Helping student-athletes navigate recruitment amid canceled seasons

Maria Miller has dreamed of playing college soccer since 7th grade, but the Cooperstown, New York, senior is sitting on the bench this fall after her district opted out of participating in the state’s schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I was hoping to have a lot of recruiters at our soccer games; however, we have lost our soccer season to COVID, which is very upsetting,” she said. “Without games, we can’t have recruiters come watch us.”

Cooperstown soccer coach Jennifer Pindar was notified in June that her school was opting out of the state’s Section III fall sports activities. Other schools within the division are playing, making it uncertain — potentially unlikely — that her team will play at a later date. The coaches were also directed not to have any contact with athletes related to workouts or practice while the season was suspended. 

“As coaches, we can’t even be involved with the girls,” she said. “It’s hard for the seniors, but colleges are being open and accepting because it is a hard situation.”

While Pindar can’t help her team condition or practice, she is helping the girls connect with college recruiters, calling them on the students’ behalf and encouraging the girls to share her number with interested coaches.

Getting a chance to play, even at a later date, may give Cooperstown athletes a sense of closure to their high school career, but the fall sports recruitment process will already have moved forward. Survey results from Next College Student Athlete report while many college coaches expect to see a delay in recruiting for the class of 2021 and 2022, they have not stopped recruiting even though the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has suspended in-person recruiting activities.  

As a result, Pindar and other coaches in the same situation are taking new approaches to catching recruiters’ attention and fostering relationships between college coaches and student athletes.

Finding new ways to connect

Student-athletes need coaches now more than ever, according to Mick Hoffman, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. Hoffman — a former coach, teacher, middle school principal and district administrator — accepted the position this June and has worked with coaches and superintendents across the state to find ways to safely bring back sports and support students during the recruitment process.

Just like everything else these days, virtual communication through video, text messages and email have replaced in-person meetings. Hoffman has talked with many coaches who are helping athletes curate videos and distribute them to college coaches around the country.

“All modes of communication are going to be important to get attention,” he said. “College coaches are getting inundated with video because of today’s technology, so the high school coaches have to expand their network to get the college coach’s ear.”

Hoffman encourages coaches to expand their online network and take advantage of virtual professional development opportunities and free resources like the Washington State Secondary Athletic Administrators Association online toolbox to make connections.

Dan Doyle, recruiting coach manager for Next College Student Athlete, said coaches adapted quickly and came up with creative ways to create connections with prospective players. For example, one scheduled FaceTime games of PIG or HORSE to connect on a personal level while having a chance to see a player’s skills.

“Other coaches walked around campus during Zoom meetings to give a virtual tour,” Doyle said. “One coach scheduled a drive-through. The coach and a recruit were on the phone but in separate cars and drove around the campus so the coach could explain different parts of the campus.”

As coaches shift to digital recruitment strategies, coaches who encourage athletes to sign-on with services like NCSA, increase a student’s chances for being seen. Between March and July 2020, NCSA reported a 17% increase in the use of recruiting profiles.

Home videos fill game-day footage void

The spring sports season ended abruptly at a key time for coaches making the final push to get students on campus and iron out financial aid packages. In-person performances and red carpet recruitment events were also immediately curtailed. 

Doyle has seen coaches and athletes relying on less-formal videos over in-person observation. As a basketball recruiting expert, he has seen a significant increase in outdoor footage.

“We are hearing from a lot of seniors that they had to video runs at home or use runs from previous events, and that it was mostly a virtual process this year,” said Gary Hawkes, the digital media and communications coordinator for the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA). The NHSRA circuit awards $2 million in annual scholarships, and unlike many sports, it was able to hold its national championship event in July. 

“Horseback riding is one sport that is naturally socially distanced, with riders competing one at a time, so it was pretty easy for kids to follow the rules and regulations and because there is not contact between bodies,” Hawkes said. “The National Finals Rodeo always invites colleges in and because it was outdoors we were able to have many coaches come and see the student’s performances.” 

Sports not directly affiliated with schools are proving to be a key strategy for coaches to help student athletes maintain their profiles. Miller, like many high school athletes, also participated in travel teams. She plays on a competitive U19 team that often competes in tournaments against AA schools.

“It gives me an opportunity to play alongside girls who are in college and playing for college teams, so it increases my visibility to coaches,” Miller said.

Coaches maintain moral support

High school coaches have always been integral in helping student-athletes connect with recruiters, and that is even more imperative this year.

One part of the pandemic not being considered too closely is the mental health aspect, according to Joe Paddock, assistant executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Fall sports are up and running in much of the state, with individual sports like golf, cross country, swimming and diving, and badminton competing for several weeks. The first high school football games were played the week of Sept. 28.

“When young adults are used to being out with friends [and] socializing together and they can’t, I believe it has a really negative impact on their lives,” he said. “It’s no surprise that we’ve heard from students and parents that they are thankful to see their friends and to be back working out with their teams and back to competition.”

Flexibility increases in college recruitment

In an April press release, NCAA Vice President Felicia Martin said, “We understand this is an unprecedented situation and a difficult time for students and their parents, and the Eligibility Center is working diligently to ensure the best possible outcome for college-bound student-athletes and our member schools. The Eligibility Center is navigating the complexity of COVID-19 and its negative impact on our membership, high schools and student-athletes.” 

Doyle is encouraging recruits to stay ready, continue training and focus on personal improvement. Those who dedicate a lot of time to themselves to continue training will become stronger athletes to be ready when sports return to full schedules.

“With the NCAA still debating on what the season looks like and how many games will be played, some schools may grant a fifth year to players, and that recruiting may not be as deep as it was in the past,” he said. “Just like any season, there’s going to be attrition, injury and some college athletes who lose their passion, so coaches will still be recruiting.

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