College Recruiting Series #2 - Getting on the Radar Screen

It's often more difficult than you'd expect to get noticed by the college programs you want to take note. A little understanding of the process goes a long way.

 

For most aspiring college athletes, a lot of frustration and anxiety goes into the process of getting a college coach to notice. If you’ve found yourself in this boat, you’re among good company.
 
Getting coaches to notice is more art than science, though that isn’t quite the same as saying there’s nothing objective to be said about the topic.
 
As is the case in several other life contexts, it’s possible to try too hard to get a college coach to notice, and it’s possible to try not hard enough. Part of what makes the sweet spot so difficult to find is that its location varies from coach to coach. And most high school seniors don’t know their prospective college coaches nearly well enough to make a precise guess where to land on that spectrum.
 
If there’s any comfort in knowing, there’s a similar difficulty that attends the college coach’s side of this equation. 
 
So, what you’re going to get in this article are some generalities, but hopefully helpful generalities:
 
1. During your junior year, fill out the prospect athlete page on the web site of programs at schools you’re interested in attending. Dig around on the school’s athletic web site until you find it. If you can’t find it, call the school’s athletic office and ask (there are actually a few schools that do not have a prospect athlete form on their athletics web sites). Preferably, do this sometime between cross country and track season. Owing to restrictions on contact with prospective athletes, college coaches can’t really do anything with this information (unless they coach at an Ivy League school or a service academy) until the summer between your junior and senior season, but it does serve to give them an initial indication that you have some interest in participating in their program.
 
2. If you’re still interested in that school at the end of your junior year, update that prospect athlete questionnaire with a new one at the end of track season your junior year. If there’s a place to say something like this, indicate that you are sending this as an update to the first one you submitted several months ago. Better yet, send a polite and very brief e-mail to the coach indicating you just submitted an updated prospect athlete information form. In theory, there’s been some improvement in your track and field marks over what you were able to put down before, so an update is warranted. This serves as a reminder that you’re still interested and gets your name in front of the coach again. Repetition is big in the game of name recognition.
 
3. Let your high school coach (if he/she is at all interested in the process) know which schools you’re most interested in and which prospect athlete questionnaires you’ve completed. A helpful high school coach will make a contact with a college coach for you. I try to do this sometime early in the fall of an athlete’s senior year. This accomplishes a few things. One, it gets your name in front of the college coach again, but this time from a separate source (and that’s a bonus). Two, it should add some credibility to your expression of interest. If a high school coach will make that contact for you, it usually indicates a good relationship between the athlete and the high school coach, and that is something college coaches like to see. Additionally, your high school coach can speak to aspects of your high school experience that you can’t really speak to.
 
Of course, it’s true you can do all three of these things and still not have a contact from that college coach. If that’s the case, you must now consider the possible reasons you haven’t heard from that coach. It’s too soon to give up hope, but do consider what the best course of action for you is if you still want to be part of that school’s track and field/cross country program.
 
1. The most likely explanation is that you’re not considered a top-tier recruit within that program. Coaches recruit their top priority athletes first, then move to lesser priority athletes as they find out which of their top priority athletes are going to commit and they’re able to reevaluate how much scholarship money they have remaining to work with. Try not to take this as a slight. There really aren’t that many top-tier recruits any given year for any given program. Ideally a college coach would communicate, at some level, with every interested athlete and indicate to them where they stand, but it’s invariably much simpler to communicate with them as the athletes reach the top of the remaining available pool.
 
1a. One possible reason you're not a top-tier recruit at a college program is that you're aiming at a level of program that is beyond what your high school performances indicate a readiness for. It's a good idea to ask for a heart-to-heart with your high school coach late in your junior year about what level of college program your high school performances indicate support for before you go too far down the road of contacting schools. Be open to listening to what your coach has to say. There is a tendency for high school coaches to see more potential in the athletes they work with than college coaches are going to see, but at least this is a start on an objective assessment of where you stand.
 
2. If you’re an out-of-state athlete wanting to go to a state school in another state, the added expense of an out-of-state scholarship may dampen a coach’s enthusiasm for bringing you in. This isn’t always the case, but it does sometimes become a consideration in the era of tight budgets. 
 
3. You may be a specialist in an event area that your school of choice simply has no current scholarship room for. Or, it’s even possible they may not feel they can offer you enough of a scholarship to bring you in.
 
If your heart is set on competing for one school and you’re up against one of the scenarios above, life can be pretty frustrating. My first and best advice in this case is to be patient but also look around for other schools that will suit your academic dreams. Still, in each of these cases illustrated above, it’s probably worth at least one phone call to the coach in question to politely probe a little and see what the situation is. A short phone conversation that includes something along the lines of, “Coach ____, I’m wanting to see if you can tell me anything about the possibility of running/throwing/jumping for your program next fall. Your school has the academic program I want to be part of, and I wanted to see what prospects look like for me being a part of your track and field program as well.” Helpful hint: You'll usually find the coach's e-mail address under the Staff Directory heading (or some similar heading) on the main page of the school's athletic web site. If you can identify the track and field recruiting coordinator, it might be a good idea to include him/her on the e-mail.
 
All of that’s fair territory to inquire about. You should be able to read a great deal from the coach’s answer, indirectly if not directly. If you’re coming to the school for a visit, anyway, you can certainly ask about an appointment to drop by the coach’s office sometime on that visit and ask a few questions. If you are that serious about the school, however, you should already have an application completed with the school and things like transcripts and SAT/ACT test scores on file with the school. 
 
You can’t force a coach to take an interest in you, but you can show at least as much interest as outlined above without running the risk of wearing out your welcome.
 
Through all this, try to keep your parents from becoming overly involved in the process. Make certain it is clearly more your process than theirs. I’ve never known a college coach to be impressed (in a favorable way, at least) by how involved an athlete’s parents were in the scholarship search. An athlete who hands off these duties to parents is likely to be perceived as an excellent candidate to become a high-maintenance individual once they arrive on campus. Plus, it’s a good thing for you to learn to do these things on your own. Listen to your parents’ counsel, of course, but make the actual work your own.
 
If the school of your dreams is a good distance from home, you should be aware of the differences of being recruited by a nearby (typically in-state) school versus a school half-way across the nation.
 
I coach in Colorado, and I’m regularly contacted about athletes in our program by a few—though certainly not nearly all—of the in-state college coaches. I only rarely receive an initial contact about one of our athletes from an out-of-state coach. When I do, it’s usually because that athlete has demonstrated a very high level of promise. In my experience, there are only three things that prompt a coach to recruit an athlete across more than one state line: 1) the athlete in question has demonstrated an extremely high level of promise; 2) the athlete in question has already demonstrated a high level of interest in the school to the coach on their own, or 3) there is already an athlete on the team or a coach on the team’s staff who has some connection that jumps a few state lines and has convinced the coach that it’s a connection worth pursuing. 
 
Otherwise, the country we live in is way too big for college coaches to be monitoring multiple athletes across multiple state lines. Track and field is not big-time college football, and there is neither budget nor staff for that sort of thing in college track and field. Some college track and field programs do send out letters of invitation to athletes all across the country, but that is not nearly the same as monitoring athletes all across the nation. If you receive and respond to one of those letters, it’s best to figure you still need to introduce yourself to the coach of the program.
 
In fact, unless your first contact from a school came through a college coach or recruiting coordinator contacting your high school coach and asking him/her for your contact information, figure that you need to do some introducing of yourself when you make an indication of interest to the program. That applies to both in-state and out-of-state programs, but especially so for out-of-state programs.
 
In either case, be prepared to explain what your interest is in attending and competing for that school. Leave a solid first impression that suggests you are a person who has made your first contact with the program after having first thought through a few things.
 
And, by all means, make certain your early certification/determination of initial eligibility is in place before you start making contact with coaches early in your senior year. If it’s not, the first thing that will happen is that the coach will send you back to that square of the playing board to get it done, and you will have forfeited your opportunity at making a great first impression.
 
This is probably a good point to address the age-old question of, “Should I use a recruiting service to get my name and accomplishments out there?” 
 
I don’t have the final answer to that question, but I can share with you what the experiences of our school’s athletes who have used recruiting services have been.
 
The athletes we’ve had who have used recruiting services were not top-tier DI athletes, but they were also not athletes who were deluding themselves about the possibility of competing at the college scholarship level. The recruiting services did generate attention, and did generate legitimate scholarship offers, but those offers and attention came pretty much solely from struggling track and field programs in faraway places at schools these athletes never would have thought of attending on their own. I’m certain that every so often a really nice match comes out of a situation like this, but I’m equally as convinced that it’s more the exception than the rule.
 
Recruiting for track and field is not like recruiting for football or basketball. Performances in track and field tend to be pretty objective. And, a coach can find out all they need to know about an athlete’s performances by logging in and visiting a web site like one of the various MileSplit state pages. Here they’ll find not just the PRs that you reported on prospect athlete questionnaires, but also your entire history of performances. A smart college coach can learn a great deal in five minutes of time on an athlete’s profile page. Your prospect athlete form should have already included the academic information about you the coach needs to know. 
 
So, the main thing a recruiting service is going to add to the kind of information already is available is, “Hey, here’s a decent athlete who hasn’t yet signed anywhere but wants to run college track on a scholarship.” And that recruiting service can (and usually does) reach out to colleges in corners of the country you never would have thought of reaching to get that message out.
 
In short, the value of a recruiting service is much less for a track and field athlete than for an athlete in a sport where performances are more subjectively graded.
 
For most athletes, the scholarship offer they seek will not come before the first day that National Letters of Intent can be signed. For most athletes, those offers will come later in the spring when scholarship money has been freed up by the top-priority athletes who decided to take scholarship offers from other schools. If you understand that’s the way to game works, you’ll spare yourself a lot of angst.
 
Meanwhile, keep your chin up, keep competing, and keep boosting your PRs. More than one athlete who was not previously on a school’s radar screen has put themselves there by way of a strong showing early in their senior season of track and field. 
 
The keys to the game of getting noticed are patience, persistence, and politeness. Each of these is a good life skill to learn, so it’s worth engaging in the game.
 
Addendum: 
 
There seems to be a recurring issue for distance runners from high-altitude states being recruited to lower altitude programs. I’m not certain how much of this is perception and how much is reality (and it is most likely some of both), but—as a coach who coaches high school distance runners at altitude—there does seem to be a reluctance to recruit distance runners from altitude on the part of some college coaches. 
 
Probably the most effective antidote in this situation is for the high school distance runner is to run a race or two at lower altitude at some point later in their high school careers. These races don’t always go well, of course, so you do run the risk of doing as much harm as good, but more often than not the result is going to be favorable. Try to make sure you’re in peak condition and not worn down with fatigue when you make the trip to low altitude to race.
 
Ultimately, however, some college coaches do not seem to understand that a 9:40 3200 PR from a place like Denver or Albuquerque is clearly superior to a 9:30 PR at sea level. If that truth is utterly lost on the coach of a school you want to attend, you may want to rethink running distance for that program.
 
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