“Hey coach, can you call or email this college coach for me?” As the old saying goes, if I had a dollar for every time a player asked me that question, I would be a very wealthy man. In my 12-year soccer coaching career, that is the one question I have encountered the most.
It is a question with an answer that varies based on the unique goals and commitment level of the individual player. From my experience, the ones that have succeeded in playing at the next level have an unwillingness to accept “no” for an answer when faced with rejection or adversity. The recruitment process is strenuous, especially considering these young athletes are still teenagers making life-altering decisions concerning where they want to live, study and play soccer.
Utilizing the knowledge bank of my college coaching contacts and my own insights, I set out to answer the following questions: How has the process changed in recent years? Why is there a high transfer rate amongst Division 1 soccer athletes? What are the key traits they look for when recruiting?
Marty Everding, Assistant Coach, Nebraska Women’s Soccer. Marty is a 21-year veteran in the recruitment process. His responses to the questions above follow:
Around 5 or 6 years ago John, Nebraska’s head coach, found himself dealing with multiple transfers and situations where players committed and then uncommitted. At that point, we started to look deeper into our recruitment process and had the revelation that we were making decisions on kids who were closer to childhood than adulthood. We were empathetic to the fact that these players had laid down roots in their present communities and when the time came to leave home, it was extremely hard for some to uproot and change everything.
Sometimes there are uncontrollable forces that influence a player’s decision to decommit or transfer. As an example, one of our talented recruits was playing for Dallas Sting when her mom died from cancer halfway through the season. Afterwards, her interest in the sport understandably waned. We are essentially trying to pull the trigger on kids in grade 10 or 11 without knowing what the future holds in their personal lives.
Since we made changes to our approach, we have seen fewer transfers.
At our level, we are looking for players who are difference makers in the 2nd or 3rd best conference in the country. As coaches going through the recruitment process, I describe ourselves as ‘’gold miners’’. You see a bit of gold flash when you watch a player do something special and you hear Texas A&M, Northwestern and Baylor are interested in her. You feel like your hand is forced and you have to make a move on that player.
How would you go through a marriage process? What would you do after the first date? Would you propose? No, you wouldn’t. You would go on multiple dates and do your due diligence before committing. It’s essentially the same scenario regarding recruitment.
With our recruitment process, we strive to be comprehensive and look beyond the obvious. It’s those second-tier, diamond-in-the-rough players we try to uncover. We can get a Mallory Pugh or a standout player any day.
We have had 5 kids go to the NWSL in the last 5 years. None of them were standouts when they first came to our program. Take Jaycie Johnson, for instance. She was 2nd team all-conference, but still wasn’t regarded as the top attacking midfielder or forward. But, last year, she was the 27th overall pick in the NWSL draft and is currently with the Seattle Reign.
If you can look inside the heart of a player, their personality and what makes them tick, you can then see the developmental trajectory and map that out. We up our odds for success when we wait a little longer to make a decision on a player.
The American player tends to be technically inefficient and tactically dull because they don’t watch the game enough or because they can’t imagine what’s possible. The key factor in what makes or breaks them is the desire to really develop. We have 5 kids who are on the U20 national team and that didn’t happen by accident or overnight.
I have players who say they will do whatever it takes but generally, that’s a lie. Are you going to do weights in the offseason? Side volleys in the backyard? Sprints during your summer vacation? Get to know us as coaches and the Nebraska soccer program? We look for signs of mastery in potential recruits and whether they are investing time in their own development when no one is watching.
Obviously, the downside of waiting to pull the trigger on these kids until their junior and senior year is we lose players. As we bring kids in for visits, we’re competing with the program down the road. And some players and parents change their mind and instantly commit to other programs when they see the dollar signs that the competition is offering.
Ajay: What are your thoughts on lack of honest feedback to players from ID camps? I’ve had many players attend after receiving a coach’s invitation, but then there’s no response from the coach to follow-up emails or calls.
Marty: We run our own ID camps and tend not to go to other local ID camps, but we have 3 local clubs in the area where the relationship is solid.
ID camps are helpful for us as we get to see the player in our environment and we can change the scenario based on what we’re hoping to see from them. We invite players that have an interest in our program or we may be interested in seeing play in close quarters. We cap it at 80 players, which equates to 6 teams of 13 players that rotate through 3-4 stations encompassing the technical and tactical aspects of the game.
You want to see them on a big field as that’s where the big athletes and players shine. We are looking for the ones that can ping balls and make great decisions in high-pressure situations, whilst having a good soccer and tactical IQ. In the game scenario, we’re also looking at whether they can ping a 40-yard ball into the opposition’s right back? Is their body strong enough? Can they execute a pass on the side volley and half volley?
In defense of my fellow coaches who do not follow up, it can be difficult to give feedback on 80 kids over a 2-day camp when a majority of players that attend ID camps are vanilla. With that said, we strive to give honest individualized feedback via a follow-up letter attached to a standard email thanking them for their attendance. We are cognizant of the fact these kids and their parents have invested time, paid a lot of money and traveled a long way to be there.
Lauren Sinacola, Assistant Women’s Soccer Coach, University of Notre Dame. Lauren is a former Division I collegiate player, a four-year starter at Michigan State and former head coach at Western Michigan University. The following is the output of several conversations regarding the current state of recruitment and her points of view prior to her recently joining Notre Dame’s coaching staff.
We conduct recruitment on the timeline of the student-athlete because we want to be confident in the kind of individual we are bringing into our program. We also want to know they are committing for the right reason and not because they are afraid to lose out on money, we’ve pressured with a deadline or because they are coerced.
Women’s soccer currently has the highest transfer rate in collegiate American sports. At Western over the last 5 years, we’ve had only one player transfer schools for soccer-specific reasons. The girls who have stopped playing soccer altogether have remained at Western. I believe this is a reflection on how we recruit – making sure the player feels comfortable in making a decision on their own timeframe and helping them to feel comfortable when they do that.
As a side affect of waiting longer to recruit, we obviously do miss out on top players. On the flipside, we sometimes pick up players we wouldn’t have been able to recruit initially because they appreciate the patient approach. Overall it all balances out in the end. I believe there are always players out there, you just have to find them just like the players have to find the school that still has roster space and is best suited for them.
The benefit of our approach is we build a strong relationship with the recruits so by the time they start playing for us, there is a good foundation of trust and loyalty.
Tips and Scenarios for Standing Out
• Make contact with schools and coaches prior to showcase events with your information: where you’re playing, jersey number, etc.
• If you have a highlight tape, include it in your email so the coach knows your worth coming to watch.
• When a coach comes to watch, do what you do well and be the best at it. Don’t go out of your realm because coaches can see when you’re trying to do something that doesn’t come naturally and that leaves a poor impression. If you’re a player that’s really good in the air, make sure you’re dominant in the air with every opportunity. If you’re a player that’s a possession strength player, then make sure you’re connecting 95% of your passes. As a coach, I’m looking for players that can add something to my team that I don’t already have.
• Regarding emails to coaches. Generally, if a coach hasn’t reached back out to you after you’ve made several communication attempts, or your club coach hasn’t been contacted, then they probably aren’t interested.
Ajay: I want to segue into discussing ID camps and get your thoughts on the lack of honest feedback to players from ID camps? I’ve had many players attend after receiving a coach’s invitation who receive positive feedback during the camp, but then there’s no response from the coach to follow-up emails or calls. I am also regularly asked by parents about ID camps and if they are money grabbing tools, as there are typically 7 to 8 coaches from various schools there with the player hardly getting seen by the head coach of the school they are interested in?
Lauren: Every school does ID camps for many different reasons. There are schools that do it as a way to make money for their operating budget. And I’ll be honest, our camp fees help fund our operating budget. However, we do our best to get as many coaches there as possible to make it a good experience for the players. In the end, we do want to ID the best kids from our camps and we want other schools in attendance, so they can do the same. I know Ferris and Grand Valley are Division 2 and 3 schools that come to our camp every year and recruit players.
My advice would be when you receive a camp email from a school that’s known for having a large amount of staff there, connect with the coach and inquires on the camp’s setup. Do they have an actual interest in you or is it a blanket email from their database? The response you get from those questions will determine your next move and also build some equity with the coach. Some coaches will flat out be dishonest and tell you they are interested, but that only shows you the character of the coach. We tell our staff to be honest and a lot of the time when we invite kids, it’s because we are actually interested.
I personally do believe in ID camps as they give the kids the opportunity to work with the staff of the schools. I also understand the hesitancy as it’s a large chunk of money, but if you do your homework and feel like it’s a good environment for you, ID camps can be a helpful part of the decision-making process.
Regarding post-ID-camp feedback, I can tell you how we work and what we do but can’t necessarily speak for other schools. The day after an ID camp, we go over the kids we like and identify a time to watch them play again. As far as the players we are questioning, we usually connect with their club coach in search of insight. We do our best to connect with everyone in order to give honest feedback.
It’s my hope that by asking successful coaches the right questions to gain their insights, I can help players looking to play at the collegiate level navigate that process.
Ajay Nwosu is currently the head coach of NSA’s U19 high school girls and U23 women’s team, as well as being a USSF and NSCAA licensed coach and assistant coach for the IL ODP 2001 girls team.
photo: courtesy of cw via flickr