Path to the Pros: Education Options for Elite Artists and Athletes

Students who want to become professional artists or athletes might have a different-looking educational path than those of a traditional student. Learn how these students typically pursue their goals.

For most middle and high school students, the answer to “What do you want to do when you’re an adult?” is an overwhelming “I don’t know.”

For teens on a path to the pros, however, it’s less a matter of “what” they’ll do and more a matter of “when” they’ll do it. These talented students actively work toward a career in a specific industry — such as athletics, dance, music, or acting.

The effort students put into these goals is, of course, above and beyond the demands of school. These students, on top of homework, field trips, and school dances, train to participate at the highest levels of their respective fields, with the hope of launching a professional career as children or teens that will persist into adulthood.

The Options

Depending on the specialty, the location, and how seriously the student chooses to pursue her profession, educational options may include tutoring, homeschooling, or professionally-focused schools.

The Arts

Children in elementary or middle school who aspire to a pre-professional arts career are likely to be engaged in extensive training in their chosen field. Parents of these kids often opt to homeschool them because it affords greater scheduling flexibility. Once the academic year is over, they may enroll their children in one of the numerous prestigious arts summer programs to help them prepare for an arts school audition, such as at the Professional Children’s School or the Baltimore Actor's Theatre Conservatory. There are both public and private arts school options that families can explore.

There are many advantages students experience when they pursue the arts passionately: Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of quality arts education, from increased community involvement to improved work ethic and higher SAT scores. Additionally, by surrounding themselves with peers and teachers who are enthusiastic about this focus and knowledgeable about their craft, students often feel an intense sense of kinship with their schoolmates and instructors.

There are, however, challenges related to pursuing a pre-professional arts track. These fields are highly competitive; not only are future professional opportunities difficult to come by, but even gaining admission to an arts school is difficult. And arts education can be expensive, especially if students don’t attend one of the well-regarded public arts high schools located in different districts throughout the country. Private arts schools charge tuition and fees, and whether you attend a public or private program, students may also need to pay for additional training, representation, or summer programs.

Follow this link for advice about whether your child should go to an arts high school.

Athletics

Unlike arts schools, there are no equivalent educational institutions that provide focused athletic training for students interested in a pre-professional track. For students involved in team sports, they often look for public or private schools with successful athletic programs, in the hope of being recruited by NCAA teams. For students who attend private school and are engaged in individual sports, such as fencing or tennis, they may be able to work with the school’s administrators to arrange for time off to attend training, provided the student agrees to complete all assigned work on time and works with her teachers to meet exam and testing schedules.

Other solo athletes attend training facilities that provide tutoring, either in groups or individually. Since these arrangements are often made without formal structures or accreditation, it’s important for parents to closely question the facility representatives and coaches, as well as other families, about the learning supports provided to their athletes.

For athletes, Amateur Athletic (AAU) teams and private training sessions abound for the students seeking to take their game to the next level. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy takes student-athlete development even further. With 88 clubs participating at the under fourteen (U-14) level and 77 at the under sixteen (U-16) and under eighteen (U-18) levels in 2014–2015, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy is one of the largest pre-professional athletic programs in the country. One participating club, the New England Revolution, works with local student-athletes through its academy with the hope to develop homegrown talent for their professional team.

Pursuing a pre-professional sports track can be rewarding for students. Athletics have been shown to have a positive impact on kids’ self-esteem by strengthening their social skills through competition and teamwork. Moreover, student athletes learn important skills, such as discipline and perseverance, and can track their own growth from the many opportunities they have to prove themselves in competition,.

Of course, pursuing an athletic pre-professional track isn’t easy. One of the challenges that student athletes have to contend with is the toll and pressure their bodies take while training. There is pressure to stay conditioned — and safe — since sustaining an injury can mean the end of a student’s athletic career. Additionally, as with the arts, there is intense pressure to excel so the athlete has the chance to be recruited by a college or professional team.

Learn more about the early timeline for college athletic recruiting.

Considerations

A typical educational path for most students allows for trial and error. A student can take a class in a new subject, try a new sport, or get an internship in an unfamiliar field to see what piques her interest. For aspiring artists and athletes, however, their commitment requires that they forego this exploration in order to focus intensely on their pursuit. There are tradeoffs on both sides — the freedom to try out options with less pressure to choose when you’re young against the opportunity to pursue a passion doggedly with all the discipline it demands.

Time Commitment

For students who strive to become young professionals, the intensive training during after-school hours is part of what they sign up for. In his fourth year as a player at the Revolution Academy, Zachary Herivaux, 19, of Brookline, Massachusetts, knows the demands well.

“After school ends, I go to the gym and use the workout plans [the Revolution Academy] provides. At 3:45, I leave to get to Foxborough [where the Revolution players train] at 4:30. Practice goes from 5 to 6:30 Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. After practice, I’ll shower, eat, and begin my homework around 8:30. On weekends, we travel for matches unless it’s a home game,” he says.

As homework loads increase from year to year as children get older, it can be hard to maintain a school-life balance. With the inclusion of extended training schedules, though, students on a pre-professional track need to divide their time among school, work, and everything else. “I hang out with my friends during school,” says Herivaux. “I know what I want for my future, which is to become a professional soccer player. So that means I have to make sacrifices.”

Narrow Focus

Because these students focuses on deep development in one field (a specific sport or a particular art form), they are able to mature in their craft at a faster rate. John Frederick, the head coach for the Revolution Academy’s U-18s, echoes this point.

“Because of the intensity of the training schedule and the elite competition the players will face at the [U.S. Soccer Development] Academy level, the athletes will develop faster and further than they would in any other program.”

Herivaux, who plays under Frederick, agrees. “I’ve evolved as a player. The level of play is better. We have higher quality training and a top-flight facility. The competition, even in practice, is more intense.”

And yet, becoming a specialist and dedicating the majority of her time to the field may limit a student’s exposure to new and exciting opportunities. “Our players train three-to-four days a week for anywhere between an hour-and-a-half to two hours, which for most high schools is typical. However, our year runs about 10 months, which leaves no room for other sports,” says Frederick.

Dedicating so much time to a highly competitive field can mean that these pre-professional students won’t have the time or energy to develop other interests.

Connections

Schools and programs that work to develop professionals often have rich communities of alumni who may provide current students with career opportunities upon graduation. For schools such as the Professional Children’s School, it is understood that many students will opt to skip college in order to pursue their professional career. That said, PCS offers college counseling for those who decide to go through the college admissions process.

For programs such as the Revolution Academy, students may gain exposure to top colleges who are scouting in their sport, as well as to established players whom these young hopefuls grew up rooting for. Herivaux, who committed to play for Providence College in 2015–2016, says there’s nothing quite like it. “Being able to train with the first team in the offseason with players like Jermaine Jones is something you can’t get anywhere else.”

Of course, there is no single path for any one person. What is important and works well for one student may not for her classmate. The path to the pros for children and teens can be deeply rewarding — and require tremendous commitment from kids and families.

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