by Greg Carroll, Tudor Collegiate Strategies
I’m sure some reading this article have had the following conversation with a current freshman or sophomore member of their team.
“Coach, I think I’m going to take the next semester off. I just don’t feel like I fit in and the past year has not been anything like I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be fun and I’m just not happy here.”
The words in bold are key as they reflect what your athlete is thinking rather than what they are feeling. And they’re thinking more right now because they missed the opportunity to build the kind real feelings about you, your team, and your campus due to the challenges of Covid. Both of you had the opportunity to really get to know each in traditional ways stolen by the virus.
Hopefully you haven’t had too many conversations like this. Given what last spring and this past fall semesters were like it would be easy to see how a student athlete could be thinking like this. After all, the college experience right now is nothing like what we have ever known and certainly not what your freshmen and sophomores envisioned.
We all hope next fall is better and we’re much closer to the way student athlete experiences we’re used to. But even with that there’s a good chance that the expectations of your recruits (…and yours for who that recruit, now a freshman on your team, really is) aren’t in line with what they thought they were getting. Despite Herculean efforts by recruits, their parents, as well as you as a coach, the opportunities to engage with you and your team have not been ideal. Nor have they been optimum for you getting to know the prospect as an athlete and as a person. There’s a lot of guessing going on for both sides.
All this leaves you with two challenges. First, you need to put on a full court press with your messaging and make the most of each opportunity to engage with the recruit and their family. It’s never been more important to ask great questions. And then you need to consciously choose to be a great listener (take notes!) and use those skills to hold on to that information for the future. Knowing as much as possible about the recruit will not only help you lead them to your program (telling the story of how you are better and why those differences are relevant) but also inform you about whether they’re really a good fit for you.
That leads to the second challenge – continuing to provide the same customer service to the student and their family you offered during the recruiting process. As noted previously, your current sophomores and your 2021 freshmen didn’t have the benefit of full access to you, your team, or your campus as they made their college choice. Avoiding the “I just don’t think I fit in” comment or the “I’m just not happy here” problem begins with recognizing that it is very likely going to be how some of your athletes feel next fall.
We already saw an uptick in transfers from the past fall to this spring. (Hint, you may want to look in the transfer portal if you’re not a frequent visitor there!) Some of that is the result of coaches simply not being aware that this class had some unique “onboarding” needs in the fall. So, with experience as our teacher, what can be done to be better positioned as it relates to onboarding in the fall? Here are a few suggestions:
- Work across programs and get your entire athletic department involved. If teams come together and use each other’s ideas, insights, and resources there are much better chances for success. Athletes will have more opportunities to meet other athletes, build friendships, get involved in other campus activities, etc. The whole is always stronger than a single piece.
- If you haven’t used a mentoring system in the past this is the perfect time to try it. But it requires more than simply assigning a sophomore to mentor an incoming freshman. This is too important to leave to chance. Have those wishing to mentor apply, interview them, make it selective. And after you pick your mentor team, train them on what is important (what it takes to be a successful freshman student athlete) and have regular meetings with the mentors about how their freshman is doing.
- If you want to score points with your president get your athletes involved with community/campus service. This keeps your team connected and builds goodwill. Maybe there will be opportunities for various teams to combine in a service initiative, again, forging more relationships that will build the ties that bind them to your school.
- Make even more time than you have typically done in the past to meet with your freshman. These meetings will be even more productive if you do them outside your office (remember how you felt when you got called to the principal’s office? I was there a lot and it wasn’t good!). Go out for coffee, grab lunch, go for a walk or run. This is how you REALLY get to know your student athletes.
- Check in with your freshman’s parents periodically. I know, this may sound crazy. But you control the agenda and can direct the conversation. I promise they will be very impressed by your concern and the attention directed toward their child. In addition, you might be able to head of something before it becomes a problem leading to a transfer.
- Open up your life to your freshmen/sophomores. In many cases they’re looking for something familiar, something that feels like home. It may be having them to your home for a cookout, a swim in your pool, playing with your dog, help with some yard work, etc. It could be anything but opening up yourself in a personal way pays huge dividends.
Getting this class on board has been a challenge unlike anything we’ve seen before. Your upcoming classes may not know you or your program as well as previous classes. You have the opportunity to build those relationships over the course of time. If you do you’re in a better position to avoid having the kind of conversation this article began with.
Greg Carroll is a former college athletic director who now works with Tudor Collegiate Strategies, helping coaching staffs around the country design and implement more effective recruiting campaigns for their upcoming classes of prospects. To find out more, or to ask Greg questions, email him at email@example.com.