Written by Tim Zbytniewski, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach at Living Word Lutheran High School.
“I need to go to a bigger high school so that I can play at the next level in college.”
For Living Word Lutheran High School, being a smaller school with an enrollment around 200 students means that we hear the above statement from prospective families on a regular basis.
Despite being untrue and despite Living Word’s proven record of sending senior student-athletes on to the next level every year, many to top Division 3, Division 2, and Division 1 schools, it continues to be one of the most commonly used reasons for student-athletes and parents who choose not to attend a mid-to-smaller sized high school.
In today’s world, the perception exists that college coaches will only recruit kids from schools of a certain size, or that true competition only exists when 1000+ kids are involved.
The thought is that recruiters, especially those from D-1 universities, will avoid the gyms and fields of lower classification schools, as if there is no possible way that a high-quality player, coach, or program could exist in a small school or small town.
I know many current and former college coaches, and I cannot recall hearing any of them cite a prospective recruit’s class size when listing their recruitable attributes. I have, however, heard many times about how a recruit is coming from a high-quality school, or a highly respected program where they were well-coached, both of which are things unrelated to a school’s classification or enrollment.
To be clear, there are certainly some outstanding coaches at larger high schools in the area, some whom I have tremendous respect for; but, their quality is determined by who they are as people and leaders, not by their school’s size. In the same way, I can name just as many exceptional coaches and programs at smaller schools.
So what are recruiters looking for?
The topic of college recruiting is only applicable if there is first a student-athlete with the skill and athleticism worthy of being recruited. That is something that everyone within this debate can agree on.
The bottom line is that college programs are looking for players who can help them build a sustainable and winning culture. An athlete can go to the biggest high school they can find, play in as many showcases as they want, pay for skill lessons, and fill up every spare moment of time with club games; however, if a college coach does not think that the recruit fits their culture, then it does not matter. One thing to understand about this is that most players in college are some kind of All-Conference, All-Region, or All-something kind of player. So how does an athlete set themselves apart outside of their numbers and accolades? They do it by being an outstanding person, a great teammate, an amazing classmate, and by taking care of their business in the classroom. It is here where the separation amongst recruits starts to occur, as the college programs are no longer just looking to see if you can make a jump shot or get separation from your defender; but, also if your character, personality, academics, leadership skills, and habits are a good fit for their school and program. Having the skill is step one, having the intangibles to be able to handle the next stage is step two.
How does Living Word go about helping create the intangibles above? Quite simply it is a part of our everyday walk in faith. We are not called to continue sinning so that grace may abound, but instead we are called to hold ourselves to a much higher calling. A calling that all of our coaches realize is number one in each of their lives and the lives of their athletes. By looking to the Bible and making it an integral part of our everyday sport lives, we have witnessed the changes made in athletes throughout their time at Living Word. The mission of Timberwolf Athletics is best described through the TOUGH acronym (Take responsibility, Others before self, Unwavering effort, Get better, and Honor Him). By living out this acronym, the intangibles become woven into our athletes’ character.
One of the other main factors college coaches look for is an athlete that plays multiple sports. Many top-tier college coaches have gone on record in support of multi-sport athletes, and the statistics easily explain why. These individuals develop more overall athleticism and a variety of skill sets, all while experiencing less burnout and reducing the risk of overuse injuries.
Living Word head coaches work together to make sure that those who want to participate in a variety of sports have every opportunity to do so, which is a difficult dynamic to find in the bigger classifications. With a school of our size, student-athletes are able to play multiple sports with ease.
Quality vs Quantity
Finally, we have the classic quality vs. quantity scenario, and standing in the way of facts is the belief that bigger always means better.
Most would agree that this is not the case in education, as a more personal environment along with smaller class sizes has been proven to lead to more student attention and academic growth than you would find in an overflowing classroom. The most important element in that situation, of course, is not the class size but rather the quality of the teacher.
Would it be any different in athletics? What matters more: the size of the school you play for or the quality of coaching you are getting on a daily basis?
A fair argument would be that the level of competition is what matters most. Much like a rigorous curriculum would be in the world of academics, a challenging schedule will bring a higher level of effort and execution out of an athlete.
While true, I would again counter that such effort and execution is only relevant to the recruitment discussion when it is fostered by quality coaching and character development. Additionally, playing for a bigger school does not guarantee that daily competition will be better. A smaller school size provides athletes with the opportunity to get on the field more often and earlier in their high school careers. Playing time and game action help develop players, and playing at a smaller school gives more opportunity to compete.
The neutralizer in this issue is the rise of the internet’s role in recruiting. Gone are the days of an athlete from a remote town or small school going under the radar. High school’s movement to online statistics and game film has made every player accessible.
These days, rather than worrying about whether or not a college coach will ever come to your game for you to be seen, you can bring your game to them through easily created and shared reels. With the help of technology, the belief that you will only be seen by playing on the biggest stage is simply no longer true.
In the end, I believe the question at the heart of the big school vs. small school decision is simple: does a school’s classification influence an athlete’s character and work ethic? Obviously not, but coaching and culture certainly do.
And that is one of the many reasons I believe so strongly in Living Word and our athletic department. Not only do our programs excel in the areas of skill development and competition, not only do we promote and support multiple sport athletes, not only do we send our seniors off with college scholarships, but what separates the Living Word experience is the Christian character development of our student-athletes. We focus on the intangibles that can not only make the difference when being recruited, but more importantly, can make the difference in life after high school.
Living Word has consistently proven that classification does not determine recruitment, and I look forward to watching future T-Wolves continue to shatter that myth for years to come. I hope you will join us!