Of the 8 million students currently competing in high school athletics, approximately 495,000 of them will go on to play at the NCAA collegiate level. Though it is an incredible honor to play your sport in college, it is also a huge responsibility. Along with a rigorous academic schedule, being a college athlete is a full time job that comes with hours of physical, mental and emotional commitment. It is not college life as most students know it. We recently had a conversation with John-Austin, one of an elite group of only 5,930 Division 1 men's soccer players, to learn what it means to compete at a high level and what factors to consider before committing to college for a sport.
When did you know you wanted to play soccer in college?
I always dreamt of playing soccer at the collegiate level, but it was not until my sophomore year in high school when I consciously made the decision to really go for it. Because there are so many talented players in the US and in the world, I knew that if I was going to have a shot at college soccer I would need to completely dedicate myself to training and competing at the highest level possible. Fortunately I had the opportunity to roster and play with the San Jose Earthquakes Academy. Though this decision came with sacrifices such as not participating in any of my high school's sports and weekends spent traveling to compete versus with family and friends, it was one of the best experiences of my life. This opportunity is also the main reason I am playing soccer at one of the best D1 programs in the country. I never take that for granted.
Was there ever a time that you didn't think you would be able to play at the collegiate level?
I think most athletes experience set backs and feel doubt during their careers. Two things that I would consider my biggest challenges earlier on were: (1) size & strength and (2) injury. I was always on the smaller side, and it wasn't until my junior year in high school that I started growing more and increasing my strength. In the mean time, I had to rely on my soccer IQ and technical skills to stay competitive with the bigger players. I also had my fair share of injuries (i.e., broken ankles and torn quad). There were moments where I wondered if I could come back just as capable as before I got hurt. The truth is I stayed optimistic and always came back stronger.
What qualities do you think are most important as a collegiate athlete?
Coachable. Most athletes train under several coaches who have different styles of play and expectations. Being able to take criticism and learn from it at every opportunity is crucial.
Persistence. Players have to possess a 'never give up mentality' with a tireless work ethic. I expect this of myself and of my teammates.
Humble. Most of the players who have earned the opportunity to play at the college level were among the top at their high schools or academy teams. But, no one should then go into college thinking they're the best. The playing field changes dramatically and it is important to recognize that. Just work hard and your turn will come. In my case, there are only 11 spots on the field and a roster of 27 guys. Patience is a virtue when it comes to proving yourself worthy of a spot on the field.
Competitive. High performing athletes are in it to win it. Success means everything. Not only are athletes playing for the love of the game, but they're also doing it with a strong desire to win. You're on the field to do your best and prove to yourself that hard work pays off!
How do you know if playing sports in college, especially at the Division 1 level, is the right decision?
If you ever question whether you have the work ethic to play D1 college athletics, it's probably not the right decision. It is a full time job for which you must have a huge passion. You have to love the grind.
What is the best part of playing college soccer?
There are two things that come to mind (besides the actual play):
Creating strong connections with my teammates and the coaching staff.
Having the privilege of representing my college through the sport I love.
I've gotten a lot of great advice along the way. Recently, my grandfather was wishing my sister good-luck on her first exam in graduate school and he shared something with her that really resonated with me . . .
". . . the best see things in slow motion. They are able to slow the pressure down and just perform in the moment."
What's been the best part of your soccer experience so far?
I don't think I can name a single best part! One of them, however, is something that can also be the biggest challenge. The team roster changes every year and I am always excited to learn what role I am going to play and then fill that position to the best of my ability. I also strive to make my teammates feel valued whether they are on the field playing or not.
John-Austin's Advice To Other College Athletes:
Be consistent! If you are not performing to the best of your ability day in and day out it will be noticed. Stay focused and motivated because the second you slip up there will be someone else there waiting to take your place.
Do you have any regrets?
I don't think anyone should have regret, or at least harbor remorse or uneasiness. Every decision I have made, I am responsible for. My mother preaches "forward motion," and that's how I try to live. Every single day I am appreciative for my experiences on and off the soccer field and it is that gratitude that motivates me to try to do better the next time.