Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.
At 15, I’d collected a dozen pen pals around the country. They were women and men in their 40s and 50s, and they all wanted something from me. They wrote to me often, hoping to convince me that my life could change because of them—and they were right. They were Division I volleyball coaches who’d spotted an inkling of potential in me.
The NCAA recently reported college recruiting generally happens sooner for girls than boys. Over 37 percent of female volleyball players on Division I teams were contacted during their freshman year of high school, which means we were courted by college coaches before we went to our first homecoming dance. First came the letters and emails. They sent team photos around the holidays with 20 girls standing tall in tight jerseys with cherry-red Santa hats photoshopped over their ponytails. Handwritten notes of encouragement scrawled across university letterhead arrived in the mail every month: “The jump serve is looking good, keep up the nice work.” “Saw you play in Dallas, sorry about the loss. Your passing looked consistent though!” Other times, they sent simple postcards of the team celebrating a big win, players frozen mid-blockjump or mid-cheer in a photograph, with statistics about the season printed on the back and a rushed signature from the coach at the bottom.
My favorite letters came from a coach in Alabama. She sent me a card per week for months until my dad made me call her and respectfully let her know that my interests lay elsewhere. It was the first time I’d ever spoken to a coach on the phone and my hands shook the entire time, turning clammy and sweaty while I fumbled for words. I missed her cards when they stopped coming: She used to draw me on them, a little stick-figure girl hanging out next to her players in the photo so I could see myself “as part of the team already.” The miniature figure could have been anyone, really. Except she always added a couple of squiggly lines to the edge of the round head, twisting them together on the page to form a braid that flopped to the side. The braid was part of my uniform. I never stepped onto the court without it, and she knew this because she’d seen me play before I even knew anyone was watching.
College coaches began circling our courts at huge national tournaments, where hundreds of nets stretched from one wall of a convention center to the other. Sometimes, club coaches or parents shuffled us over to meet them after games. My dad trained me for these conversations. Strong eye contact, strong handshake. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. I’d try to gauge the right amount of emotion to show on my face: pissed-off but composed after a loss, excited and humble after a win. How do you behave in the presence of an adult who holds the power to accept or deny your dreams? How should you respond when the gatekeeper pats you on the shoulder and says, “Hey kiddo, you looked good out there”?
A line from a coach like that meant everything and nothing. I spent weeks analyzing these phrases the way my friends analyzed texts from first crushes. Kiddo, does he not think I’m an adult? Good, was I only good? Good is the enemy of great. Or at least those were the words I taped up near my bed, torturing myself with the idea that I might end up average one day.
It was this fear that led me to commit to a school before I was ready. It was spring at home in Colorado. I was scheduled to speak with a coach that morning, just a monthly check-in. I paced back and forth during the phone call, stepping over the cracks in my driveway, avoiding the grass in the front lawn still heavy with dew from the night. The rough pavement felt like sandpaper against the balls of my feet.
It was a quick conversation, overwhelmingly ordinary. While picking a leaf off the bottom of my foot, it occurred to me how easy it would be to just say yes. All I wanted was to play for a school ranked in the top 20 in the nation, and this coach was offering me a chance to do that. Plus, the school believed in me. The head coach and her two assistants not only told me this in emails and letters and in person after games, but on the phone, where I could hear the firmness in their voices: You’ll improve here. You’ll come in right away and make an impact.
I could hear the certainty in the head coach’s voice travel across state lines as we discussed skills I’d been working on and school projects. I had the chance to be in a place where people believed one day I’d be great. As the conversation dwindled, I told her I wanted to accept her offer, one that had been on the table for a few weeks. At first, my commitment startled her: I still had another month before the deadline they’d given me, a month to think things over and compare that offer with other schools’. She congratulated me and said she’d follow up with confirmation in an email later that day.
I didn’t feel excited. I felt relieved, and I began contemplating which friends to text first: It’s official, it’s official. Except what I was really saying was: It’s over, it’s over. By accepting an offer, I could end the search, the arguments, the days spent measuring myself against everyone else. I walked back inside and nonchalantly informed my mom I’d accepted an offer to play Division I volleyball at the University of Utah. She was shocked. My parents feigned enthusiasm but were upset I’d made the decision without letting them help me think through my options.
There used to be a sign above the door to the gym where I practiced with a quote carved in bulky black letters: “Make today a masterpiece.” We touched it with our fingers before entering, a gesture to clear the mind, a commitment to leave all other thoughts at the door and completely focus on the game. The court was a place we could lose ourselves in adrenaline. It was this mindset that I wanted to maintain. One of uninterrupted dedication and surrender.
We were drawn to the idea of being part of something greater than ourselves. One Saturday, I was told to run until practice was over or I threw up, whichever one came first, because one of my teammates was late. She had to watch me. We were taught to sacrifice for those around us. We were taught to be selfless. In the gym, we could push all other thoughts from our minds and enter another world. But recruiting, a necessary evil, took me out of that world and into the real one.
Committing in a rush turned out to complicate my college experience, not simplify it. During my freshman year, I realized I hadn’t looked much farther than the rankings on NCAA.com when deciding on a school. While I felt at home on the court and with the coaches, I couldn’t find my place off of it. I felt like a failure, like something was wrong with me for not fitting in. After freshman year, I transferred to Columbia.
I wasn’t the only misplaced athlete. Three other girls from my high-school team switched schools after their freshman or sophomore years. We’d let the pressures around recruiting dictate our decisions, accepting offers out of pride, out of stress; accepting them because our teammates and opponents were. We rushed through the process only to have to repeat it again a few years later. This time, we initiated the emails and phone calls. We had to let coaches know that we were up for grabs again.
Recruiting simultaneously restrains and enables. The first time, I felt stifled. The second time, I felt empowered. It was my way in and my way out. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to play at a school that challenged me as a player and a student; I wouldn’t have been able to play at all.
At 18, I tiptoed through an empty Salt Lake City parking lot on a Tuesday evening. Spring again, and a light smog hung low over the mountains above my freshman dorm. I paced back and forth, stepping over cracks in the black asphalt, avoiding the weeds popping through. My hands still shook, but this time, when the coach picked up the phone to say hello, I knew more of what I wanted, who I wanted to be.