Alan Versaw, one of the best coaches in the state of Colorado (his Classical Academy girls qualified for NXN in 2008) and the editor of CO.Milesplit.us, put together a list of questions for the seniors on his team to ask in the college recruiting process. He asked if I’d comment on the questions, which I was happy to do, and the result is the following post. Alan and I did a series on the college recruiting process this winter that you might be interested in as well.
Asking the Right Questions, Part I
Almost every recruited high school athlete wonders at some point what they’ll talk about when a college coach calls or when they visit a program they’re interested in. Things almost always go better when you prepare for the call or for the visit, but how do you prepare?
Let’s break this down a little into topics. Almost every athlete wants to know what the training experience will be like when they go to college. Almost every athlete wants some little window of insight into what coaching staff will be like when he/she gets there, “Will the college coach be like my high school coach or very different?” And, almost every athlete wonders about the pecking order and social aspects of the college team, “Will this be a good fit or will it be four years of struggle?”
What we’ve endeavored to create here is a quick guide to asking at least some of the right questions in the recruiting process. We’ve divided this article into questions touching on each of the three concerns outlined above.
With each question, we provide a context for asking the question. That is, is it a question best posed to the coach of the college team, the members of the college team (presumably while on an on-campus visit), or is it a question equally valid to ask in both contexts? Following the question, we provide some comments about the question itself–sometimes an apologetic for why the question is a good question, sometimes a rationale why this question is better than a similar question, and sometimes some cautions to observe when raising the question.
All questions assume a cross country/track and field setting. Since most athletes reading this at this time are cross country runners, we’ll work almost exclusively from that mindset, but the transitions into other track and field disciplines will often be fairly transparent.
With that as background, let’s move forward into the first group of questions, those about the training experience. Later installments of this article will explore the two remaining categories of questions.
What will the training experience be like when I go to college?
Question #1: What are the surfaces like that I’ll be doing most of my training on?
Who to ask: Both coaches and current athletes
Alan comments: It’s worth knowing what surfaces you’ll be training on, particularly if you don’t go into college as a high-mileage runner. The combination of sharply increased volume and hard surfaces can be a recipe for stress fractures and other lower leg injuries. Expect, in most cases, to find out that some of training will take place on the track, but listen closely to where the other training occurs.
Jay comments: Good warm-up question…and one that I was always surprised wasn’t asked more often.
Question #2: What will a typical week of training in the middle of the cross country season look like for me as a freshman? As a junior?
Who to ask: Both coaches and current athletes
Alan comments: This question shows a whole lot more depth of interest in and understanding of training that the old standby of “How much mileage will I be doing?” Accumulated miles only have meaning in the context of an overall training plan. This question gives you a fighting chance to have some sort of idea of what the overall plan might look like.
Jay comments: Great question…and if they can’t print you a document or show you a document on their desk, then it begs the question, “Do they plan training or just throw it together each year?”
Question #3: How do you determine what an athlete’s progression of training volume will be?
Who to ask: Coaches and, to a limited extent, older athletes
Alan comments: Like the first question, this adds some sophistication to the tried and tired “How many miles will I be running?” Be warned that the tried and tired version tends to betray a certain fearfulness of or preoccupation with training volume. Given the choice, I think question #1 is better than question #3.
Jay comments: Great question, yet don’t be surprised or annoyed if the coach responds with “It depends.” In a good program, it will depend and a coach who is truly individualizing the training can’t tell you as a HS senior what volume you’ll be in cross as a college junior. That said, the coach should be able to to give concrete examples of current athletes…and if the coach can recall the volumes those athletes did in HS that’s a good sign that they truly do focus on individualizing training.
Question #4: Do student-athletes ever have class conflicts with practice time and what do you and I do in those cases?
Who to ask: Both coaches and athletes
Alan comments: Make certain in asking the question that you communicate the idea that you understand much of the responsibility falls on your own shoulders. You probably climb a notch or two in the coach’s estimation if you can communicate the personal responsibility necessary to handle the situation without suggesting you plan to use that personal responsibility every semester. Some conflicts are unavoidable; most conflicts can, and should, be avoided.
Jay comments: Important question, yet no parent I ever encountered ever asked for the answer in writing, though at CU they never would have needed to as class truly did come first. But again, no one is going to tell you, “After a year in this program you’ll be so focused on your passion to run faster that you’ll decide not to take the Native American Religious Traditions class offered at 2:00 pm, ignoring your current passion for Native American religious traditions.” As a former DI athlete at large state institution I can attest to the fact that getting your “ideal” schedule as an athlete is rare, even though 90% of athletic departments have a mechanism allowing students to sign up earlier than the general undergraduate population. My point is this – you will choose a class schedule that fits your practice schedule; this can be done while meeting the requirements of your major, yet it will likely not allow you to take all of the elective classes you’re interested in.
Question #5: What factors do you consider in making an initial determination of what track events I’ll be training for?
Who to ask: Coaches
Alan comments: Let’s face it, you want some idea how the coach is going to plug you in. Perhaps more importantly, the answer will also probably reveal something of the personality of the coach if you learn to read between the lines of the answer.
Jay comments: Interesting question, especially if the coach you’re talking to has had success with athletes running the steeplechase. It’s a great question, but again, a great answer from a coach who would care about you and help you reach your genetic potential may be “I won’t know until we’ve worked together for a while” or “It depends on….” As a former college coach, I can now see that at least two athletes I worked with who I thought should be 1,500m specialists should have been 800m specialists. Most everyone would have agreed with the idea that we needed to “move ‘em up” in distance, yet in retrospect I think they could have run at a competitive level at the 800m distance. My point is that no coach who can help you run fast will be able to answer with certainty that your best event in college will be _____ . That said, this is a great question and the answer the coach gives you will be a window into how they coach and how they work with athletes to help them reach their genetic potential.