How to Recruit Athletes for Character

A Division One coach recently remarked to me, “Today’s student athletes are different than they were twenty years ago. When I’m on the road recruiting, I find they know exactly what to say to get the scholarship, but when they arrive, they’re nothing like the interview.”

This issue is not limited to NCAA athletics. I hear this from high school coaches, club sports and even professional sports staff. Today’s athlete is informed, savvy and trained in how to “give all the right answers,” but may in reality be insecure, reliant on parents or even addicted to social media.

After years of helping athletic departments better connect with young athletes, we surveyed coaches to see what they’ve concluded about Generation Z players. Both NCAA and high school coaches reported they’ve seen a measurable drop in their youngest athlete’s life skills and virtues. The top seven diminishing ones are:


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1. Resilience – Practice goes well, but even minor adversity defeats them.

2. Empathy – Parents often push them into individualism and self-expansion.

3. Ambition – Their internal drive to succeed has been replaced by external ones.

4. Work ethic – Because of short attention spans, the daily grind is a turn off.

5. Patience – Due to texts, microwaves and Google, it’s hard to delay gratification.

6. Academic Stamina – Their ability to stick with studies when the novelty is gone.

7. Self-awareness – Often no one has been honest with them about their blind spots.

I believe the kids born since 2000 are different than previous kids. Generation Z has grown up taking drugs for anxiety and depression, conditioned to rely on someone else for choices and constantly connected to their portable device. Technology, culture, parenting styles and medications have hindered them from growing up. And now, you must coach them.

In a recent coaches training event, I was asked a great question: “What should we ask a young athlete to signal a potential problem?” Below are questions I recommend you ask recruits to tip you off to challenges with potential players.

Questions to Ask a Potential Athlete:

1. Tell me about a difficult experience you’ve had with authority.

An honest answer to this one will reveal their attitude and respect for leaders, and how they tend to deal with submission to authority. A “rebel spirit” can be contagious.

2. What’s your biggest frustration about being an athlete? What really gets you down?

Their answer may furnish insight into their resilience level—how much does it take to discourage them or cause them to give up. Can they handle adversity and obstacles?

3. What’s the longest amount of time you’ve gone without your cell phone?

Many from Generation Z readily admit they’re addicted to technology. Their answer to this one will signal how much they depend on screens to motivate them.

4. What has been your greatest challenge with teammates?

This will reveal their emotional intelligence and specifically how much empathy they possess for teammates. Their answer will tell you how well they see the big picture.

5. Talk about your three biggest habits that you’d like to break.

This answer could be huge. Are they in bondage to bad habits they cannot break? Can they delay gratification? Do they lead themselves well or are they a slave to addictions?

6. On a scale of 1-10, how much does criticism bother you from a teammate? A coach?

Many in this generation have never really been chastised or criticized, so their tolerance for it is low. Ask them to be candid, but listen to how they handle confrontation.

7. How much are you willing to compromise your personal standards?

Even if they try to give you answers you want, they may not know how to reply to this one. Do they possess strong personal values they won’t compromise? Are they ethical?

8. What word would your teammates use most to describe you? Your past coaches?

This question allows you to hear how others view the recruit. If you can get an honest answer, listen for key words that reveal what kind of teammate and leader they are.

9. Tell me about your parent’s personalities. Describe your relationship to them.

An absent dad or a dysfunctional relationship with either mom or dad can mean trouble for a coach or teacher later on. Discover if their parents are “hovering” or abandoning them.

10. Should fans leave you alone off the field and let you live however you see fit?

Some athletes don’t feel they must be a role-model, and do whatever they want off the field. The recruit’s answer to this one will let you peek into how self-absorbed they are.

Remember, the better your questions in the recruiting process, the better you can screen your players and get the right ones. The key is to learn who and what has been the greatest factor in shaping them as a young adult. To gain an honest glimpse of their current lifestyle, check out their Facebook page. Talk to leaders who know them well. You know the issues you need to cover to gain the right athletic abilities. Through the questions above, I’ve simply tried to help you get acquainted with a recruit…as a person and an adult.

How to Recruit Athletes for Character