by Paul Nemetz-Carlson, Tudor Collegiate Strategies
One of the best things about the pandemic – for many teams – was the absence of results. A chance to spend a year talking about hope and the best things about their programs.
However, with all the excitement of fall playoffs and the return of this year’s set of NCAA championships, there’s a flip side. It’s the teams that underperformed, struggled, and failed to meet their pre-season goals. For them, the end of the season means reflection and a realization that they have to get out on the recruiting trail and bring in better players.
But it’s not easy. Many of them are stuck in a performance and recruiting loop. They need better players to perform better, yet they can’t get better players until their performance improves.
Facing a big challenge, coaches of struggling programs often don’t have the tools and experience to adapt their message to their current institution and their current situation. They believe they can just recruit like everybody else and get similar results. Consequently, they’re relying on the most basic recruiting strategies that don’t produce the desired outcome.
A clear example I see is coaches continuing to invite their prospects to games to showcase their program. In a losing program those games often highlight their program’s deficiencies, low energy, and the distance between the haves and themselves as a have-not. When you are trying to present an aspirational vision of who you’re going to be, try inviting them to practice instead. It’s a controllable environment where you can show your recruit what you’re doing to fix it, how hard your team is working, and actually spend time with them shaping how they should view the future of the program and why they should want to be a part of it.
Here are five other big mistakes coaches of bad programs make in recruiting.
1. They assume recruits will be attracted to their program by the opportunity to play right away.
New college coaches and coaches of struggling programs need to know that players don’t just show up because you have an opportunity. They show up because you recruit them and sell them on how your opportunity is better for them than their other options. Too many coaches wait for recruits to find them or only recruit the ones who express interest in their program. You have to actively seek out the best players because the ones finding you do so thinking your current level is the right fit for their ability.
Additionally, it’s important to know that playing time, for most recruits, isn’t the singular decision influencing factor you think it is. There are many prospects – even the best ones – that are cautious when sold that they are the “answer” for an under-performing program. They wonder if they’re good enough to individually turn it around, or even if they want to take on that challenge as freshman adjusting to a new school, a new level. It’s true with this generation most want to make an impact as quickly as possible, but as part of a larger and connected vision of team success. The coaches who provide the clear vision of that balance win the most recruits.
2. They don’t tell recruits HOW they’re going to get better.
Every year our annual research confirms that recruits don’t like the way they’re being recruited. Their biggest complaint is that coaches don’t tell them why they should come and play for them. They don’t offer a persuasive argument of why their program is the best choice. They lead with facts and figures, failing to connect the dots for their recruits and explain their why.
And from experience, coaches who lack confidence in their performance story are even less likely to articulate why they’re better than their recruits’ other options. They’re comfortable saying they are a good option, but rarely explain why they’re the best – even on an individual level. Your recruits – whether you’re good or bad – are waiting for you to tell them how they should think about your program. The coaches who let them come to their own conclusions give up the opportunity to shape the story.
I would add – for struggling teams – the other missing element is the lack of an explanation of how they’re going to get better. Recruits are left to conclude that the underperforming team is going to “work harder, be more united, and leave it all out there” and with a little luck, magically produce different results. This is especially challenging for coaches who’ve been there for a few years and the lack of performance is associated with their coaching and recruiting classes.
If you’re one of those coaches, you need to provide a clear example of the shift you’re going to make to create a better future. What specifically are you going to do? Is it a new member of the staff? New approach to training? A group of next-level talent set to join the program? Similar tactics, approaches to recruiting, and staff make-up produces similar results and the people looking at your program know it.
3. They recruit too FEW players.
Time and time again, coaches who struggle with recruiting make the same mistake. Simply, they’re not recruiting enough players. They’re not recruiting the right players. They’re only recruiting players who contact them or have expressed interest in their school’s most popular/strongest majors.
Identification is about two things, who you like and who you can get. When you struggle, sure there are more people who can help – often the same ones being recruited by your competitors – but it’s harder to get them to say yes when they don’t see you as the better option.
When you haven’t made your program a destination, recruiting is a volume proposition. You can’t simply look at your roster and recruit one new athlete for every outgoing one. Because recruits aren’t naturally sold on your story, you have to recruit more of them, show up more, and spend more time convincing them your future will be better than your present reality.
Beyond contacting a larger pool of athletes, it often helps to add players to your pool that you appreciate for different reasons than other coaches. You like their potential, a specific skill, or a personality trait that makes them a good fit for your program. You’re willing to overlook a deficiency or believe you can develop a certain skill better than your peers. Focusing on the same players as your competitors and hoping for a higher yield rarely leads to desired outcomes.
4. They don’t provide context to their record, their history, and their future.
Coaches of struggling programs often think their recruits start the process with a neutral opinion of their program. They do not.
When they start the process, the first thing most recruits and their parents do after being contacted by you – before they respond – is to go to your program website. They look at your schedule, your results, and read your bio. And they quickly make a decision about whether or not you’re worth their time.
If those places don’t present you in the best light, you need to provide context to them as part of your story. You need to provide the other side that they can’t get from a score or a single highlight. Maybe it’s an injury, an against the run of play goal, or even a huge team improvement over previous match-ups. Deliver it in consistent messaging, on the phone as you build relationships, and by text when you engage your prospects.
Like with your program’s difficult questions, if you want to improve the perception of your program’s performance, tell them what to think and how to process the information they have access to. If you’re not answering those questions, someone else is.
5. They don’t say NO to anyone.
Because they’re having a hard time getting people to say yes, struggling coaches go out of their way not to say NO to anyone interested in their program. Any interest is good interest.
But in reality, who you invite into your program speaks volume about its quality, culture, and future. And with recruits, they read those clues based on their familiarity with your prospects, not on an actual talent evaluation. They look at your roster and ask, who do they know? Do they like them? Do they think they’re good? Then, they make an assumption about who you are and if they want to join you.
The goal of every coach should be to have a program where they get to decide who they say yes to and which prospects they get to tell no. They get to choose who fits and who doesn’t in their effort to build a strong culture, rewarding experience, and winning program. By saying no, you define the standards of your program and how others should see the future.
There are others, of course. Some coaches are too honest about the current state of their program, scaring off potential recruits who realize if they join the program and underperform the coach will talk about them the same way. Some coaches complain about the institutional policies and expectations that were already in place when they took the job. Some coaches rely too much on their assistants to bring in players, while other head coaches try to go it alone.
When you’re struggling to achieve results, you can’t just expect players to be interested because you simply have a program. You need to have a program that your prospects feel is better than their other options.
You need to do more to stand out as the individual or staff your recruits want to play for. It means being more consistent with communication, more clear in your direction, and more engaged as a partner in the recruiting process.
Because recruiting results often directly reflect a program’s level of performance, you will never out recruit your current level if you can’t change the perception of your program. That requires a different level of engagement and a more effective communication strategy than you’re currently using.
Acknowledge who you are AND what you are not. Identify what makes you unique and what makes your experience desirable. Shift your recruits’ focus of what matters by telling them what that is and why it’s important. Lead the conversation toward a clear vision of a brighter tomorrow.
Recruiting is hard, but it’s also the path to better results. If you’re not there yet, make some small changes and build something people want to be a part of it.
Be Distinct. Be Different.
Do you struggle recruiting for your program that hasn’t had a recent history of success? Paul Nemetz-Carlson and the team at Tudor Collegiate Strategies can help you turn things around. To talk with Paul about how that works, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.