Written By: Alexis Keto
One of my favorite parts of my job is helping athletes find their next step after high school. Whether they swim or not, the college selection process has become one of the most intense processes for high school athletes. Social media, parent, peer & school pressure all contribute to a significantly accelerated and adrenaline-fueled decision. As a club coach, we can help athletes & families navigate the intimidating world of college selection just by using skills we already have to bridge the gap between college coaches and athletes as well as work to help athletes own their decision with pride.
Know your athletes, holster the coach ego. This is the biggest piece of this entire process. It can be really easy to like talking to a coach about an athlete from a big D1 school. Signing with a big D1 school in a Power Five conference (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10, SEC) is certainly a big honor, it may not be the best fit for the athlete. It’s a good idea to make some notes about each athlete – GPA, Test Scores, top times, traits in training and in social setting, how they truly define success and what their passions might be outside the pool – as a coach, it’s surprising how much we actually know about athletes when we sit and think about them. This will help in conversations with college coaches as an advocate for your athlete as well as when you ask questions about the school. The number of times I have learned things about schools that make me realize an athlete wouldn’t fit there…it’s been a very illuminating experience.
Ease into the process during the sophomore year. In one-on-one meetings, start bringing up the topic of college. If the athlete is a long course Juniors qualifier or faster, this process should start no later than winter break, because recruiting is going to kick up VERY fast on June 15th after their sophomore year. If the athlete is Winter Juniors qualifier or lower – the conversation can be initiated a little later as that level of athlete will be lower on the priority list for a college coach. Accelerating it too soon can create a long process that is exhausting for the athlete, family & coach. This does not mean that they will not have options at all five levels of college (D1, D2, D3, NAIA, NJCAA) – it just will be a slower process. Look to start after times have been achieved in March and start addressing school communication around Spring Break.
Pieces to consider in conversation. Conversation can start as simple as talking about where they might want to live, what colleges they like, even just as simple as talking about possible majors, favorite colors, who they like training with at practice. From there, talking about coaching environment, training environment, social setting outside of the pool – these are all important and can help a club coach both help athletes talk through the college selection, as well as help them enjoy the process by making it their decision.
School List – 5-10-5 ratio. The first list should have 5 colleges that are “dream” schools – either academically or athletically, 10 colleges that are “manageable” schools either academically or athletically and 5 colleges that are “safety” schools where an athlete has a good chance of fitting into the roster or academically can get in pretty easily and has a major that fits well. Collegeswimming.com is good place to start to see where your athlete might fit from an athletic perspective. This year, there haven’t been a lot of college meets – so I recommend looking at 2019-2020 for a more accurate roster picture. Many high schools use Naviance to help the athletes find schools that fit them academically and as a club coach, that may also be a helpful resource to examine the athletic component of those schools. Understanding if they’ll be a walk-on or recruited walk-on or scholarship athlete are all parts of the process and vary dramatically both between divisions as well as individual schools.
The Importance of Honest Communication. Athletes should first fill out questionnaires to those 20 colleges and send an introductory email to both the head coach & assistant coach. Athletes should keep the email concise and direct and polite. When a response is received, athletes should respond within 24-48 hours and again, honest with their communication as well as respectful. When a school no longer appears to be the right fit, encourage early communication of that realization. Athletes often have a strong feeling of FOMO when it comes to eliminating colleges as if taking a school off the list might be a lost opportunity rather than a respectful and honest communication with a college program. Express gratitude for the attention and thank them for the extensive time they have spent communicating their interest in the athlete.
Honest communication coach to coach. Should a club coach talk to a college coach, be honest. Listen to what the college coach is saying about their program and evaluate that for the athlete in question. It might not be the right fit – you’re creating a relationship with the program for future athletes. Be transparent about how you train, what your goals for athletes are and what your athletes truly have the potential to become in 2-4 years. If it sounds like an athlete might not fit there, delve a little deeper and ask questions so that you can understand that particular program’s goals for future athletes and then perhaps talk with your athlete about their interest.
Visiting Campuses. Visiting is a difficult process at this time. Thankfully colleges are starting to adapt with multiple virtual tours as well as zoom tours of facilities. Anytime a college program takes the time to extend a virtual recruiting trip or virtual experience, take the time to express gratitude. The time required for recruiting is beyond what it was even five years ago – thank the coaches for both the effort and interest. If possible, a handwritten note can be an impactful touch. Much of this process is hard for college coaches too – they become very invested in the athletes they recruit and care a great deal for the young athletes they speak to. Remind athletes that international athletes have found schools this way for a long time and it seems to work out!
Decision time. This is the best part. Help athletes talk through what they think. As they talk (not text – I recommend a zoom in the time of covid, maybe with the parents as a silent observer) listen to the words they use and the body language. As their coach, you have a unique perspective on who they are and will usually see what school they’re going to favor. Help them find where THEY want to go and then help them make that happen. Once the decision has been made, they call the school and commit! Before any social media, however, make sure that they CALL any school in that final 3-5 schools and thank them for their time and inform them of the final decision. This is an important step both for their reputation and the reputation of your program.
This is by no means the complete list of everything we do at NTA for our college search with athletes or coaches, but it will give you a good starting spot. And don’t hesitate to call the local college coach – it’s a great way to develop a quality relationship as well as learn how you can support college swimming in your area. If you have any questions, I’m always happy to help a program develop a college recruiting methodology.
5th year at New Trier Aquatics
25th year coaching
Lead Coach: Senior High Performance, Masters, Semi-Pro Elite, D6 (New for 2020!)
B.A. Northwestern University
M.A. North Carolina State University
Coach Alexis Keto is the current CEO & Head Coach of New Trier Aquatics in Winnetka, IL. She believes in the well-rounded, socially-aware athlete and infuses this philosophy into each workout, competition & team endeavor. Each swimmer has the potential to be successful, and she feels that coaches should help swimmers discover their pathways to success and to their goals on a personal and individualized level. Over her 20-plus years of coaching, Alexis has had the good fortune of coaching at every level of the sport - summer league, high school, club and college. In her twelve years at Colorado, the team grew from 4 state qualifiers to 75 state qualifiers, 40+ Sectional qualifiers, Multiple State Record Holders, Junior National (USA/NCSA/ISCA) Qualifiers and National/Olympic Trial athletes. This tradition of excellence continues at NTA with World Championship Trials and Senior National finalists. Perhaps her greatest pride, however, is her ability to use her college coaching/recruiting experience at NC State & Northwestern to help athletes find the perfect college - whether at Division 1 schools or NAIA schools. Over 50 athletes have continued their swimming career at the collegiate level with an impressive number becoming team captains during their college tenure. Every swimmer has something to give to the team and has something to gain from the sport and Coach Alexis is eager to develop all facets of the athlete. She is also actively involved in the development of the sport of swimming at state and national level, currently serving on national committees, formerly very active in the development of the Western Senior Zone Championships and she has held several positions in the Colorado LSC. Her involvement is not just in governance, as she has coached and developed several local, zone and national camps & teams - as part of the task force for the inaugural 2018 Leadership Summit and as head coach of the 2018 Eastern Zone Select Camp. She currently is on the USA Swimming Club Development Committee and the Awards Committee.