Two Ways to Approach Your Prospect's Growing Desire to Commit Early

The COVID trend that saw recruits wanting to decide early is continuing...

The trend we saw developing during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020 is continuing. And that’s surprising a lot of coaches, especially since one year later we’re seeing signs that things could be returning back to normal from a youth, club and high school sports perspective (as well as more normalcy when it comes to campus visits around the country).

Simply put, a majority of recruits are making final decisions on where they’ll commit for their college sports careers earlier than they did back before the pandemic and the lockdowns. Each of those things that happened kind of ‘kicked the anthill’, so to speak…they caused anxiousness, confusion, and a rush to secure what they could when it came to their college sports career they been dreaming about and working so hard to achieve.

And, it’s continued into a new recruiting cycle: Primarily because 1) uncertainty about the future remains in today’s athletic world related to COVID, and 2) the overall recruiting trend this past decade has been edging earlier and earlier. Most student-athletes want to know where they’ll be going to college and competing in their sport sooner rather than later.

One problem on your side of this process as a coach, of course, is that your process isn’t always set up for early decisions: Either your school doesn’t get it’s admissions and award packages out soon enough, or you’re offering a full ride scholarship and need more time to evaluate the prospect’s development as a student-athlete, or a combination of the two.

With that scenario in mind - and fully acknowledging that there are always exceptions to the rule, and some recruits will drag it all out as long as they can - here are two ways you can approach this, as a college recruiter:

Accelerate your recruiting to match this new timeline

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”.

Or as Ricky Bobby would say

Coaches who make the decision to do this sacrifice something that they need to decide whether or not they’re really willing to give up: Time.

More time to get to know the athlete, more time to sell them on your campus, more time to evaluate their skills…all of those things fall by the wayside when an earlier commitment is asked for by you, and made by the prospect. The other thing that could suffer is your recruiting list: If a prospect says ‘no’, many coaches feel like they may have rushed the process and ruined the chance to get a good recruit. (Note: Our research doesn’t reveal those worries, but it’s front and center in the mind of many coaches).

Regardless, if you want to take this approach in response to the internal desire of your prospects to speed-up the decision making, there are important things to make it all happen successfully:

  • Ask your prospect when they want to make their final decision, or establish your timeline for what the latest point will be for them to make their final decision. One or the other has to happen, unless you’re a fan of disappointment, surprises, and betrayal (fun if you watch shows like “The Bachelor” from what I hear, but not so fun if you’re trying to build a college program).

  • Agree on the timeline with your prospect for when their final decision will be made. A verbal handshake is essential, we find…it isn’t a decision etched in stone, but if they are tempted to change their mind it is somewhat harder after giving you their word.

  • Develop a ranked priority list, and ask them to commit early in that ranked order. If you’re going to get a ‘no’ or a ‘can’t decide yet’, you want to know who those prospects are. Likewise, if a prospect is ready to say ‘yes!’ early then getting that affirmative confirmation from the recruits most highly ranked is preferred, obviously.

  • Be comfortable with potentially not scouting and evaluating them as long as you have in the past. That goes with the territory of a shorter timeline, and you need to be comfortable with it as a college coach jumping onto the earlier decision and timeline trend.

Work to decelerate their internal push to decide early

If you aren’t going to jump aboard the runaway commitment train, then you’re going to have to slow it down. And if you know anything about slowing down a train, it takes a long time and involves intentional effort. There is momentum working against you in both instances, but it can end up working.

There are a lot of reasons you might want to slow the process down, all of which aren’t necessarily important to this discussion…your reasons are your reasons. If that’s the case, here are the things we view as the essentials to go over with your prospect.

  • Like the above scenario, ask your prospect when they want to make their final decision. You need to establish the baseline date for the discussion you’re having with them.

  • Let them know that you have a different timeline in mind for when you will be ready to decide, and ask them if they feel they can wait until that date.

  • It’s vitally important to them that you explain the advantages to waiting, as you see them, for your specific situation. It could be financial, it could be sport related, but the most important thing is to make the case as to why they shouldn’t decide early, and why it specifically benefits them to do so.

  • Let them know that you aren’t going to be ‘one of those coaches’ who pressures or asks them to commit before they’re really ready. We want to ‘negative recruit’ not against a particular coach or school, but against an idea. They need to understand your reasons for making this suggestion if we’re looking for them to change their mind.

Each approach involves a strategy, and each can work when that strategy is used. One thing that doesn’t usually work? Not doing anything, not approaching the topic with recruits, and hoping it all just works out somehow.

Because so much has changed in the way recruits make their decision, and when, it’s imperative to guide and direct that decision as you build your program, regardless of which strategy you’re in favor of with a particular recruit.

'The Goldilocks Fallacy" and College Recruiting

Why being something for everyone is working less and less with prospects today

Marketing guru Seth Godin inadvertently zeroes-in on a problem I’ve seen for decades now in the college market (if you want to call higher education a ‘market’…which you should, because people have to purchase it to gain access to it).

My comments along the way are in bold. Tell me if you agree or not:

“One way to tell if the audience is happy is to ask a simple question: “Do you want it spicier?” (or the equivalent).

If half the people want it to go in one direction and the other half want the other, then you know you’re at ‘just right’. You’ve minimized the number of unhappy customers.

And that seems to be the goal of most colleges: Offer something or everyone, appeal to as many as possible, and carve out their place in a very crowded middle of the market. The aim, to Godin’s point, is to end up at ‘just right’ (hence, the Goldilocks reference

Here’s the problem: This assumes that there’s a normal distribution of preferences. In nature, many things are in fact distributed like this. Height, for example, or sensitivity to loud sounds. Most people are in the middle, fewer people are at either end. The goal when making something for everyone, if everyone is distributed normally, is to seek out the middle.

But!

Personal preferences aren’t normally distributed. Most people don’t care at all, some people care a lot.

That’s key, Coach! Your recruiting message isn’t going out to a normally distributed segment of the population. The same is true, in general, for colleges and their admissions departments.

The point being made that ‘most people don’t care at all’ isn’t true when it comes to getting an education, playing a sport, or building towards a successful life. However, it is very, very true when it comes to their view of your college or athletic program. Or, even you as a coach. Most of your prospects don’t care about you, especially at the start of the recruiting process. They want the opportunity, but you’re just one of hundreds of potential options. And, since most coaches don’t have a strong brand story that goes out in front of them without coaches having to define it for a prospect (think Alabama football, or a Harvard education), the market - your prospects, your ‘buyers’ - aren’t going to intentionally seek you out.

And!

In any market with choices, you’re no longer going to be able to serve everyone, because given a choice, people will make a choice.

So, seeking the Goldilocks equilibrium is a trap. While it might diminish criticism, it maximizes apathy. While it might increase your appeal to a hypothetical middle-of-the-road consumer, it might be that there aren’t many of these.

For many products and services, the middle is hollowed out. What you’re left with are the people who want a lot more or want a lot less of whatever it is you’re able to adjust.

A few takeaways I believe are worth thinking about as you move forward, no matter what segment of the college recruiting world you find yourself:

  • Your prospects will make a choice. What makes them choose you? Our research proves that a consistent message/story told by you works. Without your story, there’s no definition. Without definition, your prospects freeze…no action, no decision, nothing. When they finally do get around to choosing, they’ll choose something predefined in their mind, or something that’s been defined by another coach, college or admissions department.

  • More than ever before, this generation is becoming highly segmented. Culturally, we have fewer and fewer ties that bind us, which means we all want something different. And honestly, that may just be a different story from campus to campus, coach to coach. Ever noticed the boredom on the faces of prospects during official tours of campus? A big part of that is because nearly every campus visit around the country looks, sounds and feels the same. That doesn’t fit the mindset of most recruits, and it’s beginning to hurt colleges and coaches.

  • Most of you are starting to realize that, as Godin states, you’re left with the people who want a lot more or want a lot less of whatever it is you’re able to adjust. What are you doing to define what you have more of, and what you have less of, on your campus or in your program? That’s going to be a defining question for everyone working in the college marketplace in the coming years.

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