USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Garland Cooper, was a three-time NFCA All-American (two-time first team) and Big Ten Player of the Year at Northwestern University. In 2012, Garland was inducted into the NU Hall of Fame having helped the Wildcats to a pair of Women’s College World Series appearances. She was also a first-round pick of the New England Riptide in the 2007 National Pro Fastpitch College Draft. Garland is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
“Coaches put a lot of interest in recruits’ intangibles. There are thousands of kids with great physical skills who play in big tournaments. The college coach is going to ask what the differentiator is, and it all comes down to character,” says UCLA Softball’s winningest coach, Sue Enquist.
I recently sat down with Sue Enquist to talk about character. Through Enquist’s 27-year career coaching UCLA’s softball team, she became the ﬁrst All-American, National Champion, and Hall of Famer. She went on to found consulting company OneSoftball at the close of her successful collegiate career. In other words, Enquist knows college sports, and she’s an expert in recruiting top talent.
Character is one those difficult-to-define elements of college recruiting. So, we posed the questions to Enquist: What character traits are college coaches looking for in their recruits and how do they determine those intangibles?
5 qualities every recruit should have
While there are many character traits coaches want to see in their recruits, Enquist explains that there are five main qualities college coaches really look for:
- Growth mindset: Coaches want players who have an “improvement-based attitude around their own performance,” Enquist explains. These are athletes who know what they need to work on and strive to achieve it. “It’s an awareness that you’ve never arrived and you can always get better.”
- High accountability. Student-athletes with this trait understand that they are in charge of their academics, athletic progress and impact on their team. Student-athletes who hold themselves accountable have high standards for themselves and those around them.
- Resilience or failure recovery. Student-athletes need to be able to bounce back from failure, whether in athletics, academics or in their daily life. “The student-athlete who can articulate how they demonstrate failure recovery in their personal life, academics, and athletic life separates themselves from others,” Enquist says.
- Independence. Coaches know that high performers tend to have parents who teach them the discipline to be independent. “It’s difficult, because in highly competitive sports, it appears that the helicopter parents get more and create more for their athletes. But in the long run, they do a disservice to their athlete,” Enquist says. If parents are continually picking up their student-athletes’ mistakes, the athlete doesn’t have the skill set to solve problems on their own when they go to college and compete at the next level.
- Time management skills. Enquist is part of a group of professionals who give a collective voice from the college coach perspective. When asked what skill is missing in college freshmen, it was overwhelmingly time management. A huge part of the problem, Enquist explains, is that parents are managing the time of their students, rather than the students managing their own time. “I challenge every parent to have their kid organize their day and their week,” says Enquist.
How coaches can determine a recruit’s character
Coaches have to search through thousands of student-athletes in the recruitment process, so it might seem like they wouldn’t have an opportunity to really determine if a recruit has the right intangibles. Enquist, however, explains, “There are many little pieces of evidence that build up.” Everything that athletes do and say makes a distinct impression on a college coach.
Enquist says that coaches are listening to student-athletes’ interactions with their teammates, their coaches, and their parents to better understand their character. If an athlete berates their parents or yells at a teammate, the coach notices. Enquist takes note of whether the athlete carries their own equipment to the car after the game or if their parents carry it for them. From phone calls to the tone of a student’s email and their social media, coaches use every interaction to gauge that recruit’s character.
And coaches aren’t just evaluating students—they’re evaluating the recruits’ family as well.
“People don’t realize that the college coach is evaluating the family in the parking lot. The college coach is listening in while you’re standing in line at the concession stand, and the player is breaking down their game. Pay attention to how you think, speak, and act, because the college coach is taking notice,” Enquist says.
What you can do to enhance your intangibles
It all starts at home, Enquist says, with parents creating simple and realistic expectations of their athletes. In part, this refers to parents setting realistic expectations on how their student-athlete should think, speak and act on and off the field. “If an athlete has the ability to think positively, use their words positively and have a positive reaction to failure, they will be a person of great character. Think, speak and act. But it’s one of the most difficult things to do with all the noise around us,” Enquist says.
Enquist also points out that setting realistic expectations refers to understanding how their athlete’s skills stack up from a national perspective. No matter where a family lives or what team their athlete plays for, she argues, they need to understand what the highest level of competition in their sport looks like. And then they can evaluate where their student-athlete’s talents really fall.
Go to your favorite college and watch them play, she advises. See who the top recruits are and understand how you compare to them. That will better inform your recruiting and the schools that best align with your skill level.
“If you want to become educated about what great looks like, you need to see it up close and personal.”
Ultimately, Enquist explains, your character is a set of skills, just like your athletic ability. Establish your strengths and your weaknesses and then learn how you can get better. These character traits might be the difference for your student-athlete.