How should the high school coach approach the recruiting process? Is it best to stay clear of the entire affair or is it the time to step in and lend some aid? If so, what form should that take?
One of the questions that came up in the comments on previous installments in this series concerns the role of the high school coach in the process. Seeing that a lot of the traffic both on Jay’s web site and on my own comes from high school coaches, this topic seems especially important to address.
This series of articles had its beginnings in my frustrations with the college recruiting process. And, some of those frustrations center around this very topic. I do not seem to have landed yet on a highly effective strategy for helping athletes through this process.
College admissions offices and scholarship committees want letters of recommendation. Prospective employers want references. College track and field/cross country coaches? I’m not sure exactly what they want, but different coaches (or, perhaps more accurately, different recruiting coordinators) want different things. This does not make the high school coach’s job any easier.
Here are some of my hunches about what’s at the root of problem. First, as Jay alluded in a response to a comment sent in, recruiting coordinators tend to be young, energetic types. Unfortunately, both youth and energy tend to diminish with increasing age. I guess that’s a way of saying that we should expect a high degree of turnover in these positions. High turnover probably tends to generate lower levels of consistency. Second, I have little doubt that many recruiting coordinators who have lasted more than a year or two have been permanently jaded by the glowing reports they received about prospective recruits who eventually proved to be cancers once on the team. Coaches bend the truth in seeding meetings, so why wouldn’t they bend the truth in telling colleges about their top athletes? So it is that our very own actions wage war against our most heartfelt desires. Finally, one universal refrain I hear from college coaches is that they have zero extra time to devote to recruiting (more on this in a later installment). Loosely translated, I think this means that few of them are going to take the time to carefully read what high school coaches do send them.
Despite what I said in the last sentence, I send college coaches and recruiting coordinators information about prospect athletes. I do it knowing that my e-mail messages are likely to be either promptly deleted or only skimmed over. I do it on the hope that it does genuine good every once in a while. I do it because I like to think I’d read those messages if the roles were reversed. I do it in hopes of building relationships with those charged with identifying and persuading prospective recruits. I do it out of reciprocity for all that the student-athletes have given me over the spans of their high school careers.
One of the reasons I described Jay Johnson as an A+ recruiter in the introductory segment to this series was that he actually solicited information from me about the athlete he was recruiting. He probed. He wanted to know something about the individual beyond times and places. He got the information needed about who that athlete was as a person, but I’ve learned since that time that his procedure is not the norm.
So, what process do I try to follow when I have an athlete who is capable of competing at the collegiate level? Here’s a brief summary:
1. In the spring of his/her junior year, at the latest, I check to see if there is interest in continuing to the collegiate level. If not, the process ends there. If there is indecision, we talk. If there is genuine interest, I ask them to identify some schools where they think they might be interested in running. Lately, I’ve added a brief form for them to fill out. It asks them to identify interests in terms of types of schools (large vs. small, private vs. state school, Christian vs. secular, high-profile programs vs. lower-profile programs, engineering vs. liberal arts, etc.) they are interested in attending. We discuss the levels of school (DI, DII, DIII, NAIA) for which the athlete’s accomplishments merit consideration.
2. Later, we discuss their lists of potential schools. To the extent that I am competent in this area, we talk about what these schools can offer them academically. We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of training in climates different from what they are accustomed to. We look at rosters and past results for these programs and try to identify how the competitive levels of the teams mesh with the students’ goals and personalities. We look for clues regarding the personalities of the programs. Following this, I encourage them to make some sort of initial contact with the schools they are most interested in. Most frequently, they will fill out the prospective athlete questionnaire on the school’s athletic web site. I’m increasingly of the opinion, however, that submitting this form serves only moderately well as an initial contact. Sometimes, our athletes have received calls from coaches the same day the form was submitted. More often, the athletes who complete these online forms never hear a thing. Unfortunately, more effective forms of initial contact don’t feel as non-threatening to most prospects.
3. Following the initial contact by the prospect, I send a brief, introductory e-mail about this individual to the coaches at the schools they have contacted. I didn’t always do this in the past, but I do it now. I get a response to this e-mail somewhere around 40% of the time.
4. Assuming the individual in question shows some improvement in his/her senior cross country season (and we have an excellent record of our runners showing improvement as seniors), I will send out a second e-mail to the coach sometime late in the cross country season informing him/her of how things have progressed during the season. I get a response to this e-mail maybe a little over 10% of the time. As a part of both this e-mail and the previous e-mail, I invite the coach to get back to me with any questions they have about the prospect.
5. I encourage the prospect to maintain contact with the coaches at the schools they are interested in attending. Perhaps the most difficult issue prospects face is inquiring about the possibility of an official visit. I’ve just about concluded that official visits involving more than 50 miles of travel go only to the very highest tier of recruits. Personal humility is stressed from day one in our program and that message seems to resonate with almost all of our kids. Unfortunately (or maybe not-so-unfortunately), this translates into them being ill-at-ease with almost any form of self-promotion. More than once, I’ve wondered if we’re not getting many offers of official visits because we’re not knocking loudly enough on that door. Insight, anyone?
6. I urge all of my prospects to send notes of closure and appreciation to all who have recruited them once they do sign with a particular school. This is simply a matter of basic human civility. Many have done this before I prompted them to do it. If the coach/recruiter has sent me a response at any point in the season, I will send them a note at this time, too, thanking them for their efforts. In case you hadn’t noticed, I enjoy writing.
7. I derive no joy from confrontation, but I don’t go out of my way to avoid it, either. I’m hardwired to take a stand rather than recede into the background. If a coach/recruiter is stringing a prospect along beyond National Letter of Intent Day, I will send a polite note asking them to play straight with the prospect. By this time, if not sooner, the coach/recruiter should have given any prospect they’ve been keeping contact with a clear statement of where they stand (One way of making a clear statement is to truthfully tell them, “We need to wait and see what the responses of our first tier of recruits are before we know if we can make an offer. We expect to notify you by [insert a reasonably proximate date here]. ”). If the recruiter or coach has not let the prospect know where he/she stands within a few days of the opening of the signing period, I will make a contact with that coach. I doubt this practice has won me many friends, but what I am asking for is simply a matter of courtesy. Treat others as you would have them treat you.
I’d be lying if I told you that the results of this strategy have been highly satisfying in a large majority of instances. So, it’s not at all strange that I would seek to open a conversation on this topic. I eagerly look forward to what Jay has to say in response and what you readers respond with, in turn.
More than anything else, my purpose in engaging in the process is to help the prospect find a program where he/she will have a positive experience with running and competing. We have an extremely close team (both boys and girls), and I’ve witnessed from a distance a few profoundly disappointing experiences of some of our graduates who have gone off to teams where cattiness prevailed, where the road to the top was over the fallen bodies of teammates, and where individual goals reigned supreme. I’m learning better how to identify those schools in advance, but I’m still on the steep part of that curve. I stay involved in the process these days because I know it’s worth a king’s wages for every second spent in that process if things work out right.
I'm a new parent and the most surprising thing is not how much fun it is and how loud you laugh when the kid "toots" as you're changing their diaper. It's how much advice - and specific advice, no less - you receive from people who are not parents. I assume their thinking is, "I'm a human and so I have an innate understanding of how to raise a human." And while that rationale, that "theoretical knowledge," isn't completely absurd the reality of parenthood is that it's other parents, those with experiential knowledge, who best understand what you are going through.
Why am I talking about parenthood and not recruiting? Last week the question posed to me was, "How much scholarship money high school athletes (and their parents!) expect to receive coming into college?" and on that topic I have, just like a parent, experiential knowledge. But on this week's question - "What should the role of the HS coach be during the recruiting process be?" - I'm basically clueless. Yes, I've been through HS and yes I've worked with HS kids (150 kids a summer for the past 6 summers at camp) and, yes, I've coached track and cross country, but to say that I know what an appropriate role for the HS coach is in the recruiting process is like asking a capable adult, but not a parent, if a 3-month-old should "cry it out" at night or if the kids should be in a "family bed" - or if the kid should start with the family bed, via the attachment parenting worldview, and move to the "let the kid cry until they fall asleep," sort of the compassionate abandonment view. I digress.
Everything that follows is opinion...
and since your time is valuable and finite, I will not be offended if you decide to stop reading this and check your email.
Seriously, it's fine, 'cause when you think about it, my view of the HS coaches role in the recruiting process was somewhat twisted. My view was basically, "How can I most quickly, most efficiently learn what I want/need to know about Suzy Q to ensure that she's a good fit for us and that we're a good fit for her?" Or, if you're a hard-core cynic you could twist the end of that statement to "ensure she's a good fit for us and that we're a good fit for her...but only because that means she'll be happy and she'll be a good fit for us." That was not my view, but it's not an unthinkable view either.
Okay, here are my opinions on the role of the HS coach in the recruiting process:
- The longer the coach has been coaching and the more college athletes they've coached the more their input/influence can be beneficial to both the student/family and the college coach/program.
- If the kid is really good and the coach is really young then 99% of the time the coaches ego is, at least in a small way, tied up in where the kid goes. Good news is that this young coach will soon, with more success, become the coach above. The bad news is they currently this young coach is a pain in the rear for the college coach and the can, potentially, get the kid and the family focused on the wrong variables.
- HS coaches know WAY MORE about this process than most HS guidance counselors. My story: I loved Mrs. Olsen, my counselor at DCHS, like a second mom yet she had no clue what a 4:25 1,600m runner should receive in the Big 8 Conference. The answer, of course, is nothing and the 27 ACT I had simply meant I was 0.2 lower than the "average" student at CU. No academic money, no athletic money... and the second best choice I ever made ;-).
- Story: When Alan first posed this question in an email I literally pictured two local coaches, both national-caliber coaches by ANY definition, because of how much I trust their opinion in this process. Why did I picture these two coaches? They both, separately, told me some version of "I want to be honest with you that ____ isn't the best person we've had on this team. I don't want to hurt their chances of getting a college education, but I also want to be honest with you because I respect your program." Both these coaches knew the following: if they "sell" us a kid that isn't a quality person then they hurt the next kid in their program who is a great athlete AND a great person. I should note that this is a story from my CU days, so these are good athletes if we're considering giving them a scholarship in the Big 12. I should also note that both of the athletes who didn't get their HS coach's endorsement were failures as college athletes, yet both coaches have had MULTIPLE kids go on to be NCAA DI All-Americans.
- The kid should do the majority of the work in this process; if they can't, then I know that personally I don't want to coach them at the college level. Why? Well - and this is an extreme example - I won't be the coach who gets them out of their dorm room and walks them to class, though other college coaches, especially in other sports, view that as part of their job (and this happens on EVERY campus in the BCS schools in at least one sport). So, kids should send the initial emails, kids should follow up those emails with a voicemail, kids should walk their butt down to the counselors office and tell the administrative assistant, as nicely as they can, that they need their transcripts faxed to both the NCAA Clearninghouse and ____ schools. Of the 10-20% remaining the majority should be parents parenting - telling the kid they can't afford 40k a year but they can afford 15k a year - things like that. If those two things happen then the HS coach can do, in my humble opinion, the most important thing for their HS program: they can walk the halls, they can spy on the mile time trial in gym class or whatever good coaches do to recruit kids, maybe the next stud, to their program. The best HS distance programs in the country do two things: they make distance running cool, attracting better athletes (and yes, attracting them "away" from other sports) and they practice when others do not. The HS coaches I'm friends with let the kids and the parents do the majority of the work in the college recruiting process while they worry about their internal, on-site recruiting.
...pretty strong opinion for someone who has never been a HS coach - take it or leave it.
- Alan’s template is great; follow it and the kid, the family, and the college coach will likely be happy with the process.
- The HS coach, in the rare case that they are coaching "the one," i.e. the Footlocker Champion as a junior, can set up a system to keep the family from being overwhelmed...but the HS coach has to set it up so it doesn't look like some power broker, AAU basketball thing. Again, I have no clue how this is done but someone will no doubt suggest something simple and sensible in the comments.
That's enough...and somewhat gross to see how much I can write on a topic on which I have no experiential knowledge. I hope Alan's next question relates to something I've done... hiking the Colorado Trail, perhaps? Thanks for your time.
Links to All Parts in Series:
Updated Recruiting Series