College Recruiting: A Give and Take, Part VII - Wrap-Up

This article concludes the series on college recruiting with a wrap-up on the topic of transitioning from high school to college training.

There’s a sense in which you could say Jay and I talked past each other a little in the first segment of the discussion from high school training to college training. You could, however, look at it from this perspective—Jay’s part touched primarily on training transition for men and my part touched primarily on training transition for women.

Between the two pieces, however, you should be able to glean some useful information. Reading my piece, you may have wondered, “If the danger of getting into an atmosphere that could chew me up and spit me out is as serious as you suggest, how can I steer clear of ending up there in the first place?” Let me focus on that question in this concluding segment.

Here’s what I’d suggest: During the summer between your junior and senior year of high school, go to the official athletic web site for every school you think you might be interested in attending. Then, identify three to five more schools at about the same competitive level and go to their sites as well. If your interests span schools at different competitive levels, do the analysis below separately for each level—the reasons for this will become apparent as you read on.

Once you’re at a school’s site, go to the Track and Field page. If you’re a distance runner, you can go to the Cross Country page and find a shorter list of names to sort through. Then go to the team roster. Carefully note the names and classes of athletes of your gender and your specialty area on the roster. Now, go back through previous rosters. In some cases, you can simply find previous year’s rosters by selecting from a drop box at the top of the roster page. With other programs, you will need to click on “Archives” to look at previous year’s rosters.

Go back two, three, four, and five years and examine closely what proportion of the incoming athletes from each year stayed with the program. Especially note how many freshmen continued with the program their sophomore year, but—for more complete information—track freshman to junior year as well. Calculate a retention rate for each school and coach you’re interested in competing for. Do the same for the 3 – 5 additional schools at roughly the same competitive level. If this information is not available at the web site, you are not out-of-bounds to ask for it politely.

Don’t jump to conclusions yet. You must first understand that no school ever had a 100% athlete retention rate. And sometimes an athlete leaves a school for academic reasons rather than athletic reasons. Although you’re used to thinking of a 65% as a D, that is—in many cases—an excellent retention rate. Finally, bear in mind that retention rates are typically higher for men than women (yet another reason why, in any given year, a school will almost certainly have more available track and field scholarships for women than for men).

Having acknowledged all that, it is now time to compare across schools. Let’s say that you’re looking at six different schools. The freshman-to-junior retention rate for athletes of your gender and specialty over the last five years at these schools are, hypothetically: 60%, 70%, 40%, 30%, 70%, and 50%. Note that these percentages will vary somewhat depending on how competitive the schools you’re looking at are.

Now, what should these numbers tell you? The numbers should be sending up red flags for the schools at the lower end of the spectrum of whatever grouping of schools you’re looking at. On the other hand, in this example, I’d be feeling pretty good about the schools scoring out at 70%. There are reasons why schools competing at roughly the same level show differing retention rates. Ignore these reasons at your own peril.

In fairness, if you’re truly interested in pursuing one or more of the schools with lower retention rates in your target group, you should pose the question directly to the coach, “I looked at athlete retention rates for similar programs and your retention rate is lower than other schools I’m considering. Could you address that concern for me?” This gives the coach a chance to explain what might possibly be unusual circumstances. It allows you to take in information from another perspective before making your decision.

Understand that, should you pose this question, the coach—assuming he/she responds—will make an attempt to put the best possible spin on the question, but it’s valuable to hear the coach out nevertheless. If you ask the question in person, you can pretty well nullify the non-response option. In either case, be alarmed if you sense your question being redirected. Understand also that, if you ask the question in a hostile tone, you likely just torched your scholarship chances at that school.

If you go on an official visit, find opportunities to probe a little about overall team climate, injury frequency, and the like. Don’t keep pressing the issue, but do go on your visit with three or four such questions planned—this is, after all, your opportunity to find out what you’re getting into. Sprinkle the questions in at appropriate moments and probably not when you’re with the entire team. If you’re assigned a team member to escort you through your visit, ask him/her a couple of these questions. Do not let the tone of your questions suggest accusation. Ask more questions indicating a positive outlook than you ask of this type. Word will get around if you’re perceived as a snoopy, suspicious type.

That should be enough for now. I trust the series we’ve done has proven valuable for you. I know it’s been valuable for me listening to Jay’s insights. Jay and I have had discussions on this topic before, but never at this level of detail and candor. As a result, this has been an enormously beneficial exercise for me.

And, please know that you’re welcome to direct further questions you might have back to either of us.

There is one major point I want to make as we wrap up this series, but first I want to reinforce the importance of Alan's suggestion.  Very few families take the time to research the programs they're interested in, yet for the past 5-6 years every college program's web site has, just as Alan pointed out, an archive to the the past 3-4 years results and rosters. And while Alan is right on about looking at retention rates I would add something that is as important, if not more important. Which athletes got better in the programs you're considering? Does this program have athletes who had similar PRs to me who are now running at a high level? These are simple questions and while it will take a few hours to go through the athlete bios for 2-3 programs and their results for the past few years, this is an important step that most families fail to take. We're all busy and we all wish we had more time; what I'm suggesting will take some time, but you'll be well served having gone through this exercise as you'll have a clear picture as to the question, "Do most athletes improve in this program?"  Also, wait until you have your list narrowed down to 2-3 schools before you do this as this really would be a waste of time if you're starting the process with a list of 6 programs.

The final issue I want to raise is a question I think every senior in HS should be able to answer, "What do you need from your college coach?"  This is a simple question, but the reason I bring it up as part of this "transition from HS to college training" section is that many college freshman expect their new college coach to be a similar version of their HS coach and that their college coach will do most of the same things as their HS coach did for them. 

While the differences between the two coaches are numerous and while both the college coach and the HS coach are, at the core of their respective job descriptions, educators, let me throw out the biggest difference between the two. In many situations, the college track coach will lose their job if their program either fails to perform athletically, or in some cases fails to perform academically. 99% of HS track coaches will not lose their job as a teacher if their track program stinks, nor does the school keep separate academic performance records for the HS students who choose to participate in track and field. In one setting, athletic and academic performance is the primary issue while in the other participation is the primary issue. 

Please don't be dramatic in your interpretation of these facts - job security in collegiate track and field is not the precarious world of collegiate basketball coaching. Similarly, one of my pet peeves as a college coach was the idea that because an athlete was on a scholarship they should look at athletics as "their job;"  there is no reason that a college athlete, even one a full scholarship, should have the mentality of a laborer when they go to practice. But the flip side is that if you're a HS senior and you're going to be a college athlete next year please don't walk into the first team meeting - a team meeting where you will likely spend two hours listening to compliance rules made for football and basketball players - goofing around with your roommate the same way you goofed around with your friends in your HS homeroom period when you were forced to listen to something you thought was pointless. It is pointless, but feign genuine interest and pay attention. And if practice is at 3:00 you should show up early and observe: Who is the best woman or best young man on the team and when do they show up?  Do they stretch before practice or do they go ask the coach what the workout is? Did they just come from the training room having done pre-hab or do they roll up on their bike in street clothes and flip-flops, then change in the bathroom?

If at this point you're thinking, "But the question was 'What do I need from my new college coach?' and he's talking about how to conduct myself in the first day of school and practice - I don't get it?" That's fine - let me explain the connection. Your college coach can likely help you realize your genetic potential as an athlete, but your college coach should also assume that you need less guidance, less hand holding to do not only all of the non-athletic things a college freshman is expected to do but also to learn by observation how to be a contributing member to your new team. This is a different job description than a HS coach, who is has to manage a "no-cut" sport and who is accustomed to answering the question of "When should I start my warm-up?" 80 times during the course of a Saturday invitational; if you ask a college coach that same question more than twice your first year you're probably not paying attention.

My point is not that you're never going to ask your college coach a question, but you do need to realize that the college coach, especially if they offered you a scholarship, expects you to come to practice, study hall, and every other team function with a level of focus that would be unrealistic for most HS athletes, yet is not only realistic for a collegiate athlete but paramount to becoming a successful collegiate athlete.

One other tip, when you arrive on campus you should be willing to learn by observation, watching - even mirroring - the successful upperclassmen on the team to see how this whole thing works.  After 2-3 days of careful observation you will no doubt have a question; go into the college coaches office (mornings are usually best) and ask one simple question. It might be, "I know that we stretch during practice, yet I'm wondering if there is any other supplemental stretching I'm supposed to doing during the day or on the weekends?" That may not be the best example of a question, yet that question shows that you're paying attention during practice, but it also shows that you want to learn your new coaches system, down to the small details such as supplemental stretching to support your training load.

I hope this series has been useful for athletes, parents and coaches.  I will continue to answer recruiting questions at my blog, so feel free to write in if I can be of further assistance.


Links to All Parts in Series:

Part I - Introductions

Part II - Scholarship Amounts

Part III - Closure on Scholarship Amounts

Part IV - Role of the High School Coach

Part V - Closure on Role of the High School Coach

Part VI - Transitioning from HS to College

Part VII - Wrap-Up


New Recruiting Series

First Article