What questions can you ask to learn about the coach you will be working under when you enter a collegiate program?
In this second installment of the "Asking the Right Questions" article, we take a look at helpful questions to ask to reveal something of the personality of the coach(es) at the schools you are considering.
It should be made clear from the beginning that there is nothing wrong or underhanded about trying to learn something about the personality of the coach or coaches you might be training under.
Rest assured that when those coaches call or bring you in on a campus visit, they are seeking to learn all they can about your personality. They are asking you questions with the aim of getting you to reveal something about who you are and what makes you tick. They want to know if you will be a good fit with the program and with their style of instruction. It is equally important that you return the favor (and we do not mean that sarcastically).
The skills you gain in probing about the personality of the coach you will potentially train under will serve you well throughout life. Employment interviews are but one example of where these kind of skills can pay critical dividends.
By now, we hope you're ready to take a look at some questions that can help you down that path.
What Will My College Coach Be Like?
Question #1: What is your favorite track event to coach?
Who to ask: Coaches and athletes (obviously, if asking athletes while on a recruiting visit, the question becomes "What is Coach X's favorite track event to coach?")
Alan comments: It's kind of a bad sign if the coach answers that he (or she) doesn't have a favorite event to coach but the athletes in the program can easily identify a favorite event for that coach. It's also somewhat of a bad sign if the coach and athletes disagree on their answers. It's not wrong to have a favorite event to coach, but this question might indicate how forthcoming the coach is. Assuming the coach reveals a favorite event to coach and that his/her revealed favorite matches what the athletes report, figure it's highly likely you will be tried in this event if you demonstrate any sort of aptitude for the event. If your aptitudes do not match the favored event or events, it could be an indicator that you may not get as much attention from this coach or, equally likely, that you will fall under the supervision of an assistant (which may or may not be a great situation). Warning: assistants move in and out of programs with unsettling frequency. It doesn't hurt to get a little preview of what your situation will be.
Jay comments: Interesting question and no doubt a question that college coaches don't hear often. If you only had five questions for a coach, this probably isn't one of them, yet since some college coaches want to spend hours getting to know recruits, this could be a time filler question.
Question #2: What percentage of your distance runners do you estimate complete all four or five years of college while staying with the program?
Who to ask: Both coaches and athletes, answers should have a reasonably close correspondence.
Alan comments: It's human nature for a coach to paint his or her own program in the best possible light. But, make sure you know the answer to this question before you ask it, or at least be willing to investigate the answer to this question after you ask it (do that by going to the team web site and poring over rosters for the last four to five years). It's great news if the coach tells you the program has a 90% retention rate and a review of recent rosters reveals the same thing. It's worth continuing to look into a program if the coach reveals a lower retention rate and the roster investigation reveals the same thing. At least you know the coach is forthcoming in his or her responses. Be willing to allow that every program will experience some attrition. You aren't bringing perfection to the program; don't demand perfection out of the program.
Jay comments: You could argue this is the most important question to ask...and one that most recruits, parents and HS coaches lack the courage to ask. You want to find a program where few people transfer (note: some transfers are good and a program with a great culture will always have a few transfers because the athlete realizes that they don't fit the program - they don't want to work that hard or they want to travel abroad, or they simply want a normal college life) and where the athletes improve year after year. Those programs exist, yet just like great schools, great companies or great restaurants, they are the exception and not the rule. This question gets to the heart of the matter and, in my humble opinion, every recruit should ask some variation of this question to each school that they are seriously considering.
Question #3: What are your short-term goals for the cross country program at XYZ University?
Who to ask: Coaches
Alan comments: In almost all cases you will be with the program no more than five years. That's not long term in the life of a coach. Find out what the coach's hopes and dreams are for the time you will be there. Are they close to your hopes and dreams? Are they expressed in a way that makes your heart beat a little faster? Do you have confidence this coach can bring those dreams to fruition?
Jay comments: Again, great question and the only thing I'd add is this: If you're being recruited by a coach who is building a program they will probably bring this up themselves. A national caliber program will likely bring this issue up in the context of a candid conversation about where they project you to fit on the team. My point is that coaches who have high aspirations for their team should bring this up at some point in the recruiting process because it highlights dual aspect of a team and an individual - the coach maximizing the athlete's genetic talents and the athlete contributing to a team.
Question #4: Where did you coach before ____? Why did you come to _____?
Who to ask: Coaches
Alan comments: Ask the questions in succession. You will learn something about the person by asking these questions. You may find an unexpected point of connection with this coach. You should be mildly alarmed if the coach speaks negatively about a previous gig. Someone who will blast a previous employer in front of a near stranger will likely also someday blast you in front of a near stranger.
Jay comments: My first reaction, another great question. My second reaction is that a coach's journey is not the obvious, linear path that exists in other professions, so the answer itself doesn't really matter. A worthwhile question to follow the first two could be, "So now that you've been here for _____ years, what is unique about _____ and why should I come here?"
Alan comments: Jay's follow-up question is definitely worth asking. Listen closely to the answer. The is the coach's opportunity to sell you on his or her program. If you don't get a compelling answer to this question, be sure to factor this into your final decision of what program you commit to.
Question #5: What personal qualities defined the best athletes you ever coached? You could also ask the question this way, "What personal qualities in an athlete make it easiest for you to coach that athlete?" While the two groups of athletes identified probably overlap a great deal but aren't necessarily the identical, either question should tell you something worthwhile about the coach.
Who to ask: Coaches and athletes
Alan comments: If the profile of the most successful athletes under this coach's tutelage isn't a reasonably good match for your personal profile, it should be a sign to you to keep looking for a better match. Don't necessarily abandon all hope, but this is a cue you should be paying attention to. Sometimes it is difficult to eliminate options you've already set your heart on, but you ignore the data you gather from this question at your own peril.
Jay comments: Wow, Alan's done a great job with these questions as this is a great way for the coach to not only talk about what he wants/needs in a recruit, but how the culture of their program works. And this is a question where the answer is telling. If the coach only talks about their 1-2 former stars and never mentions a "blue-coller" athlete you've never heard of, that shows something. Maybe it simply shows that the coach just got off the phone with the former star and that's why that athlete is on their mind, yet maybe it shows that the coach is struggling to develop a wide variety of athletes. Quick story. Dan Pfaff may be the world's best track coach; regardless, he's a great teacher and a good man. Every time I've spoken with him about the craft of coaching he will, at some point in the conversation, talk about an athlete he worked with that I've never heard of and never would have if not for Dan's reference. I firmly believe that great coaches love the challenge of developing the athletes with modest talent. These coaches enjoy the journey of practice, competition and PRs and when asked what they love about coaching, often reference these athletes before the stars. Obviously this is a broad generalization, yet in every great coach there is an element of this.
Links to Other Articles in the Series:
Part 1, What will the training experience be like when I go to college?
New Recruiting Series