It’s a fight that’s beginning to gain momentum.
Early recruiting, whether you like it, hate it, or just accept it as a necessary part of the college recruiting process, is one of the most debated topics among college coaches. And the ripple effect of the national conversation continues to force new approaches by college coaches, their coaching organizations, and the NCAA.
College lacrosse coaches lobbied for a ban on any recruiting contact before September 1st of a prospect’s Junior year in high school, which was approved by the NCAA. It halts the trend of Freshman and Sophomore contact in college lacrosse recruiting that many coaches were concerned about, citing their worry that it was putting too much pressure on families and younger players to make decisions before they were ready.
At the same time, the NCAA enacted several rule changes granting greater flexibility for college football programs to allow earlier official visits to campus for younger prospects, as well as an additional early signing period for prospects. It follows the lead of women’s basketball, which has started allowing for earlier visits to campuses in recent years.
Regardless of what you feel is the right course of action as college athletics continues to grapple with this issue, there are some recruiting truths about early recruiting that I feel are important for coaches to understand as they move forward:
- In the mind of most parents and athletes, early recruiting – and early commitment – is seen as a good thing. I actually had the chance to fully explain this in 2016 while speaking on the topic at the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association convention, but in summary I’ll tell you this: According to our ongoing research and focus groups, both athletes and parents feel like early recruiting, and the chance to commit early, is validation that their hard work, extra time and expense, and dedication to their sport leading up to their high school career. In other words, it’s not necessarily a “bad” thing in their mind. For college coaches, it’s important to understand that they aren’t looking at the process from your perspective as a coach who has been through it all a few hundred times with different recruits. I’m not making a case for one side or the other…that’s outside of my influence. I simply want coaches to understand the perspective that they may find present in the minds of the families they recruit.
- The other perceived benefit for prospects and their parents? Less stress. Many times we hear stories about the desire to “just have the process done” so that they can “relax and enjoy their last year of high school”. A more condensed timeline will result in more anxiety in the mind of your recruits and parents. For coaches, be prepared for that, and find ways to be the calming guide to lead them through the process that they will now have less time to navigate.
- Explain why waiting is beneficial to them. That may seem like a very basic conversation, even one that isn’t needed, but it is. For the reasons in the first two points I’ve just talked about. If you want this generation of recruits to think differently about the process of making a decision, all of you need to be the voice of that side of the argument. This should be a part of your early, and ongoing, recruiting message.
- Your recruiting message just became even more important. As the process is contracted into a shorter period of time, old-fashioned, vanilla, non-compelling messaging will not produce long term winning results. Whoever engages first, and continues to develop an interesting conversation the most consistently, will win. Another important point coaches need to understand: Simply because there are growing limits on when a coach can recruit won’t necessarily translate into the majority recruits holding off their decisions longer. I would expect to see many top-tier recruits making decisions within 90 to 120 days of being able to be contacted after September 1st, due to coaches putting accelerated deadlines on those recruits, as well as the aforementioned social conditioning to view early commitment as a good thing.
- Did your sport just expand the availability to recruit earlier? You face the same challenge when it comes to your recruiting message. Getting the chance to talk to a prospect earlier than before means that you need to take a long term view of your communication. If the best you’ve got consists of a bland first contact letter, a few general emails about the program, and then attempted phone calls, you’re in for a rough fight with other programs using more advanced, more systematic approaches (or programs that offer more money, are part of a higher division level, or some other perceived advantage that they have in the eyes of recruits). Taking a serious look at your plan for answering the number one question in the mind of today’s recruit, “Why should I choose you over all the other schools that I’m hearing from?”, is essential as we enter this new era of college recruiting.
Early recruiting is a bit of a two-headed monster: Limit it, and you will need to alter the way you communicate in a condensed timeframe with your prospects who, at least for now, view early decisions as largely positive. Expand it, and you will need to meet the challenge of more engaging, more consistent messaging over a longer period of time.
How good is your staff’s plan, Coach?
A systematic approach that takes a research-based view of communicating with this generation of recruits exists. And, plenty of coaches in different sports and division levels around the country are utilizing it. You can find out more here.