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. Joe is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe 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.
The more student-athletes know about how college coaches recruit, the better their recruiting game will be. That’s why NCSA recently surveyed NCAA, NAIA and junior college softball coaches about how they recruit players. Their responses give athletes and parents some great insight into the who, what where, when and why of college recruiting.
Below are the coaches’ responses to questions regarding some key recruiting milestones in softball.
At what age do softball coaches begin evaluating talent?
D1 coaches tend to begin evaluating talent before D2 coaches, according to the NCSA survey. Just over half report that they begin to evaluate talent in the 9th grade, while almost one-third begin with 10th graders, according to the NCSA survey (NOTE: the new NCAA recruiting rules prohibit communications between D1 softball coaches and recruits and their families prior to September 1 of the junior year.) Almost half of D2 coaches (and just over half of D3 coaches) begin evaluating talent in the 10th grade, while almost 30 percent begin in the 9th grade. NAIA coaches are most likely to start evaluating talent in either the 9th or 11th grade. Junior colleges are most likely to begin evaluating talent in the recruit’s junior year.
From what geographic regions do they actively recruit?
All programs are most likely to recruit nationally, especially at the D1 level, but other divisions are more than twice as likely to recruit regionally. This is primarily due to budget restrictions. Non-D1 schools tend to not have the budget to travel to many tournaments. They also might have comparatively less scholarship money and so it is not financially feasible to bring in out-of-state students.
Almost 60% of D1 coaches find the majority of their recruits at camps
Just over 80 percent of D1 coaches rely on travel team relationships, while almost three-fourths use tournaments and showcases, according to the survey. Almost 60 percent find the majority of their recruits at camps. Camps are overwhelmingly the predominant source of recruits for D2 and NAIA softball coaches. At the junior college level, two-thirds of surveyed coaches get their recruits at ASA tournaments/showcases.
Insider tip: Coaches attend these events to watch specific players. We recommend prior to attending, or in deciding whether or not to attend, an athlete contact officials to find out which college coaches will be in attendance. If the coach represents a target school, send an introductory email to get on their radar.
Read more: Finding Softball Camps & Combines
How likely are you to respond to recruits’ introductory email?
The survey revealed that a recruit deemed to be a “good fit” is most likely to get a response from a coach to their introductory email. D3 coaches are the most likely to respond to a good majority of the email they receive, but this is less common at the other division levels. “There are hundreds of thousands of athletes out there,” Winters emphasizes. “Coaches don’t have time to respond to every email. We preach the importance of follow-ups; don’t just send one email. It’s all about communication and making sure your name gets into that coach’s inbox.”
Read more: Contacting college coaches
What factors influence a coach’s decision to respond to introductory email?
It can be subjective in what most compels a softball coach to open that initial email. D1 and D2 coaches put an emphasis on an attached skills video. NAIA and D3 coaches put an emphasis on a personalized email, followed by academic performance considerations, while junior college coaches consider first key measurable.
Where or how do softball coaches evaluate the recruits in which they’re interested?
By far, travel team tournaments are essential in getting evaluated by college coaches. Over 90 percent of surveyed D1 and D2 coaches said they evaluate recruits in this manner.
When seeking a recommendation or reference from a travel or high school coach, what do you want to learn?
Overall, coaches want to learn the fundamentals about a player: their work ethic, character, academics, team player, speed, tools, and talent. Coaches also want to know how a player handles adversity, their mental strength, and athleticism. It is in the interest of travel or high school schools or third-party organizations such as NCSA to tell the “truth about the player” as it would reflect badly on them and damage their relationship with an organization if they misrepresented a player, Winters notes.
What are some recruiting deal-breakers?
Some of the “deal-breakers” that would cause a coach to pass on were really not that surprising: poor attitude; displays of poor sportsmanship; weak academics or test scores and poor mechanics. The latter speaks mostly to those recruits who reach out to D1 softball programs, but who are just not talented enough to play at that elite level.
At what age do coaches generally finish recruiting?
Another way to read this question is: At what point do coaches have their rosters set? D1 coaches are the most likely to finish their recruiting in the 10th or 11th grade, while D2 coaches are more likely to wrap up the process in the 11 or 12th grades. NAIA, D3 and junior college coaches indicate that they conclude the recruiting process in senior year.
With the information gleaned from these responses, proactive student-athletes can position themselves to better strategize their recruiting approach. For example, athletes would do well to review their social media to make sure it’s not a “deal-breaker” for inappropriate content that could make a coach second-guess their character. NAIA and D3 applicants should stress academics and any earned scholastic awards. It is also recommended athletes enlist their current high school or travel coach in the process, as they can score for them as a third-party advocate.