Imagine having just finished the 7th Grade. Your gymnastics team is traveling to College Bound Camp in Dallas, Texas. You travel with the team, fly to Dallas, and arrive at the host club. Driving up to the gymnastics home of two Olympic Gold all around winners, you park, get your water, and walk into a 20,000+ square foot gym. When you check in, you are given a leotard with your graduation year on the back - 20 (for 2020). You change, get situated in the gym, and begin to warm up. You look around the gym to see over 40 college recruiters from 32 universities watching you and your teammates. No pressure.
The recruitment process for gymnastics is a bizarre and complicated one. It starts early. The youngest commits were IN the 7th grade! The college coaches apologize for it, but also say it isn't going to change until NCAA rules change. However, not all schools recruit early, and there are always changes in the amount of scholarships available. So let's start with the basics:
All division one schools are looking for a very similar skill set: a twisting yurchenko or other 10.0 level 10 vault, a single bar release, D saltos on beam (forward/side and back), D and E tumbling skills on floor (double back, 2 1/2 twist, full in, triple full, just to name a few). The factor that will determine the school set that is interested in you for recruitment depends on when you get these skills.
Scholarships Available (typically): For a full list of schools that sponsor women's gymnastics, click here.
Division I: 12 full ride scholarships split over 4 years of commits (with around 60 schools, this means there are roughly 180 full gymnastics scholarships available each year - split nation wide and sometimes internationally)
Division II: 6 full ride scholarships, split over 4 years of commits, typically into 1/2 rides
Division III: No athletic scholarships available
This tier of school consists mostly of "Super Six" teams. Teams that make it to NCAA nationals and have the potential to win titles. There are very few schools that can actually win titles in gymnastics. This isn't a sport where come playoff time, the scoreboard is all tied up. This is a sport where momentum, records, and expectations can affect scores. Schools in this tier are recruiting 3 years ahead, or athletes that have just completed their freshman year of high school. Some of these schools have only one spot left in the 2018 class before they are moving on to looking at 2019's. Yes, girls that have just finished the 8th grade. Schools in this tier are Division I programs offering full ride scholarships.
Schools in this tier are just behind the door crashers. They are typically top 10-30 schools and are recruiting maybe one or two athletes 2 years ahead and the rest 3 years or more ahead. Bear in mind that generally speaking, the quality of education is not a driving force behind the rankings. The rankings are purely gymnastics based. Schools in this tier are Division I programs offering full ride scholarships.
This tier of recruiters commits athletes on a more traditional schedule. They are typically lower ranked Division I programs (again, not related to academics). They are recruiting athletes that are 1-2 years out from graduation, sometimes even athletes entering their senior year! There are not a whole lot of schools in this category, but there are a handful of Division I programs offering full rides. Still a great option for someone that peaks later in their career. There are still scholarships available, the pool is just limited in school selection and quantity of scholarships available.
Schools in this tier are mostly in the Division II or Division III category. They cannot offer full rides, but Division II schools frequently have half rides. Many Division II and III programs have aggressive academic scholarship programs. Because gymnasts are so smart and get such great grades, athletes can typically end up receiving some sort of academic package to partner with their gymnastics scholarship, if applicable. These programs are self-proclaimed "student first" programs. Since they are not Division I, they offer a variety of unique opportunities to differentiate themselves. For example, the athletes at Centenary (Division III) will be spending their first two weeks in Paris to take a class together next semester.
Obtaining a scholarship in gymnastics is not easy. In fact, most athletes will never make it to the level that is required to be recruited. Some burnout, others suffer from injury, some just never get the skill set. For those athletes that do, timing is crucial.
How do you choose a program?
Get your skills.
You won't be recruited without the skill set described above. If you have one or two stand out events, you may be able to be missing one part of the formula, but for the most part, you need it all.
When you get your skills or are getting close. Start putting together highlight videos. Send competition and training updates every month or two to the schools you are most interested in.
Involve Your Coach.
The gymnastics coach is not limited by NCAA rules to communicate. The college coach can communicate with the club coach at any time during your career. The athlete/parent are considered one unit and cannot receive a phone call or email until September 1st of their Junior year. The athlete/parent unit can email or call the coach, just not the other way around.
Do your research.
Narrow your list of possible majors down. See what schools have everything you think you might go into. Most of these athletes are young and may not have a life plan yet (I didn't until I was 20, however, oddly, if I had picked at 13 it would have been the same). Go to college camp. Interact with coaches and current team members. Tour the campus. See if it is a place that you could see yourself.
Deciding to explore recruitment means you are committed to doing gymnastics through four years of college. This process is tedious and affects more than just the athlete. The parents, club coaches, and college coaches all put in countless hours to foster the goal of the athlete. The athlete needs to be 100% committed before making this decision.
Everyone has their list of dream schools. Keep them. But also create a list of schools that you feel are within reach. Don't put all of your eggs in one basket. Explore multiple programs and look for one that matches your needs. Keep a list of Happy Hour and Night Owl schools. Each recruitment class is different and has a different number of graduating seniors to open up the next year's scholarships.
The recruitment process is an exciting time in an athlete's life. Celebrate the little victories: when you nail a vault at college bound camp, have a college coach express interest, receive a phone call from a recruiter. Having fun in the process makes it that much sweeter.