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. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle 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.
As you get ready to head home, the realization sinks in: You just played one of your worst games and college coaches were there to see it all. Ouch.
Before you panic, just take a step back. Sure, not performing your best is disappointing, but it doesn’t spell the end of your recruiting process. I talked to two former college coaches Jason Smith and April Hall to hone in on how athletes can mitigate the damage of a bad game. Jason Smith has coached baseball at all three NCAA division levels, and April Hall served as Western Illinois’ head volleyball coach. They share some advice and surprising insights into what coaches really want to see during games.
From a coach’s perspective, how much do you take bad games into account when you’re evaluating a recruit?
“When the scouting team went out to watch games, the actual performance was only a portion of what we looked for. I would show up early and watch how athletes warmed up and interacted with their teammates. I actually enjoyed when there was some struggle, because I got to see how they handled that challenge.
“One of the better players I’ve coached, the first time I saw him play, he had a bad day. He struck out four times, but he still had a great demeanor. He didn’t let things get to him. On the flip side, I’ve seen kids have a decent game and come up short in a crucial moment and lose their cool. Anyone can look good when they have a great game, but the reality is, there are going to be many more days when you have challenges. As a coach, I like when there’s adversity.” – Coach Jason Smith
“Every coach understands that you’re going to have a bad game. That’s why a solid highlight video is important—even having footage of a full game where you played really well. That way, you can remind them how good you are. Keep in mind that most coaches aren’t really there to evaluate your skill. We’re there to evaluate the intangibles. How do you react when you make a mistake or are having a bad game? Are you looking your coach in the eye, are you treating your parents with respect, are you getting your own water, are you hustling? Those are the important things to remember.” – Coach April Hall
What’s the best thing that the athlete can do after a bad performance?
“In your follow-up, thank the coach for coming. Don’t shy away from the fact that today wasn’t your best performance. You can tell the coach, ‘I hope you were able to see other elements of my game, or me as a prospect.’ Reiterate your interest and provide a schedule for your remaining games. One bad game shouldn’t knock you off the coach’s list, but one bad display can.” – Coach Jason Smith
“Get out in front of the coach again with an email. Just admit you didn’t play your best but find something positive to say. Mention something you learned. Say something about a teammate who you felt had a great game and helped lift the team up. Tell the coach you did everything you could to be a positive influence for your teammates and change things around. Don’t make excuses—own it and then come up with productive ways you would change things for next time. If you can take accountability and still maintain a positive attitude, you’re showing a lot of character.” – Coach April Hall
Is a bad game while a coach is watching going to break an athlete’s recruiting with that program?
“It’s about your attitude during the bad game. You had a poor attitude? Your recruiting with that coach is probably over. If you had a great attitude, you still have a shot. Obviously, if your competition did better than you that day, you might have put yourself behind, but you can make up for that by fitting into the team culture and having a strong relationship with the coaching staff. Will some coaches dismiss you? Potentially, but at that point, you’ve just got to move on and look at the schools and coaches who can look past that.” – Coach April Hall
What are coaches really looking at when they watch an athlete compete?
“For a coach, there’s so much more you can learn from a game besides talent level. The value of a coach getting out—even to watch one game or practice—is to see what you do when you’re not carrying the ball. How do you interact with umpires and officials and your parents?” – Coach Jason Smith
“Honestly, the number one thing for me was how players treated everyone around them, especially after a loss. It’s OK to cry and be upset, but it’s not OK to throw a fit, yell at your teammates, pout, dismiss your coaches and go off on your parents. We’re watching student-athlete and parent interactions more than you think.” – Coach April Hall
Final words of wisdom?
“Approach every game and practice like the stands are full of coaches. So, when coaches are there, you don’t have to change anything.” – Coach Jason Smith