by Paul Nemetz-Carlson, Tudor Collegiate Strategies
Early in my conversations working with new clients I will inevitably be asked two questions:
- How do I get better players to see us as a realistic option?
- How do I get into conversations with the best athletes?
My answer is always to be a better recruiter you need a strong start, improved guidance in the middle, and a way to influence the decision at the end. But the emphasis for those asking the two questions is on the friction at the start of the process.
Because recruiting relies so much on the perception of your program – something you either confirm or change with every action – programs should be making a constant effort to build awareness of what makes them great before recruiting actually starts. So many programs face an uphill battle trying to convince their recruits that they are good enough for them. There are a number of roadblocks at the beginning of the process because programs haven’t told – or don’t get the opportunity to tell – their story to an uninformed group of prospects.
And these roadblocks and the friction at the start of the process are what for many years led to early recruiting. If you had the chance to tell your story before the other guys, you felt you had the opportunity to shape how your recruits should see you and be viewed as a competitive equal.
However, NCAA changes over the past few years have re-set the contact dates for Division I programs, creating a hard restriction of June 15 or September 1, depending on sport, for rising juniors. The elimination of the grey area has impacted both coaches and recruits alike.
One of the most challenging things about the rule change is that it shifted the recruiting advantage back to the traditional powers. Although it was intended to protect student-athletes, and does to a great extent, it also rewarded awareness and reputation over good storytelling. The programs who had worked to identify talent earlier and build a relationship necessary to prove they were good enough and overcome the perception bias that exists in college athletics, no longer could. They had to wait to tell your story of why it will get better. They had to wait to showcase what made them unique. And because of the national narrative of college football and basketball that provides a weekly commercial for Power 5 schools, they arrived at the first contact date as a less desirable option. Meaning they had less time to tell a longer story and were always playing catch-up.
Division I recruiting – especially in sports with a player pool that’s comfortable committing early – has become a branding exercise. If you’re good, known, and desirable you have a tremendous advantage. When the question is “Are you cool and worthy of their attention?”, you’re relying on how others are talking about you, what they’re saying, and the surface presentation that makes you a destination in young recruits’ minds. (Because of earlier decisions at all levels and the desire of prospects to be associated with the best athletes no matter their talent level, this is not exclusive to Division I.)
The rules make it difficult to connect directly with prospects. You can’t do anything with them. No direct contact, no contact with club coaches about them, no chance to give them more info if they find their way to your campus on their own. You’re limited to what they know about you or can find out about you on their own. Most likely that’s limited too by a smaller staff and less ability to influence the perception of the brand.
So what would I suggest to programs without an ingrained positive perception? The ones who didn’t get as many responses as they would have liked this year? Or the couldn’t get the right ones to engage or commit to visits? I would suggest that if you want your first interaction to go better, do more to raise your own program’s awareness and positive perception in the minds of your recruits before you can share it directly with them.
Here are a few ideas:
If you’ve gotten to this point and are also wondering about the right approach for when you do contact them, I’d recommend this article: Making Your Contact Count With New Recruits
Your Questionnaire: For many years, the first step has been to send a questionnaire because it was the only thing you could send and it denoted interest. They wouldn’t always fill it out – because it feels like an overwhelming task when they’re not yet sure you’re worth their time – but they knew they were being recruited, you’d seen them, and/or identified them. And that they should be on the lookout for more.
I have previously shared the idea to break up the questionnaire into smaller, more revealing questions, and text it. Shorter is in fact better. I still think it’s a good idea because most compliance offices will let you send more than one and you can build awareness, drive them to your website and social channels, and have more info when you are finally allowed to contact them.
Instagram: Probably just as important is to follow everyone you’re interested in on Instagram, their social platform of choice. It does two things – a wink to your prospect that you have your eye on them and usually a follow back that will allow you to be in front of them before you can be. It requires some conscious effort to tell your story on Instagram and let them know your team enjoys the experience and that you’re worth knowing more about. Your graphics, your results, your volume of information will be compared against the best programs but usually, that’s a good thing. (Tik Tok is also good – but for me, it puts a greater responsibility on you producing great, different content than Instagram and has its own set of prospect expectations.)
Have a Better Two Week Pre-Contact Social Media Plan: What you do on June 15th or September 1 is important. You have an anxious pool of prospects waiting for you to reach out, waiting to see if they’ve done enough to garner your interest, waiting to see where they fit. How you make them feel in that moment matters, but it’s also stressful for both sides. A good way to relieve a little pressure on that first interaction – help them feel better about you before it takes place.
Catch them when they’re actively thinking about recruiting. As the date nears, your prospects are thinking about their potential options. They’re thinking about the places worthy of their dreams. They want to know what’s out there, so they go looking. Unlike other times during the year when you hope they’ll find your story, you now have a captive audience.
Pull out your best photos, your best “Did You Knows?”, and tell them what they should think about you.
Engage Club Coaches and Influencers: While you can’t directly talk with club and high school coaches about who you are recruiting, you should be actively influencing how they think, talk, and feel about your overall program. You can attack it many different ways, but the main goal is to educate them about your program so they understand why you should be a destination for their players.
If you didn’t get the right people to visit or pick up the phone this year, I’d spend the next year making it my goal to be better in this area. It’s overwhelming to think about changing everyone’s opinion of your program, so try to initially just change a few. Be more selective in the ones you target. Be consistent in communicating the best parts of your story. Be better in providing the reasons that that coach would want his or her athletes to be associated with your program.
Visible Presence at Events: It costs money and travel restrictions might hold you back this year, but show up at more events. And the right events that match the level of talent you’re trying to attract. Wearing your team jacket with visible logos in front of parents certainly helps. (I like logos on the back, so parents aren’t always peering at your chest trying to figure out where you’re from.)
Sit near the coaches from the best programs so the parents who keep looking over will see you there too. There are still a lot of coaches who think evaluation and good notes are the biggest part of recruiting, but if you’re recruiting the no-brainers and elite it’s actually making sure those individuals – and their parents – knew you were there.
Association With the Elite Programs: My last thought is throughout the year, to find as many ways as possible to associate yourself with the best programs. When recruits have the power to select where they visit or who they talk to from a small group of schools, you need to be part of the group they’re picking from. Be in the same conversation, have something in common. It might be an obscure connection, it might be an individual performer on your team, or a non-sport related statistic, but the opportunity to be seen as “like” the best is the first step in getting better.
There are a lot of programs that have great things going on inside them. There are fewer that are good at providing context and contrast to help their recruits see them as great and comparing favorably to recruits’ other options.
Recruiting doesn’t start with first contacts, and it doesn’t end after commitments. It’s a ongoing process of telling and retelling your story. The best consistently present their unique self and pick the right times to offer a little something extra.
Keep working at it and remember to celebrate all the victories big and small.
Be Distinct. Be Different.
Paul Nemetz-Carlson is a former Division I coach and Director of Operations, now serving coaches throughout the Northeast as a consultant and recruiting advisor for Tudor Collegiate Strategies’ clients and coaches. Email Coach Nemetz-Carlson at email@example.com.