Article Provided by: The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA)
Article by: Alan Wilds, Cool Cats President and 14U Coach
I can only imagine what it must be like to be a high school junior or senior softball player these days. Navigating the rugged terrain of the college recruitment trail can be an overwhelming and confusing experience. The fact some kids are being recruited in some way, shape or form as early as the middle school years only makes things more confusing.
Recruiting is a hot topic on several fronts. All you have to do is read the January issue of Fastpitch Delivery to see just how hot it is. Most all of the Softball Summit comments and notes dealt with recruiting issues, suggestions, problems and challenges.
My purpose here is not to debate when an athlete should be recruited, whether or not early verbal commitments should be allowed or whether middle school players should be invited to college combines. Those topics are certainly worthy of their own discussions. Rather, I would like to focus on what the general role of the travel ball coach should (or shouldn’t) be when it comes to getting our players recruited.
If you are a travel ball coach, hopefully your players, and their parents, will come to you for help when they embark on this adventure. But what exactly are we supposed to do, and how can we advise our players to get started? As travel ball coaches, our tasks are (and hopefully have been all along) to teach, provide opportunities, mentor and guide our young athletes. I would strongly suggest these things apply to recruiting as well.
I’m sure there are coaches out there that prefer the “front and center” approach with college coaches when their players are being recruited. While that approach may have some merit, I’m pitching the idea that we simply use our coaching instincts and apply them to recruiting.
Instead of “I got my player a scholarship at XYZ University,” how about, “I encouraged my player to take a look at several schools where she could align her softball goals with what she was looking for both academically and socially.” This makes it much more about the player, as it should be, in my opinion. You guide and they decide. Facilitate, but don’t dominate.
With those hopefully nifty little catch phrases in your back pocket, here are a few ideas for the travel ball coach to keep in mind. This is by no means all-inclusive, but it should help you get the softball rolling.
Be an educated resource: I recently had the pleasure of listening to a presentation on recruiting from University of South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith and the “be a resource” idea she expanded on really stuck with me. It’s all about preparing your program and getting yourself familiar with all options available to players. This means Division I to junior colleges and everything in between.
Learn the recruiting rules of each, as they are quite different. There are restrictions in place on communication via email, phone calls, official and unofficial visits, and you must be familiar with the nuances of each division’s rules.
Next, talk to your players; find out what they want first. Get to know your players beyond the softball field. You have to know their academic interests and what their goals are for college. Parents can help here too, but be sure you keep an open door policy with your players. Understanding your player’s goals will help you in guiding them in the right direction. Many a player has been recruited and later committed to a college only to find out a year later they made an extremely poor choice. Don’t let this happen to your players.
Get your players involved: This may seem obvious, but travel ball coaches really need to encourage their players to drive the process. By doing this, the player not only is helping herself but she is also helping her coach narrow the focus on what schools and programs will and won’t work. They are also working on self-advocacy, which is a skill that will benefit them long after softball is over.
Tracy Dean, the head softball coach at Stephens College, suggests the process should begin with players writing down and researching, on their own, the top 10 schools they are interested in. And they need to take a deep dive into campus life, urban versus rural setting, class sizes and extracurricular activities.
Help your players understand as early as possible they will likely get recruited first and foremost for academics, so if a school does not have a curriculum they are interested in pursuing, it is most likely not a good fit.
When it’s game day and college coaches are there, be sure your players understand their role and that is simply to play ball to the best of their ability. Jaci Schuyler, a former player at the University of Missouri-Columbia and University of Missouri-Kansas City, agrees it is very important your players understand this. It was one of the primary ways, she says, her travel ball coach helped her get recruited by Division I programs. After all, if a player is on the field thinking about what college coaches are in the stands, there is no way that player is prepared, involved or on her top game.
Encourage campus visits and college camp participation: Campus visits help in several ways. A player may be able to rule out (or rule in) a college simply by visiting the campus.
These visits may, or may not, include a meeting with the coaching staff. But they most definitely should include a visit to the admissions office and visits to academic departments your player is interested in.
Don’t forget about financial aid, too. Have your players and parents come back with as much information as possible about what kind of financial aid may be available to them. Remember, the odds of getting a full ride scholarship for softball are not in your player’s favor, so these things must be taken into consideration. And it’s another way your players can begin to narrow their focus.
Attending college-sponsored softball camps or clinics are also a great way to get additional exposure for your players. There are two benefits here, as your player gets to know a program early and coaches get to see players they may be interested in recruiting to their team. The earlier your players can start getting some name recognition with coaches the better.
Plan exposure tournaments carefully: A word of caution here. It seems like just about anyone can now throw together a tournament under the guise of “College Exposure” or “Showcase.” Do your homework when selecting these tournaments. Call the tournament director for a list of colleges attending. Then, contact as many of those coaches as you can to be sure they will be there.
Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon to see colleges listed on a tournament website that have not been confirmed to attend. Don’t be shy about inviting college coaches to these tournaments yourself, either, especially if it’s a school one of your players is pursuing.
Another helpful tip from Smith is to hand out a simple one-page team sheet at these tournaments with your players’ profiles and avoid the stacks of paper and big notebooks. College coaches attending exposure tournaments simply do not have time to leaf through volumes of information nor do they want to carry around a stack of notebooks all weekend. This makes your job easier, too, as it takes very little time to put together something like this.
Stats and video ready at all times: As a travel ball coach, you are the keeper of the stats, and college coaches expect these to be kept current and available in an easy-to-read format. As for the videos, they do not have to be professional. YouTube works great.
However, do be sure you have a video for each player ready by the time they are ready to start contacting schools. If a player contacts a school and does not have a video ready upon request, they will likely get shuffled down on the recruiting list. Keep videos short. Dean recommends no longer than five minutes. Be sure you edit out any down time and keep the player in “hustle mode” throughout.
The video should move quickly and show skills only. At the end of the video, provide the student and parent contact information, and any awards — athletic and academic — they have earned.
Be an advocate: This may be the most important one of all. Communication is definitely the key here.
Stay in touch weekly with colleges your players are targeting. Send frequent updates on achievements, academic performance and school awards. Email and texting works just fine here. When attending exposure tournaments, delegate the on-field coaching to your assistants so you are free to sit in the stands and talk with college coaches. This is another useful tip from Dean and definitely something travel ball coaches can do to separate their program from others.
When having these discussions, be honest. This is sometimes hard for travel ball coaches to do, but a college coach is interested in all angles, not just a sales pitch. This builds trust between a travel ball club and a college coach.
Mike Manderino, the head coach at Pratt County Community College says it’s extremely important that college coaches develop that level of trust when it comes to travel ball coaches and how they evaluate, and report on, their own players. So, bottom line, tell it like it is. Every player, no matter how skilled, has strengths and weaknesses and a travel ball coach must be comfortable discussing both when advocating for their players.
Players agree. Lizzie Aller, a former high school standout at Lee’s Summit North in the Kansas City area, says she would not have received her scholarship to Fort Scott Community College if not for her travel ball coach staying in contact with her schools of interest, keeping them updated on how she was doing in school and on the field, and making sure college coaches attended her games.
Perhaps forgotten in all this advice is getting your players to enjoy the ride in as many ways as possible. They have worked very hard to even get to the point where recruiting is on the table. They need to take it seriously, but encourage them to have some fun along the way. This may even help them.
Smith has some great examples of players that have done some very fun and unique things to get them noticed and remembered. She will be the first to tell you that finding skilled players for her program is really the easy part. It’s the hard work in the classroom, the leadership skills, hustle, attitude and creativity that creates the separation.
In closing, embrace the challenge of recruiting and embrace your role as a travel ball coach. Be willing to adapt to rapid change and understand where your role should start and stop. It’s important to not lose sight of the opportunity you have before you to make a lasting impact on your athletes.
Lastly, while you are doing all that guiding and deciding, don’t forget to have a little fun yourself, coaches.