In this installment, we take a look at a few questions to help you dig inside what the personality of your potential college coach is like.
In an especially good piece of news, Jay Johnson is back providing commentary on this article. I'm delighted to have his input. You'll recognize what he has to say by the italicized font. Please feel welcome to check in on his web site at coachjayjohnson.com to find all sorts of commentary on training and other topics of interest to the cross country/track and field community.
It should be made clear from the beginning that there is nothing wrong, subversive, or otherwise underhanded about trying to learn something about the personality of the coach or coaches who are recruiting you.
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. They expose you to the team on official visits at least in part so they can gather feedback from the team about what kind of fit you would be in the program.
It's important to your future that you are making the same kind of evaluation of the coaches, the program, and the existing team members. It's a two-way street.
The skills you gain in probing about the personality of the coach will serve you well throughout life. Employment interviews are but one example of where these kind of skills can pay important dividends.
By now, I 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 percentage of your runners do you estimate complete all four or five years of college while staying with the program?
Who to ask: Both coaches and athletes. If you ask both, the answers should reveal a reasonably close correspondence.
It's human nature, and perfectly understandable, 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 very much 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 respects you enough to be forthcoming in his responses.
Be willing to allow that every program will experience some attrition. You aren't bringing perfection to the program; try to resist the temptation to demand perfection out of the program.
Is the question a potentially threatening question? Yes, but it's foolish to ditch the question because you fear the reaction. If you do get a negative reaction--unlikely, but possible--that reaction just told you something very important about the program, or at least the coach. A good coach with good people skills should be comfortable fielding this question and should respect you for having the courage and insight to ask.
Why might a program have a low athlete retention rate? One potential reason, of course, is that the coach lacks some fundamental skills in dealing with people. Thus, many of the recruits decide against staying around for four years. But that is a long way from being the only possible reason.
Many programs don't retain athletes well because they do not successfully identify and recruit the kind of athletes who will thrive in their program. It's not just about times; it's about personality profiles, attachments (or lack thereof) to familiar routines, and that sort of thing.
Some programs don't retain athletes because they are especially high mileage or high intensity programs and many of those who end up injured most of the time (which will be a substantial percentage of each incoming class) eventually drop out.
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.
One caveat to this question would be to distinguish between recruited athletes, recruited walk-ons, and walk-on athletes. If you're being offered a scholarship then you really care about that retention of the other scholarship athletes. Conversely, if you're being asked to walk on, making a you a recruited walk-on, you will want to know the retention rate for the other recruited walk-ons.
Bottom line is that when you ask this question there is a very good chance you'll get the coach's attention, since most recruits either don't think of this question or have the courage to ask it. But once you ask the question, make sure you give the coach the time to fully answer the question as there are always good reasons for a coach and program to have a lower than expected retention rate.
Question #2: What are your short-term goals for the cross country program at X University?
Who to ask: Coaches
In almost all cases you will be with the program no more than five years. Although that seems like a long time to a newly-minted high school graduate, it'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 those hopes and dreams compatible with your hopes and dreams? Are they communicated in a way that makes your heart beat a little faster? Does this coach inspire confidence in you that he can bring these dreams to fruition? If you require highly visible passion in a coach and the answer is stated dispassionately, that's an indicator you may not be a good fit for the program.
The nice thing is, you may not even have to ask this question. This is the sort of thing a coach should be planning to discuss, in some form or fashion, with you.
The other element I'd add to this is that the answers may be vastly different between different programs if you find yourself in a situation with vastly different scholarship offers. For instance, if the big state university in your state is a national caliber program DI program that makes the NCAA national meet every year, they may be asking you to walk on. The flipside is that a small DI program that has never been to the national meet may be offering you a sizable scholarship. I love this question and I think every recruit should be asking it, yet be prepared for different answers when talking to schools that are "established" vs. "up and coming."
Question #3: Where did you coach before ____? Why did you come to _____?
Who to ask: Coaches
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.
Prospective employers routinely ask this kind of question of potential hires. People's reasons for moving from one employment commitment to another reveal a great deal about their personal priorities.
As a follow-up question, you may want to ask the coach what is keeping her at this institution and why you should want to come there to run. No coach should be without an answer to that question. You should never leave a recruiting visit without some sort of vision for how and why the coach thinks you would fit into that program. Note: I owe this follow-up question to Jay Johnson from a previous version of this article we collaborated on.
Question #4: "What personal qualities in an athlete make it most rewarding for you to coach that athlete?"
Who to ask: Coaches
If in the course of the coach's answer to you, you start to realize he is not describing you as an athlete, you can figure there is a strong likelihood it will be a struggle to train under this coach. In asking this question, you swing the door wide open for the coach to reveal a great deal about his personality. Does the coach prefer athletes who quietly go about business or highly interactive athletes who give a lot of feedback? Does the coach prefer to work with singularly focused athletes or those who can turn it on and then turn it off as situations indicate? Is it more rewarding for this coach to have top-tier athletes or athletes who show off-the-charts kind of dedication?
Question #5: 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?")
It's kind of a bad sign if the coach answers that she doesn't have a favorite event to coach but the athletes in the program can easily identify a favorite event for that coach. There is nothing wrong with a coach having a favorite event to coach, but this question might indicate how forthcoming or how self-aware the coach is. Obviously, the best situation is one where the coach can assess whether she has a favorite event to coach and that the team agrees with that self-assessment.
Assuming the coach reveals a favorite event to coach and that 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. In fact, it is likely you are being recruited with an eye toward that event. If your aptitudes turn out not to 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.
I like this question and I think it makes sense to ask it, yet I think the answer is less informative regarding your decision and is simply a nice way to keep the conversation going. My experience at the DI level was that many coaches wished they could coach more event areas, but the size of the team or the allotment of scholarships per event area just didn't allow it. The flip side is that coaches at smaller school - NAIA, JUCO, DII and DIII - are often forced to coach many event areas as funding doesn't allow for a large coaching staff. You'll find that most of these coaches enjoy the opportunity and the challenge of coaching multiple event areas. Again, great question, but there's a reason that it's #5 on this list of questions.
Understand these difference between high school and college coaches.
Most high school coaches did not land in their positions primarily because they were outstanding runners in their own right. Most are teachers in addition to being coaches and the most successful ones remain in their positions due to some sort of sense of mission with respect to coaching and teaching. Most high school coaches learned to enjoy the sport without an exceptional degree of personal success being one of the determinitive factors in that enjoyment. All high school coaches know and understand they need to be able to work with a broad spectrum of athletes and personality types in order to be successful. You don't get to recruit outside of your own hallways, so you either become adept at working with a lot of different kids, both in terms of personality and natural ability, or you flounder.
A much higher percentage of college coaches did come by the opportunity to coach largely because of what they accomplished as athletes. And, recruiting is a big part of the picture in college athletics. To a large degree, they can determine many aspects of the composition of their teams. Some college coaches are not big on bringing kids along but expect athletes to come to them much as they came to their college coaches. A few may not understand, or may only come slowly to understand, that athletic excellence doesn't happen as easily for others, even other talented individuals, as it did for them. Frustration, both for you and the coach, can be a companion along that road. That's not the story at every school, but it's a story I've listened to more than once.
Although most college cross country coaches are not under the microscope to the degree that college football coaches are, there is still a greater expectation of success laid upon college coaches than is laid upon high school coaches. That, and limited size of programs, constrain what a lot of otherwise willing coaches are able to try.
If you've grown close to your high school coach, it's likely that part of that attachment has something to do with the fact that you've excelled under her leadership. It's been an exciting and mutually beneficial partnership. At the college level, you are far less likely to be the star of the show. It's much more likely that your performances will be relatively ordinary with respect to the rest of the team. Whether you like it or not, that suggests that the bonding between you and the coach is unlikely to be as strong as it was high school.
You need to consider these factors as you move from high school to college. It's my opinion that the transition is more difficult for athletes who have grown relatively attached to their high school coaches. Chances are, that situation will not replicate itself in college. Therefore, it pays to calibrate your expectations accordingly.
There is no doubt that the style of many college coaching is different for that of high school coaches. The primary reason for the difference is a scholarship money. While I personally never liked the job analogy when discussing scholarships (i.e. that a scholarship athlete, especially an athlete on a full-ride scholarship, needs to view their sport as a job), it's hard not to think in those terms during the conference and national meets for cross country, indoor, and outdoor track. This is especially true for men at the NCAA DI level, where there are only 12.6 scholarships available for men's track and field, which includes cross country. Many schools don't even have 12.6 scholarships available (though virtually all schools in the major conferences have "fully funded" men's programs and do have 12.6 scholarships). And when you look at the money involved you can see why a college coach will probably treat you differently than a high school coach. At some state universities, an out-of-state student on a full-ride is getting over $30,000 a year to be on the team. So it's easy to see that while most college coaches consider themselves first and foremost educators, it's hard not to look at the points scored at the conference outdoor meet and figure out which walk-ons are outperforming the scholarship athletes. And that happens on every college track team.
You could write a book about the differences between college coaches and high school coaches (likely finding many nuanced differences) but there is no doubt that scholarships are the single biggest difference, with that difference at the core of why college coaches often interact differently with student athletes than high school coaches.