Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby said it best in the movie “Talladega Nights”:
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
O.K., so maybe we won’t go to that ridiculous extreme. However, when it comes to recruiting, we’re finding that being first is a huge advantage for the college coaches who can manage to be the initial contact for a prospective athlete. Especially if you’re a coach who is still at the game as a prospect’s final two or three choices.
Most of today’s recruits, for some reason, have a strong allegiance to the first program that recruits them. Big or small, winning or losing, close to home or far away from home, it doesn’t matter…recruits have strong feelings for the first coach and program that they have contact with.
We know this because when we conduct research and focus groups on campuses around the country, the vast majority of current college student-athletes talk about making their decision and describe having a strong allegiance to the program that they first heard from, even if it isn’t a program that would be a good choice on paper. In other words, some of the critical filters that a prospect might judge another program through don’t apply to that first program that shows serious interest.
Their comments on why this is true range from the serious to the just plain odd. Here’s a sample from comments we’ve heard in just the past few months:
- “I just figured that I the first school that recruited me meant more to me than the others.”
- “As I thought about it, I guess I realized that because they saw me first and contacted first, they should be my first choice.”
- “My parents said to choose the program that I thought wanted me the most, and so I went with the one who was talking to me the longest and was most persistent.”
- “At first it wasn’t really important to me that ____ was the first school that recruited me. But at the end, I came back to them because they were first and I realized that I was comparing everyone else to the them anyway. So I decided it made sense to come here.”
- “I was really confused at the end, and started stressing out. So I just figured the coach that talked to me first probably believed in me first, and so I ended up committing to her program. And it’s been great!”
There are a couple of serious points that I’ve settled on over the years when it comes to the whole idea of being a coach who is first to contact an athlete. Here’s why I see this being a strategy that’s worth considering if you’re a coach who wants to put this “tie-breaker” in your favor when it comes to decision time:
Being first is better than being last. This comes from the question I get a lot when we first start working with coaches one-on-one in a client relationship: “Should we jump in early, or wait until later on and hope they don’t like their initial choices?” Easy answer. Be first. By a nearly 4 to 1 margin, we’re finding that athletes trend towards programs who recruit them earlier rather than later.
Consistency matters over the long run. It’s true all of the time with this generation of recruits, but it’s especially important if you want to maintain the advantage of being first. Don’t let-up when it comes to the emails, letters and phone calls. Consistency is something that always wins, and it really underscores the standing you have as the first program to recruit them.
One thing they don’t want early? Pressure. Show excitement early, but avoid talk about a deadline for making a decision or any kind of early pressure to visit campus. Take your time – which you should have the luxury of doing since you are starting early! If you wait until later to recruit a prospect (unavoidable at times, I realize) then you may need to put more pressure on them simply because of deadlines you are facing. But just understand that pressure at the start isn’t a great way to win the majority of recruits.
The other person who really values the first program? Your prospect’s coach. Interesting, but true. We find that coaches have a strong allegiance to the first program to reach out to their athlete, especially if it’s a program that isn’t a traditional power or that hasn’t had a lot of coaches contact their recruits. So, along with your prospect, make sure your recruiting plan has a focus of reaching out and selling your recruit’s coach on your program.
With recruiting calendars continuing to get pushed back earlier and earlier, you have the opportunity to implement this strategy really easily. For some of you that are Division I and II coaches, this is going to become the new standard for successful programs. Make sure you are always on the front end of the recruiting timeline with your prospects.
If you are a Division III coach, I’d encourage you to start actively recruiting Juniors who are on your list at this point. Not enough Division III coaches are recruiting Juniors, so those of you who start now will find yourself having a big advantage while your competition remains stuck in following an older-style recruiting timeline.
And, if you’re a NAIA program, the rules really allow you to contact athletes earlier than anyone else. And, you can use more communication methods to recruit earlier. Are you taking advantage of it?
Whatever your situation, there is a lot of value in being first in recruiting. Make sure you are the one that wins that early battle.
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