Recruiting Questions: Part 1

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.

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  • http://www.sou.edu/ Travis Floeck

    A rambling response from an inexperienced coach at a small college:

    My background for anyone reading is that I was the head cross country coach and an assistant track coach at Lane Community College in Eugene, OR for just two years and just recently took at position as the “Associate Head Coach of Cross Country and Track and Field” (fancy way of saying head assistant) at Southern Oregon University.

    Recruiting is the hardest and possibly most time consuming aspect of coaching I have discovered. It is a roller coaster ride in terms of the ups and downs that come when a coach's success is dependent on the decisions of 17 and 18 year old athletes. I've had athletes break my heart and I've already had athletes surprise me and make me extremely happy. It's difficult to go through the process and I'm learning more and more to try to take emotions out of the equation. This past year I would spend a night on the phone and be so frustrated and down, because it seemed like no one was expressing the interest I felt they should. There would be other nights I was dancing around my apartment on the phone, because athletes were committing left and right. That probably needs to change, but I'm passionate about what I do.

    I love questions in the recruiting process, most of the time I'm asking the recruit more times than I should and possibly annoying them, “do you have any questions?!”.

    That is probably the biggest mistake I feel athletes make is that they simply do not ask enough questions and they don't ask the right ones.

    It's difficult sometimes as a coach to give answers to a question like number three, “what will the athletes progression of training volume will be?”. Jay pointed out that this is difficult, because it would be like trying to predict the future. However, I would still absolutely love if an athlete were to ask me this question, because it gives me an opportunity to show an athlete how smart I think I am, or well ha at least allow me to talk intelligently about how we would go about increasing their volume and yes, show examples of progression athletes I have coached have taken.

    Question #2 is a MUST ask question. A coach must be able to show you what their PLAN is. You must have a plan. I know there are coaches at the college level that are doing as Jay said and “guessing” This last year if the recruit wished, I would hand them a copy of all the workouts we did during the 2008 cross country season. I made one home visit last year, which was my first ever. I simply did not have the time to conduct many home visits unfortunately without a staff of GA's and assistants to assist with well…everything. Anyway at this home visit I brought workouts plans, guidelines, basically a general structure of what my athletes were doing at the time. Unfortunately, that athlete decided not to attend Lane, where I was coaching at the time. He ended up going to a prominent division one school, BUT I would never hesitate to do that every time I felt an athlete wanted to see what we do. I would hope they all would.

    The other questions in this first part are fantastic as well and I don't think an athlete could ask enough questions. I want this to repeat this again: COACHES should like recruits asking questions. It gives us an opportunity to talk about what we love and we want the athletes to know what they're getting into. Having an athlete show up, be unhappy, and in general not buy into what the team is doing can wreck the chemistry and no coach wants that to happen. That is why I have the philosophy of giving recruits all the information they want.

    I know this is very long, but there are two areas I wanted to touch on before signing off. I feel another important question is: “How much will you tailor the training to my individual needs?”

    This is so important, because there are simply programs out there that will not take the time to DEVELOP kids in my humble opinion. There are programs at the college level that will throw everyone into a system and hope that the 7-8 guys who emerge will kick some ass. An athlete needs to know what type of program they're getting into.

    Every year I hear stories about athletes that ran 30 miles a week in high school, did not ask enough questions throughout the year and were expected to run a minimum of 60-70 miles a week their first fall of college. A majority of them end up getting hurt or running awful. THIS HAPPENS EVERY YEAR.

    Coaches believe different things. I know some coaches that have the opinion athletes must be training at a certain volume to be able to be successful at certain levels. Therefore they will “give the athlete a chance” or “see what happens”, etc. There are also aspects of training intensities or other forms of stress that athletes might not be ready for that they encountering potentially too much early.

    I personally believe that if a kid was successful off of 30 miles a week that the best interest of the athlete and the team is to DEVELOP that athlete. He kicked ass off of 30 mpw, so I would like to “take the next logical step” and start him off by running ha well probably 30-35-40 mpw ranges with the goal of maybe steadily increasing his mileage by 10 mpw per year for example. I have no formula for this, it is about how the individual athlete adapts to training. He may only get to 60 mpw as a senior, but he is running, potentially really well and he will have not quit after three stress fractures in three seasons. Maybe his volume will be higher than that. It's always a crapshoot, but I think evaluating where each athlete is coming from and what works best for him or her is always the way to go. Not all coaches will do this, find that out! I again coach at a small college, but we will have 37 cross-country athletes this fall.

    The last point is RESEARCH kids. Look at how athletes have done at these schools, talk to athletes on the team, look and see how competitive this team is in its conference, its region, nationally. Just don't research athletics either, that is only one piece. An athlete must be comfortable with the school and environment they are living in. I have a good friend who went to Florida for college back in the 80's. He had to transfer to Lane in Eugene after one year, because he “melted”. Maybe you'd love that, but would freeze in Colorado. Just think about these things, VISIT the campus, look into what you might want to study and find out if you in fact have an idea what that plan requires.

    This last year I was recruiting an athlete that wanted to be a veterinarian for example. She had determined that she needed to attend a school with an incredible vet school and was willing to pass on potential scholarship money because of this. I got on the phone and had conversations with deans of veterinary programs at the Universities she was interested in to determine what her options were. Of course, these were all graduate programs and her options for undergrad were very plentiful. I called the athlete back and I educated her on what steps she needed to take. What the people who would eventually determine her acceptance into these programs felt were most valuable as far as education and experience. She had simply not done the research.

    Do the research, ask the tough questions, visit the school, take your time, and don't stress. You can always transfer!

    Travis Floeck
    Associate Head Cross County and Track and Field coach
    Southern Oregon University
    http://www.sou.edu

  • run800met

    I wish more high school coaches would have something like this ready for their athletes. I feel to many kids go into the process blind or think it should be like the movies or big time football/basketball recruiting. This is a great post….

  • http://coachjayjohnson.com CoachJay

    Interesting that the first two comments are from the college coaches, both wanting recruits to ask questions.

    I look forward to sharing the rest of Alan's questions and my feedback in the coming days.

  • Rhymenocerous

    Travis makes an excellent point regarding a coach's interest in developing athletes vs. making sausage and putting it in a singlet. I think it translates into the larger issue of – I'm going to be blunt here, but I think we're all adults, and I'm more than happy to edit – does the coach care about tacking pages onto his CV or does the coach give a shit about his athletes? And not just the ones who are running well and earning the coach nice bonuses for winning conference. In many cases good HS athletes, certainly ones who get hold of this blog and are advised to ask educated questions on recruiting trips, have HS coaches who, though perhaps not technically perfect, are engaged and have a genuine concern for their well-being inside and outside of practice. I've seen plenty of kids go from having a good relationship with their HS coach to being essentially ignored in college as soon as they get hurt or a new colt comes in. This of course makes no sense to a young thinclad as it was only a few months ago the coach was burying the kid with letters, phone calls, and home visits telling them how excited everyone down at U of X would be if they were to join the team.
    A good opportunity to ask this type of question is on a run with the lads. If I get hurt, am I going to cease to exist? If my main goal in life is to become a colorectal surgeon and I want to redshirt the spring of my junior year while I prep for the MCAT, will I be persona non regatta (not allowed to sail) at practice? Perhaps an even better resource, if the HS athlete/coach can track them down, is alumni. Sometimes even the most cynical of 5th-year seniors can still be brainwashed true believers compared to a guy who's been out for a couple years and has developed some perspective. Those are the guys you want to talk to if you want to know if it's about developing athletes or filling up the coach's desk drawer with rings, no matter the body count.

  • donfout

    Agree.
    What about anything on running with the team as of now?