Recruiting: Asking the Right Questions

An updated look at several issues the college-bound athlete wants to take into consideration.



The last time I did this series of articles, I co-wrote it with Jay Johnson. This time, I'm flying solo. That doesn't mean I don't value what Jay Johnson has to say. Quite the contrary, I value what he has to say on this topic--and several others as well--highly.


What I've learned though, is that working together on a series of articles does not make it easier. It makes it more difficult, much more difficult. The biggest, and most frustrating, issue is finding common time slots to rough out and then refine a piece so that it reads as a coherent whole. Occasionally, we even have conflicting viewpoints we have to either resolve or eliminate from the article. Jay keeps a very busy schedule, and I keep a very busy schedule. It's difficult, at best, to make our moments of discretionary time cooperate.


So, I'm moving ahead and rewriting these pieces on my own. I do that with some regrets as I know Jay's voice adds value.


I will post as each new piece as it comes ready, but the entire series should be completed well before the end of cross country season.


My intent is to offer parents and student-athletes insights into the process and skills for talking with college coaches and recruiting coordinators. And, there is no better time of the year to do that than this time of the year.


Our first topic will be the last topic of the original series--asking the right questions when you talk with the college coach. If you're on a visit, you may even have opportunity to ask some of these questions to athletes currently on the team. Both can be excellent sources of information.



Asking the Right Questions, Part I

Almost every recruited high school athlete wonders at some point what they'll talk about when a college coach calls or when they visit a program they're interested in. Things almost always go better when you prepare for the call or for the visit, but how do you prepare? What are good questions to use to hold up your end of the conversation?


Many high school athletes come into the college recruiting situation a little intimidated. "I don't want to ask any questions because I don't know what to ask. And I don't want to look dumb because I asked silly questions."


While there's some virtue in asking questions on the spot as they arise, you also want to go into any conversation with a college coach or recruiting coordinator with some well thought-out questions in place.


What I've endeavored to create here is a quick guide to asking at least a few of the right questions in the recruiting process. This first section will focus on questions to ask about the college training experience. If a particular question on this list is a non-starter for you, bag it. On the whole, however, you should find some material here that you can adapt to your own personality and bring in as prepared questions for a recruiting visit. And, above all, it's not a bad thing to give the appearance of being prepared on a recruiting visit or during a recruiting phone call.


Please understand that you can ask the best questions in the world, but if you don't listen to the answers, it will come off simply as someone ticking questions off a list. That's unlikely to impress. Be willing to probe a little into the answers you receive. You stand to learn a great deal more from the follow-up questions than from just the initial questions.

Question #1: What are the surfaces like that I'll be doing most of my training on?

Who to ask: Both coaches and current athletes

This is a low-risk icebreaker kind of question. It's worth knowing what surfaces you'll be training on, particularly if you don't go into college as a high-mileage runner. The combination of sharply increased volume and hard surfaces can be a recipe for stress fractures and other lower leg injuries. Expect, in most cases, to find out that some of training will take place on the track, but listen closely to where the other training occurs. On a campus visit, you will likely have the opportunity to see at least one or two locations where the team trains. Although this is a low-risk kind of question, the answer could be very important to you--particularly so if you know you don't want to spend your college career running on asphalt and concrete.


By the way, I've observed that programs with really nice running trails available for their use are beyond anxious to tell recruits about these trails and even take them out to see them or do a run on them.


Question #2: What will a typical week of training in the middle of the cross country season look like for me as a freshman? As a junior?

Who to ask: Both coaches and current athletes

This question shows a whole lot more depth of interest in and understanding of training than the old standby of "How much mileage will I be doing?" Accumulated miles only have meaning in the context of an overall training plan. And, if all you ask about is total mileage you leave the impression that you don't appreciate very well how the various pieces of training contribute to the whole. Asking what a typical mid-season week looks like gives you a fighting chance to have a clearer picture of what the expectations will be under that program.


You're likely to be told that a "typical" week of training will depend a lot on how you develop as a runner. While that's a perfectly reasonable response from a coach, it's reasonable, in turn, for you to follow up with, "Could you show me than a couple of different mid-season training plans for current freshmen and current juniors?" That should give you a solid idea of what you can look forward to in that program.


Question #3: What percentage of your incoming freshmen do you end up redshirting and do redshirts typically have a different training plan from the rest of the team?

Who to ask: Coaches and, to a limited extent, older athletes

Many programs, and especially higher-powered programs will redshirt most or all incoming freshmen. More so for men than for women. This refleccts two general truths. One, most runners coming in out of high school are probably only marginally ready to train and compete at the college level. Starting out with a redshirt season gives these individuals a chance to bridge up to the collegiate level before burning up their eligibility. Two, a coach may figure that for the top athletes, having an athlete on the competing team in his/her second through fifth years of college offers better long-term prospects for success than having an athlete on the competing team during his/her first through fourth years of college.


Note that being a redshirt does not mean not competing during that season. It means not representing your school in competition during that season. If you're looking at a program that regularly redshirts incoming freshman, it's certainly legitimate to ask what the coach's perspective is on redshirts competing and what opportunities for that are available.


Question #4: Do student-athletes ever have class conflicts with practice time and what do you and I do in those cases?

Who to ask: Both coaches and athletes

Make certain in asking the question that you communicate the idea that you understand much of the responsibility falls on your own shoulders (hence that "what do you and I do" part of the question). You probably climb a notch or two in the coach's estimation if you can communicate the personal responsibility necessary to handle the situation without suggesting that you plan to exercise that personal responsibility very often. Some scheduling conflicts are unavoidable; most conflicts can, and should, be avoided.


It is true that most colleges offer some sort of scheduling priority to student-athletes so that you can register for (most) classes without running into conflicts with your practice schedule. This would be particularly true for freshmen-level classes, so it's unlikely--but not impossible--you would need to worry about this in your first year.


And, while you're going to college to earn a degree (first priority), you need also to understand that being part of a college team is likewise a huge commitment and responsibility. It's fine to communicate to a coach that getting a degree and a solid education is your #1 priority, but it's not so good to communicate to that coach that running is something you want to do only when it doesn't conflict with other things you want to do. If running is only a low to mid level priority for you, this is a good time to ditch your plans of running collegiately.


Question #5: What factors do you consider when determining whether I will train for the 1500 or the 5000 in track and field? Note that the events listed in the question are arbitrary--you might just as well as between the 800 and 1500 depending on where your strengths lie.

Who to ask: Coaches

Let's face it, you want some idea how the coach is going to plug you in. Perhaps more importantly, the answer will also probably reveal something of the personality of the coach if you learn to read between the lines of the answer.


Many college distance coaches have favored events--almost everyone they recruit into the program wlll be tried in that event. You can often discern what event(s) a college coach specializes in by looking at results from their conference track and field meet over a period of three or four years. If your heart is set on running the 800 in college and this school's top talent is consistently entered in the 5000 for the league meet, that should tell you something important.


Still, it's worth hearing the coach out on this question. The coach may be able to give you some very concrete ideas on what it's going to take to be a 1500 runner at the conference meet in his/her program. You may learn a lot about how differently 800 and 1500 runners train in a follow-up question. And, by the way, it's relatively rare that a legitimate collegiate 800 runner also runs cross country competitively. Some train with the cross country team in the fall and occasionally run in meets, but it's unusual (and especially so for males) to be able to compete well at both the 800 and cross country distances at the college level.




At this point, we've discussed five potential questions to ask to give you insight into what your college training experience will be like at a particular school. If you've been thinking along the way, at least one or two of those five questions has prompted other questions in your mind. Write those down now before you forget them and add them to your list of questions to ask. Run those questions by an adult who is important in your life to see how the questions come off. Revise your questions as necessary to avoid tones you don't want to project.


In the next installment, we'll take a look at questions to draw out some insights into what the personality of a college coach is like.


Asking the Right Questions, Part II


A Primer on Track and Field Scholarships