On my Freshman Foundation Podcast, Lindsey Hamilton, Head of Mental Conditioning for IMG Academy said, “A lot of people are really focused on going to the right school instead of finding the right fit (emphasis added) for them. You know, that’s one of the biggest challenges.”
Ever since I spoke to Lindsey, I’ve thought a lot about the concept of fit in the college sport recruiting process. This recently came up for me when speaking to a current college athlete, who has been struggling with how he fits on his team. His role in high school was clear and obvious – he was the most valuable player on the team. No matter how he performed the day before, he was in the starting lineup the next day. Now, in his first year, he’s still trying to figure out how he fits amongst a roster full of highly talented and confident athletes.
It led me to ask myself the question, what can athletes and their parents do to better assess fit BEFORE they step on campus as freshmen?
The first thing to recognize is that recruiting is essentially a sales process. Yes, this may be a crude description, but plainly, it is the truth. Schools are trying to persuade you to join their program to help them win. Some coaches may tell you what you want to hear in order to sign on the dotted National Letter of Intent line. In exchange, you are offered an athletic scholarship, an education, and in some cases, the opportunity to brag that you are wearing the name of a nationally recognized brand on your chest. As Lindsey suggests, some athletes pick a school and a name, rather than a place and a fit.
How do a young athlete and their parents truly know they are making the right choice? I guess the real answer is that they don’t know. Like any big life choice, families must gather as much information as possible, perhaps making some calculated assumptions, and then take a leap trusting the data they’ve collected and their instincts. Let me be clear – this is very hard. I’ve had to make some very challenging life choices, such as changing my career and moving forward with a divorce. It is really hard to know whether you are making the right decision at the time that you make it.
One strategy for making the best possible choice is to ask direct and probing questions about the coaching staff’s philosophy. The NCAA shares a list of questions on its website that athletes should consider asking a coaching staff to help aid in making a good school choice. One of those questions is, “how would you best describe your coaching style?” (NCAA, n.d.a). I think this is a great starting point because it could start to reveal clues about how the coaching staff approaches player development, coaching and teaching techniques, and playing time decisions. Perhaps most importantly, a recruit can understand whether playing for a particular coaching staff may be enjoyable or feel more like work.
In a broader sense, the recruiting process, which can span multiple years, is the foundation of the coach-athlete relationship. Athletes and their families must trust that the information provided and promises made in the recruiting process will hold true over the next four to five years. In fairness, athletes must demonstrate to their coaches that they are committed to provide the level of effort to persevere and succeed in a very challenging athletic environment. As researchers Mageau and Vallerand (2003) state, “The coach-athlete relationship is one of the most important influences on athletes’ motivation and subsequent performance” (p. 884).
The coach-athlete relationship is often predicated on a coach’s motivational style. For many standout high school athletes the coaches impact on motivation may be limited because those athletes have clear and established roles on their high school team and get no shortage of positive performance feedback by virtue of their high ability level. However, when high school athletes move onto college the conditions change drastically. Once a big fish in a small pond, athletes become “average sized fish in a big pond” as Vanessa Shannon, Director of Mental Performance at the University of Louisville shared with me in an interview for The Freshman Foundation Podcast.
So what does this mean for the incoming freshman athlete? It means many significant adjustments that must be navigated in a brand new athletic environment.
First, oftentimes, most freshmen athletes are no longer stars. They are simply on par with their fellow freshman and often significantly behind more experienced teammates. Freshmen need to figure out how to find their own way without getting the same level of attention or positive feedback.
Second, the workload increases significantly in college. Freshmen athletes go from maybe 15 hours per week in high school to 20 hours on-field during their sport season plus related activities that are not counted, including but not limited to compliance meetings, training, study hall and tutoring, voluntary training without coaches, and public relations activities (NCAA, n.d.b). In essence, sport becomes a full time job.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, freshman athletes are highly likely to be playing significantly less than they were in high school. This is probably the first time in years – if ever – where an athlete may be faced with the prospect of not actually playing their sport. Not being an on-field contributor can certainly put a dent in the athlete’s confidence and reduce motivation significantly.
College coaches can’t remove these challenges for incoming freshmen athletes. College athletes have to figure out how to cope with these challenges on their own to a large extent. However, coaches’ behavior can significantly impact athletes’ motivation to remain engaged and focused on sustainable improvement so that burnout or disillusionment does not set in. Specifically, coaches have the ability to influence athletes’ perceptions about the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003). Two specific coaching behaviors that can make or break an athlete’s motivation are understanding the athlete’s specific needs and feelings (i.e., building a unique relationship) and presenting verbal feedback in a positive manner (e.g., emphasizing effort and improvement over results).
Athletes and their parents don’t have a crystal ball, so it is impossible to predict how a coach will interact with them when they arrive on campus. However, families can be more intentional and direct with the questions that they ask of coaches in the recruitment process, so that they can develop a better understanding of what to expect from a coaching staff. In my sport psychology training, I learned that asking open-ended questions is an important interviewing strategy that invites respondents to provide broad answers that allow for collecting as much relevant information as possible.
Here are three open-ended questions that you can ask college coaches to help learn more about their motivational style and player development approach:
- How would you describe the culture of your program?
- How would you describe your coaching staff’s feedback style?
- What will your relationship with me (my child) look like if they come to your school?
There are many more questions that could be asked in the recruitment process that will help assess whether a school is a fit for the athlete. The three questions posed are a good starting point, though. Ultimately, I would like the main takeaway to be that assessing a school’s fit is critical and that choosing a school simply based on name or reputation should be considered carefully.
Mageau, G.A., & Vallerand, R.J. (2003). The coach-athlete relationship: A motivation model. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 883-904.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (n.d.a). Choosing a College. Retrieved from: https://www.ncaa.org/student-athletes/future/choosing-college
National Collegiate Athletic Association (n.d.b). Defining countable athletically related activities. https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Charts.pdf