Seven Ways to Prevent Athletes From a De-Commit or Transfer

I know a high school senior who was recruited to play volleyball at a NCAA Division One School. Emily told me the coaches “courted” her for months until she finally committed to play there.

And then, when she actually showed up to play, things were different.

After a week of volleyball camp, Emily “de-committed.” It’s a coach’s thorn in their side. It’s one of the many realities that make coaching and recruiting hard. Athletes come and go so quickly. The match looks like a good “marriage,” but the marriage ends up in “divorce” all too quickly. They quit. They de-commit. They transfer.

Can we talk about the “elephant in the room”?

When I talk to student athletes—too many describe the same scenario. The recruitment process looks one way, but the actual program looks totally different. Students tell me coaches “roll out the red carpet” for them; they put on the “Ritz,” wooing young athletes to come play for them. Once they show up, however, it feels like a “bait and switch.” (Coaches baited the fish, then switched things up once the fish was caught.)  It’s the “mode of operation” for thousands of teams today.

What’s a Coach to Do?

If it’s any consolation—coaches are aware of this reality. They tell me the same thing. They often ask: How do we handle our predicament that forces us to do anything to get those teenage athletes to choose our program, all the while knowing we can’t actually fulfill the expectations we created during the recruitment process?

Here are some examples I’ve heard that turned off these student athletes:

  • You can’t declare certain “majors” that require too much time.
  • You can’t travel internationally.
  • You can’t participate in certain student activities.
  • You can’t have a “life” outside of this sport, during the season.

While I completely understand boundaries for students on a scholarship, I just wonder: is life supposed to look this way? Are they student-athletes…or are they “athletes” who are students secondarily? Should athletics demand their soul? Is it possible to run a great program, yet enable students to live emotionally healthy lives and remain balanced during each school year? How do we prevent ourselves from the “bait and switch” practice that causes students to de-commit?

Seven Steps You Can Take to Keep the Fish You Catch:

1. Be transparent from the beginning.

Emily told me she wished her coach had been honest and up front from the start. Tell your recruits all the incredible benefits of your program and school, but also earn their trust by revealing the challenges. You will come across more believable if you practice “honest, transparent conversations” from start to finish. It might be wise to  put the benefits and challenges on paper, so you can refer back to them when student-athletes start grumbling.

2. Offer them boundaries.

One way you can “keep it real” is to lay out expectations, but also suggest some healthy boundaries for the athletes. Let them know they’ll need emotional guardrails to keep themselves balanced during each school year and especially during the season. Encourage them to build a social life outside of the team; to explore traveling; to do things other than play and work for you. This communicates and earns trust.

3. Build a relationship that cares for them as human beings.

Too many students tell me they feel their coach only values them based on the skills they bring to the team. While this is understandable, it’s not a healthy relationship. You’ll get more out of your players if you actually get to know them as people and build a relationship that demonstrates you care for them—outside of their talent. Emily’s coach did the opposite, saying she must drop all other concerns or interests.

4. Teach life skills.

One of the ways you’ll stay balanced yourself is to translate the skills your students cultivate on the team into “life skills.” Teach discipline, resilience, positive attitude, handling setbacks and injuries as part of a larger scope of experiences they’ll need in their life and career. When you do, they see you as an educator—not merely a utilitarian who only cares about getting ahead in your coaching career.

5. Expand their vision of what life’s about.

Drill them hard during practices, but then surprise them afterward by encouraging them to experience a “life” outside of you. It may shock them. Talk to them about life after graduation and what it can look like to be more than one-dimensional. Why not introduce them to your spouse and children if you have a family? Talk about your early aspirations and dreams. Most of all, if you do this, make sure that your lifestyle backs up your words. They can smell a fake a mile away.

6. Do something with them outside of your sport.

I love it when I hear coaches take extra outings with their players; have them over for a barbecue; play cards with them or treat them to a special trip. Find out their favorite candy and get it for each of your players. Do an opening retreat at the beginning of the year or a mid-season get-away. This speaks volumes to your athletes, and it earns respect from them when you go beyond the call of duty.

7. Think like a parent.

This one trumps all others. As you both recruit and coach players, say and do only the things you’d want done to your own kids. Would you want your children to have a coach like you, who promises one thing, but fails to follow through? I’ll never forget meeting Dayton Moore years ago, the General Manager of the Kansas City Royals. When I asked him what his goal was for this franchise, he told me, “I’m trying to build a ball club that I would want my son to play for.”

Not a bad goal for any of us to pursue.

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Seven Ways to Prevent Athletes From a De-Commit or Transfer