Investigation of Recruiting Criteria of Leading NCAA Division I Softball Coaches

Abstract

Purpose of this investigation was to determine the recruitment criteria of the 50 winningest active coaches in NCAA I collegiate softball. Twenty-seven of the NCAA Division I head coaches completed a survey designed to assess their recruiting evaluation standards and measures. The survey 15 items based on the evaluation of a recruit including statistics, use of recruiting tools, measuring intangibles and tangibles, the preference of a multi-sport high school athlete or a multi-position player, when to begin recruiting, most desired positions recruited, and the important elements of a successful recruiting athletic program. Based on the analyses of the survey date, most of the coaches use similar criteria. Results indicated similar explanations and findings in current talent identification, recruiting techniques, and applications.

There are 400,000 student-athletes enrolled in 1300 universities playing 23 sports under the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA, 2009). According to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), of the 1300 universities, approximately 1100 sponsor softball programs, and of those 1100 schools, 262 are Division I schools (NFCA, 2009).

Coaches must act as athletic recruiters, who scout and enlist new members to play on their team. Recruiting in collegiate athletics is a dominating factor in facilitating success of an athletic team, program and university. “Recruiting drives team performance, but recruiting is also affected by prior team performance” (Langelett, 2003). Championship athletic seasons bolster enrollment, funding, donations, reputation, pride, exposure and advertising in universities (Humphreys & Mondello, 2007, Letawsky, Schneider, Pedersen, & Palmer, 2003, Smart & Wolfe, 2000).

Recruiting Criteria

At elite sport levels, the most skilled players are often the most athletically talented and possess the strongest work ethic (Smith, 2003). Ten NCAA Division I coaches from male and female sports other than softball listed the following as essential elements of success: a positive attitude, motivation, competitiveness, coachability, and willingness to improve athletic skills (Giacobbi, Roper, Whitney, & Butryn, 2002). “Multidimensional and dynamic talent identification and development models need to reflect both performance dispositions and the capacity of an individual to develop” (Abbott & Collins, 2004, p. 401). Athletes who are driven and open to learning are more likely to make significant improvements. Important athletic determinants of developmental capacity are motivation and appropriate learning strategies (Abbott & Collins, 2004, p. 401).

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study was to identify the criteria used by the elite coaches of NCAA Division I softball programs. The recruitment of athletes is vital to the success of a sport program. Identifying recruiting criteria used by many of the elite coaches may be important information to both collegiate coaches and athletes interested in being recruited by a Division I program. By systematically examining the criteria of a successful program for recruiting athletes, a recruiting foundation may be established to build a successful collegiate softball program.

Method

Participants

All participants in the study were volunteers selected from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA, 2009). The top 50 winningest (by percentage) active Division I softball head coaches’ in the nation were asked to participate. Of the 50 coaches, 27 (54%) returned the completed recruiting survey. The range of college coaching experience was 6 to 29 years (M = 17.6) and 59% of participants were female.

Survey Instrument

A 15-item recruiting survey was developed. The survey was based on the researcher’s review of 22 NCAA Division I university recruiting player questionnaires located online through collegiate softball web pages. Each survey item was based on the evaluation of a recruit including defensive and offensive statistics, the use of recruiting instrument such as a skills video or webpage, measuring intangibles (i.e. hustle, coachable, teamwork) and tangibles (i.e. speed, quickness, power, throwing), the preference over a multi-sport high school athlete or a multi-position player, when to begin recruiting, what are the most desired positions recruited, and what are the important elements of a successful recruiting athletic program. Survey items included two questions rating criteria importance by percentage or rank and 13 open ended questions. Throughout this study, confidentially and anonymity of all participants was protected.

Procedure

Each of the top 50 winningest active coaches’ of NCAA Division I softball were sent both by email and the United States Postal Service (USPS) a packet of the following material (a) cover letter with an explanation and purpose of the study, (b) recruiting survey, and (c) a self-addressed stamped envelope. Once the surveys were completed, coaches were asked to seal their responses in the self-addressed stamped envelope provided and return the envelope to the researcher. Participants also had the option to return the survey as an attachment via email.

The data from each survey item were combined and grouped based on emergence of themes and repetition. Participants were allowed to respond with more than one response to each open question; for this reason, results tallied may exceed 100%. Survey responses were analyzed for similarities and differences with top responses compiled based on the data variance for each question.

Results

Coaches’ rank of importance in recruit characteristics placed “athletic” as most important with 37% of coaches’ responses (see Figure 1). Second ranked criteria of importance with 31%, was the Other option. This option was a write-in submission by coaches and included the following varied characteristics; “character, athleticism, and mental toughness.” Third ranked criteria of importance were the recruit’s attitude with 19%.


Figure 1. Recruit Characteristics Rank of Importance (N = 27)

What top three intangible characteristics describe a top recruit? To the coaches responding, being a team player and possessing a strong work ethic were the top two responses for 33% of the coaches. Other responses included “character and values, athleticism and talent” with 15%, “hustle, hardworking, mental toughness, drive, determination and desire” with 11%, “loyalty, commitment game sense, confidence and leadership” with 7%, and “first impression, how well pay attention, heart, intelligence, ability to adjust, ability to invest or believe in something, (vulnerability) effort and academics” with 4% of the responses.

What top three tangible characteristics define a top recruit? The top three responses (505) were “power and strength, basic skills or athleticism, and speed”. Other top tangible characteristics of recruits included “bat speed, hand-eye coordination, skills, program need based athlete” with 7%, “size, the five tools of our game, mechanics, left-handed, hard work, attitude, range, reaction time, database (level of competition played), throwing, coachable, defensive, and running ability” with 4%.

What top three statistics best define a top non-pitching recruit? On-base percentage, (OB%), runs batted in (RBI), and batting average (BA), were the top three definable statistics (Figure 2). Other responses included “walk to strike ratio (BB:K), extra base hits”, and the response of “we don’t recruit based on stats” by 11% of coaches, “homeruns (HR), batting average with runners in scoring position (BA w/RISP), number of strikes (K), power stats, stolen bases, and hitting” with 7%.


Figure 2. Top Statistics of a Non-Pitching Recruit (N = 27)

What top three statistics best define a top pitching recruit? The highest response (70%) was, “earned run average (ERA)”, followed by “walk to strike ratio (BB: K)” and “number of strikes (K)”.

Do you prefer to recruit multi-sport athletes? Top response was Yes with 74%. The reason provided was that multi-sport athletes were “more athletic, they can think, are challenged on several levels, balanced, well rounded, don’t burnout, improve more once focus on softball, are versatile, all around athletes and they possess carryover skill and better court [field] sense or awareness.”

Which sources provide recruit statistics most reviewed and reliable? The most reliable and reviewed statistics came from travel ball and travel ball playoffs, both with 52% of the coaches’ responses. In second, the above average statistic source was travel ball, with 40% of coaches’ responses. Statistics from high school playoffs were considered moderately reliable and less often reviewed.

Do you pursue multi-position players? Eighty-five percent responded “Yes.” The following explanations on why were provided by the coaches: “the addition of depth, versatility (invaluable), flexibility; many infielders become outfielders.” “They are multi-skilled and more likely to find a way to contribute to the team.” Other responses noted on multi-sport players also help with “high admission standards so coaches need versatility since they only get 12 scholarships, get more for the money.”

What is the importance of a recruit’s skill video/DVD as a recruiting tool? The top two responses were between its value in “eliminating or sparking interest in a recruit” and the “necessity to see a player live.” Other coaches’ responses included referring to the recruit skill video as a “point of reference, starting point only”.

What are the top three variables most reviewed when watching a recruit in a live practice or game? Athletic ability, attitude, and hustle were the top three variables provided by the coaches surveyed. Other responses included hitting, with 15% and speed, clutch performance under pressure, passion, intensity, and aggressive style with 11% of the responses.


Figure 3. Most Desired Positions Recruited (N = 27)

What are the top three most desired positions to recruit and why? Pitchers were indicated by 81% of coaches’ (Figure 3). Shortstops and catchers were second with 48%. Some of the written responses were “pitchers are the most important aspect of our fame”, “keeps team in the game”, “there is necessity of one to be successful”, “the game starts in the circle”, “they are the cornerstone of a team”, “without great pitching a team will not go anywhere.”

Related to shortstops some of the quotes were “can be placed anywhere on the field”, “are often the best athletes”; and catchers “are leaders of the team and necessary to help the pitcher.”

Do they administer any other form of recruitment evaluation other than the standard information sheet? What is it, and how does it impact their general recruit assessment? Almost all the coaches (93%) stated they did not use other assessment instruments.

Have they used and/or recommended recruiting web pages. Most stated that they did not use or recommend the use of recruiting web pages (85%). The major reasons why they did not use or recommend these services included “most webpage services are not very effective for level of athlete we are trying to recruit”, “companies are usually not credible services”, “not respected”, “are money making operations to sell to kids”, and “ they are a waste of money for kids involved”. Other coaches responded “athletes should take accountability”, “do not need to pay for these services they can do themselves”, “parents can put together a resume and info without need of these services.”

What is generally needed for an athletic program to be efficient and successful at recruiting? Most coaches’ (48%) responded “financial resources, and budget.” Other coaches’ responses included “organization and hard work” with 11%, “networking, relationship with summer ball coaches, administrative and compliance support” with 7%.

Discussion

Of the 27 top 50 coaches surveyed with over 475 years of coaching combined, themes were developed concerning recruiting criteria. The first theme related to intangible criteria is mental toughness. “Being able to perform consistently toward the upper range of one’s ability regardless of competitive circumstances,” is a major intangible psychological element of the successful collegiate athlete (Mack & Ragan, 2008). Work ethic, one of the top intangible characteristics defining a recruit, is crucial in excelling throughout an athletic career.

Establishing a good connection and exhibiting a strong work ethic with teammates are two major designated qualities of leaders in sport (Wright & Cote, 2003). Coachability came in as the second top intangible characteristic. Coachability has been designated the strongest measure in evaluation of athletes of 82 Division I coaches spanning 14 sports (Solomon, 2008). Hustle, hard work, drive, determination, and desire are proven keys in the development of successful individuals (Abbott & Collins, 2004).

The quality of being a team player; unselfish and making those around them better, was noted as a leading intangible characteristic of a recruit. Attitude also came in as a top intangible characteristic among coaches’ responses in this study. Attitude towards coaches, team, and officials was a strong reference point for coaches when observing a recruit in a live game or practice evaluation.

Specialization of a high school sport has increased due to increased chances of collegiate recruitment and athletic achievements. One third of coaches in this study preferred recruiting softball players who played more than one sport in high school. However, playing more than one sport is a main goal of high school athletics to promote development and interaction (Hill, 1991). Experiencing early sport diversification as children proved beneficial in the athletic development of elite athletes (Abbott & Collins, 2003).

Exploring personality and psychological facets of athletes is an area often overlooked or unexposed by even experienced coaches’ (Stewart & Meyers, 2004). Ninety-three percent (93%) of coaches in this study responded they did not use any other forms of evaluation other than a player information sheet.

When observing games or practice, coaches stated they evaluate athleticism and talent more than any other evaluation criteria. Coaches noted middle infielders and catchers set the tone for the team, fill a leadership role on the field and are key motivators to pitchers. This finding supports the suggestions by Grusky (1963) that the central positions on the field such as infield and catcher combined with high interaction develops leadership qualities.

Another theme from the study was the influence of increases in athletic funds for recruiting, designed to produce success in athletic competition (Humphreys & Mondello, 2007). With nearly half of all coaches responding, financial resources or budget came in as the number one necessity of a successful recruiting program. Because of the influx of money, power and respect generated from bringing in the elite talented athlete into an athletic team, recruiting athletes becomes a critical role in the success and prestige of an athletic program, and 4-year institution.

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