments from the high school class of 2018. And the pace is increasing, not decreasing.
That means these 25 swimmers aged 16 and 17 have made their college decisions without official visits – though in swimming, with so much intermingling between pro, high school, and college swimmers on deck, that’s not as terrifying as it might sound otherwise.
And the first question I found myself asking was: Why did it take swimming so long?
Almost every other collegiate sport has moved to an underclassmen recruiting cycle. In football, high school juniors often have committed twice already (once, and then again when they changed their minds). In volleyball, more of the top 100 players commit as freshmen than as seniors.
In swimming, it’s especially bizarre, because there’s much less subjectivity about the whole process. There’s some – about team chemistry, and growth potential, and how much hand-size matters – but not the same as sports like football or basketball, where athletes are now committing in 8th grade. How many stars did Katie Ledecky get? All of them?
When Missy Franklin was going 1:51.07 as an 8th grader, it almost didn’t matter if she got any faster. She was already as fast as a college All-American. There was no controlling for level of competition she was racing against – 25 yards is 25 yards, and time counts the same for everyone (general relativity aside). Reece Whitley’s 53.0 in the 100 breaststroke at the same age would get him a spot on any program in the country even if his progression stalled.
The point is: the risk of offering an underclassmen in swimming seems like much less than there is in other sports.
So why is there a sudden shift? It’s likely as simple as a tipping point. Coaches across the country give swimmers deadlines to commit, or else offers are pulled from the table. Swimmers, parents, and coaches alike have reached out to us in the last week about this trend – and everyone seems terrified about the number of juniors committing. It’s that fear that drives the trend. Coaches get nervous about missing out on athletes. Athletes get nervous about losing out on scholarships. One over the other, they race to find each other earlier and earlier.
And here’s the bad news: nobody likes it, and it’s not going anywhere. All of the rational and impassioned pleas in the world aren’t going to change the trend unless the NCAA makes some new creative legislation to discourage it. It’s like fighting the rising influence of social media – it’s a losing battle, on a generational level.
The impacts are going to be far-reaching. There’s going to be more pressure on young athletes to perform, perhaps to the detriment of long-term development. Age group records are one thing, but now there’s actual dollars – lots of them – at stake.
There are also going to be more swimmers de-committing after making their initial decisions. Because these junior-and-earlier verbal commitments are non-binding, both swimmers and coaches are free to withdraw their offers. At first, that can damage recruiting relationships. Over the long-term, however, it will become more commonplace and accepted.
Coaches are also going to have to be more willing to enhance athletes’ scholarships once their on campus, or risk losing them to transfer.
There’s really not much upside to this. Younger-and-younger swimmers are pressured further-and-further into making the most important decision of their young adult life well before the decision-making part of their brain is biologically fully developed (which doesn’t happen until age 25).
So, as coaches, parents, and athletes working through the process, how can we mitigate these impacts?
- More parental involvement. Most college coaches want to speak with the parents before a swimmer commits, but every one has their own comfort level on how involved they like the parents to be in the process. These boundaries will be pushed, necessarily, as commitments happen at younger and younger ages.
- Attend more travel meets. When most athletes are committing as seniors, they will know that most of the swimmers on the current college team will still be there when they arrive on campus. But when those decisions start coming as juniors, and eventually (it’s going to happen) sophomores and freshmen, the current team makeup is less-and-less the team that swimmers will be joining. By going to more travel meets, swimmers can meet and socialize more with their peers from across the country. Those bonds will be ultimately become more and more valuable in making the best decision.
- Figure out how much the scholarship matters. The scholarships are the big leverage point here. There’s one school of thought that you never tell a coach that ‘you don’t need the money,’ because then they will lowball you. In this new world though, if you or your swimmer don’t need the money, you have more control over the timeline.
- Embrace the change. Make your commitment, but keep listening. Everyone, coaches and athletes, will have to get a thicker skin with regards to recruiting. Coaches will have to accept commitments, which will often be public. Athletes will have to accept the pressure to commit earlier. Everyone is going to have to lean into the changes and make them less personal.
- Have backup plans. If a swimmer decides they’re just not going to commit early, and the money is important to the family, then swimmers need to be careful to not fall in love with one school before they’re able to make their visits. More options gives athletes more leverage and leaves them more likely to land in a good situation – even if it’s not what they think is their perfect situation.
If we accept that this is what is happening, what else can we do, as a community to help young swimmers make the best decisions with less information? Leave your ideas in the comments.