Let me be honest with you right from the start, the majority of high school athletes are solely focused on playing in the NCAA. When it comes to playing a sport in college, committing to an NAIA institution is not the priority. There are over 490,000 athletes who compete in the NCAA’s 3 divisions. With a half-million athletes, and 1100 participating schools, the NCAA is the monopoly of college sports. Few college leagues can compete with the sheer power and influence the NCAA possesses. However, there is one athletic association that continues to grow despite the odds being stacked up against them.
I believe there is a false perception of what the NAIA is like from an athletic point of view. You would be hard pressed to find a young American athlete who wants to play in a college league outside of the NCAA. Personally, I did not know the name of a single NAIA college before I was forced to leave the NCAA due to transfer regulations my sophomore year. College recruitment is an entirely visual process and if you don’t have a school that knows how to properly market themselves, they will have a difficult time trying to entice players to commit to their college or university. Unfortunately for the NAIA, the budget for the majority of the schools within their league is minuscule when compared to the NCAA institutions.
Although playing in the NAIA was not my first choice for college soccer, it should have been my only choice coming out of high school. I do not regret my time playing in Division 1, however, I wish I knew about the amount of distractions I would face attending a large university. You can learn more about the distractions college athletes have to endure in vlog 74. The schools who compete in the NAIA are significantly smaller in comparison to NCAA institutions, which in turn allows student/athletes more time to concentrate on their sport and studies. You will find there is a dramatic difference in social life depending on what league you attend.
The NAIA allows athletes the opportunity to solely focus on their sport, while also preparing them for the professional game. I had the privilege of being a part of the most successful NAIA soccer team in the country during my last 2 years of college and having experienced what division 1 is like for my first 4 semesters of college, I can honestly say we had the talent to easily beat top programs in the NCAA. The soccer in the NAIA may not be as consistent as the NCAA, but the talent is the same and sometimes even better.
The strict rules in the NCAA prohibit ex-professional players from participating in any of its 3 divisions. However, the NAIA has a much less thorough approach towards conducting background checks on players, and many athletes slip through the cracks unnoticed. I personally know over a dozen ex-professional players who are scattered all over the United States playing college soccer.
One of the major differences between the NAIA and NCAA is the consistency of play. During my 2 years in Division 1 there was hardly ever a game that wasn’t separated by 1-2 goals. Every match was a battle to the end. There was never an easy game. If you did not come ready to fight for 90 minutes, you would be scrambling to find your feet the entire game.
During a college soccer season, regardless of the division or league, you will play your hardest games of the season first (usually). This would mean your most difficult matches will be played out of conference. The large majority the NAIA soccer conferences provide an inconsistent level of play. Outside of the top 20-25 nationally ranked schools the level of competition drops off substantially. It can be difficult as a player to find the motivation to play at your best when you know you’re guaranteed a 10-0 thrashing. You tend to lower your standards to suit your competition (England vs. Iceland). I have had moments during matches where I would completely space out during a game when we were up by double figures.
As any college soccer player knows, the season is very short and is over in a matter of months. Every game you play is crucial for your development. Making every touch, pass and shot is important as you’ll have to wait another 8 months before your next season. As a soccer player in the NAIA you’ll find a third of your season is playing against subpar programs. Although these games can be used to boost your confidence on the pitch, I think we can all agree that we would much rather gain the experience from playing quality teams.
No matter the amount of flaws the NAIA possesses or shortcomings they may experience as a league, it is the best athletic association to focus on what is eventually going to provide you with financial stability. Whether that be your degree or your sport, the NAIA knows how to produce successful individuals. I greatly benefited from my time attending Lindsey Wilson College and I highly recommend you consider attending an institution outside of the NCAA.