How many times have you been the program that is the logical, “right fit” for a prospect, only to see that same prospect end up choosing another program that’s a completely illogical choice? A place where they probably won’t compete as soon as they would for you, won’t be appreciated as much, and generally won’t have as good of an experience.
If you’ve been coaching college sports for any length of time, you know the answer is “a lot”.
Here are the typical scenarios I’ve seen play out with the coaches we work with:
- A program that competes at a lower division level loses a recruit to another program that’s one level up.
- Despite assurance that your recruit will get significant playing time during their Freshman season, they choose a more prestigious program where they will have to sit the bench for their first two years.
- You spend two solid years getting to know your recruit, forming a great relationship, only to have that recruit choose another program with a coach who is able to throw a little more money their way at the last minute.
If any of those situations hit a little too close to home, you’ve probably fell victim to the Ellsberg Paradox.
It’s an interesting theory that is having direct application in college recruiting, and is becoming more of common tactic we employ in developing strategies for our clients. It is named for former military analyst and activist Daniel Ellsberg, who became famous for releasing the Pentagon Papers – a set of documents outlining decision making procedures by the U.S. military during the Vietnam war – to newspapers around the country.
He is less famous for another theory on decision making, called the Ellsberg Paradox, which has direct application for smart college coaches who want to dig deeper into how their prospects make their decisions.
Essentially, it’s a theory that says people (your recruits and their parents) overwhelmingly prefer taking on risk in situations where they know specific odds rather than an alternative risk scenario in which the odds are completely ambiguous—they will likely choose a known probability of winning over an unknown probability of winning even if the known probability is low and the unknown probability could be a guarantee of winning. That is, given a choice of risks to take (such as bets), people “prefer the devil they know” rather than assuming a risk where odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. (If you want to dive deep into the experiments that help prove the theory, dive right in.)
Let’s bring that back to recruiting for a moment:
What the theory postulates is that your prospect, learning a little bit about your program and hearing you make guarantees of playing time and other promises, is still apt to choose a better known, more proven, bigger-name-coach at the end of the process. That other program is “the devil they know”; there’s less risk, in the mind of the recruit, than opting for a program like your’s that is still unproven in their eyes.
Hopeless situation if you are that coach that we’re describing? Not at all.
But, it takes consistent effort and a strategic approach to recruiting. The Ellsberg Paradox is the natural, undisturbed state that your recruit will likely operate in unless you change the conditions. Are you hoping that recruit just somehow figures out that you’re the more logical choice on their own, and ignores the Ellsberg Paradox, you’re not going to find much success.
You have to “change the conditions” to neutralize the Ellsberg Paradox that might be handcuffing your recruit. Here are three key things to begin that process with your next class or recruits:
- Become the “known probability”. This is the part where I pummel you with all of the reasons for telling a consistent story to your recruits. If you are that risky program in the eyes of your recruit, there is no quick fix to swaying them over to your program. It takes a consistent effort of interesting messaging, engaging enough to prompt their questions and conversations with you, and making the case that you are just as good of an option as the other program. Ellsberg Paradox demands that the chosen option be the one that is best known and less risky (note that I didn’t say “better”, or “has the best facility”, or “was ranked higher in U.S. News”). Become known to your recruit, and do it in a consistent, conversation way.
- “Winning” or other logical advantages aren’t always going to get the job done. Remember, according to the definition of Ellsberg Paradox, “your prospect will likely choose a known probability of winning over an unknown probability of winning even if the known probability is low and the unknown probability could be a guarantee of winning. In other words, don’t rely on your record or history to sell your program. I can tell you first hand from the research and coach training we do on campuses around the country that those two factors matter very little once the recruiting process gets past the initial stages. As opposed to proving yourself to your recruits based on your past, prove yourself to your recruits by explaining how they fit into the future of the program.
- Reduce the odds against you in the eyes of your recruit. Note that the focus of this point is to change the way your recruit sees you and your program, not necessarily the actual facts surrounding your program – your mediocre history of performance, inexperienced staff, older facilities…don’t let your view of those assumed negatives cloud your enthusiasm and reasoning as to why your recruit belongs with you. One of the saddest aspects of what I do is hear a coach explain why they’ve convinced themselves that they just can’t recruit good athletes based on their location, or their lack of financial aid, or their facility. Much of the time, of course, those situations will make it nearly impossible to recruit every good recruit. However, you don’t need every good recruit. You need a handful of great ones to form a solid recruiting class. Make sure you identify what odds aren’t working in your favor, and create solutions to reduce your exposure to those negative adds.
The theory, of course, isn’t universal. It won’t apply to every recruit, just many of your recruits.
Decide what strategies you need to employ and then make a plan for implementing those strategies. If you don’t, expect the same hurdles to appear in your next recruiting class.
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