I am conflicted on who should own the blame when a swimmer goes to a school that doesn't meet their expectations for their athletic career. Surely the oweness should partially be of the professional doing the recruiting; the coach of that athletic team and institution. It is only responsible for them to sift out the riffraff and find the athletes that should make an impact on their team, both training and scoring wise. And that is certainly what they do. However, there lies the proverbial "fringe" athlete. An athlete that is on the cusp of contributing to said team, but may need a year or two to develop. This is especially the case when the university team is a large caliber, big name institution. Typically they are able to accommodate a large number of athletes, and those "fringe" athletes are viewed as Walk-ons (not on scholarship) with the promise of athletic aid to follow when this athlete is good enough to contribute.
Where is the cut-off for this type of recruiting, and further more shouldn't this Coach lay it out for this athlete? "Hey, we would love to have you, but we have 10 guys better than you right now and you are going to have a tough road to hoe if you want to be a contributing member." Of more forthright, "We certainly appreciate your interest, but you simply aren't good enough to be a member of our team and we don't want to waste your time."
With the advancement of the Internet, some of the responsibility has to also lie on the athlete. They are now able to adequately scout the teams they have interest in (even if it is simply by name and reputation alone). Therefore, the athlete should be able to contact collegiate teams that are similar of their ability level. The problem with this is simply maturity and appropriately evaluating one's own talent level. As a 17 or 18 year old, who is most likely a star in their own "little pond", the ability to self-evaluate is more difficult than it might ought to be. I know this from first hand experience. Experiencing athletics at it's highest level without the help of the Internet to put oneself "in-check" can lead to some potentially unproductive and even embarrassing choices.
There is also the potential factor. When properly evaluating one's own talent level, most look at the improvements that have been made over the last three or four years and expect that same level of incremental improvement. Most former collegiate athletes can attest that this is simply not always the case. In fact, it is most likely not the case. The development of the body, technique and strength from 14-18 years of age is much greater than from 18-22 in most athletes. Going from awkward freshmen to strong agile senior in high school is much more likely than from above average athlete at 18 to superstar status at 22. This, however, is not well known by confident, popular, senior athletes in the limelight of their high schools. Bigger is better and no one can tell them otherwise. This responsibility then falls back to the wiser, more seasoned professional recruiter-the college coach- to bring said superstar back to reality.
There is also some responsibility that falls on the high school and/or age-group coach. Most likely the latter as they are building their career on coaching as a profession, and not just picking up some extra cash for the family, as is so often the sad truth of high school coaches. Yes, undoubtedly, there are amazing high school coaches out there, but they are too few and far between. These "mentors" have a responsibility and duty, willingly or not to adequately provide appropriate and timely information for their athletes. This is essential for their athletes to make appropriate decisions on what colleges to contact and pursue. Without this important information from a person whom they trust, mistakes can occur in the recruiting process that lead to bad experiences.
I know what you are thinking, "what about the parents?" The parents are an integral part, most definitely. However, most parents are rightly their athletes biggest supporters and often have "drank the cool-aid" that their athlete is the best thing since sliced bread just as the athlete has. Therefore, most likely, no sage advice or clarity can be achieved by these superfans. They are, and should continue to be spectators to their athletes glory. There are exceptions to every stereotype and there are some with this as well, but an athletes biggest fans are often at least partially blinded by the local limelight as well. Something that can only be fueled by an energetic coach on the other end of an email or phone call contributing to the fandom.
A bad experience can mean many things for many athletes. For the part-time athlete (someone who only participates in their sport for the season that it lasts and no longer) a season that last twice as long and is 10 times as difficult as they are accustomed can lead to burn-out. With a more experienced, year-round athlete, going to an institution that is simply too good can lead to multiple problems. Inadequate playing time or competing exhibition are typical for fringe athletes. This can cause resentment of the program or of the coaching staff. This, in turn, leads to a less than enthusiastic attitude in practice and a generally bad attitude outside of the sport. This is the worst case scenario because it leads to a feeling of inadequacy and hatred of the work needed to improve. Often this ends in quitting the sport. A once enthusiastic, wide-eyed athlete is reduced to a bitter, uninspired quitter. A bad taste that takes quite a while to wash out.
So what is the end game here? Simply that it is important for all responsible adults to keep a level head, responsible expectations, and realistic goals when it comes to high school athletes, particularly local superstars. The Lebrons and Michael Phelps's of the world are 1 in a billion. Choose schools for just what it is intended for, LEARNING! Then widdle those down when looking at the athletics. Explore expectations with the athlete. "Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or visa-versa?", "are you okay with potentially not getting much playing time or competing exhibition for the foreseeable future?", "do you know what your chances are of making the conference team at this school?", etc. Explore stats, past coaching experience of the head and assistant coaches. If possible, talk to athletes that have competed for those coaches in the past. In general, collect as much information about the experience as possible for making a wise decision. Otherwise, there might be a very bitter wash-out sleeping on the basement couch in the near future.