Countdown: The Role of Social Media in College Recruiting
by Christine Gray, 30 March 2017
Special from Donovan Tennis Strategies
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The vast utilization of social media in this day and age is an undeniable phenomenon. But whether or not social media use has a meaningful impact on a tennis player's recruitment to college, and how it might be used in advocating oneself as a desirable prospective athlete, is a topic we wanted to explore. Our interviews with a number of current college tennis coaches from a variety of divisions and levels has shed some light on the role of social media in college tennis recruitment. In addition to the anecdotal evidence that we collected, our findings were reinforced by thorough research conducted by Cornerstone Reputation, an a research-based education company that has surveyed over 1000 college coaches, representing both men's and women's sports, to gather information on when, how, and why they search recruits online, what types of online content can affect them in the positive and negative senses, and how student athletes can use this information strategically to gain an advantage in the recruiting process.
Almost every coach we spoke with acknowledged that recruits' activity on social media is a given and that it is, whether desirable or not, a significant opportunity for coaches and prospective student athletes to connect. It offers avenues of communication that were not available before and therefore can be valuable for both recruits and tennis programs to promote themselves. Social media has the dual purpose of helping coaches to get to know players in a unique way, and helping recruits to become acquainted with a school or program. Colleges increasingly use social media outlets to post match updates and results, and through pictures and videos, offer an inside look at the day-to-day experience of a school's student-athletes which until recently was only available to see on a campus visit. Social media is an effective, efficient and modern way to share the personalities of recruits and programs alike.
Even though the use of social media is seemingly very prominent among recruits, recruits should not make the assumption that coaches are equally engaged or have altered their approach to recruiting because of these new avenues of connection. While most coaches we interviewed acknowledged that they have some kind of social media presence to communicate with recruits or find out more about them, and Cornerstone Reputation cited that 85% of coaches surveyed in a recent recruitment year said that they (or someone on their coaching staff) conducted online research of recruits, we did not come across any who use social media as their primary or sole source behind recruitment of players. As one Division II coach put it, "It has not altered how I recruit, but it has become part of recruiting for sure." Players also have to realize, as the data suggests, that there are still coaches within the ranks who do not use social media at all for communication and/or learning about recruits, so prospective student athletes must have a varied approach to presenting themselves to coaches.
In tennis recruitment, the coaches who are engaged in social mediazz utilize this medium to see tennis video that may be posted, and build relationships through casual communication, but the primary intent is to learn more about a prospect's outside interests and activities. 99% of the coach respondents to the Cornerstone Reputation survey said that evaluation of a recruit's character was either very important or important when deciding whether to pursue the recruit, and 85% of respondents said that they believed they could get a better sense of a recruit's character and personality by researching him or her online. It is important to note that coaches do not necessarily follow recruits on social media with the intent of catching them in a compromising situation or noticing negative attributes, but recruits should be aware that posted material can have that unintended effect that can severely harm their recruitment. Elements like bad language or vulgarity, long rants about personal problems, inappropriate social situations, images that challenge the idea of commitment to your sport, etc., are examples of ways in which a player's social media content might hurt his or her recruitment. One Division I coach shared a story about a high priority recruit, who he had been pursuing for quite a while, that he had to disengage with because of the message she portrayed over social media. "One recruit had a lot of pictures of partying and alcohol. We knew she was a good player, but she just kept posting things that we perceived as detrimental to us as coaches. We had to look elsewhere as we just could not see that person fitting into our type of program anymore, even after all the recruitment we did." Other coaches we interviewed, in all three NCAA divisions, also told stories of "passing" on players because of the big picture created by their social media presence.
An important extension of how social media posts can affect a player's recruitment is how other individuals linked to a recruit can inadvertently affect positioning with a coach or college. The following example was shared with us: "One of my players was almost expelled from school because of posts from a third person who was following him. A random guy was posting very hateful and racist comments on Twitter. That person was also following my player (who had no idea who the person was), but because of the "connection", his admittance into the school was questioned and we had to go through a whole investigative process which included interviews, questioning and ended up with the player having to block that person. So, it is important to be aware of who we follow and who is following us."
Another Division I coach said that her school makes sure that a player's social media is clean before they can post anything about that individual. She cited instances that didn't affect recruitment but still came into question later, while the players were on the team. They had situations in which they wanted to highlight a student-athlete's success, but they were not able to do so because of material in their posts, such as inappropriate language or images that the university felt reflected poorly on the institution as a whole.
While there are pitfalls to avoid with the use of social media in recruitment, social media can be an effective part of a larger recruiting strategy. Coaches we interviewed universally warned of inappropriate use of social media, yet they also cited ways in which social media could play an effective role in recruitment. Based on their feedback, here are recommendations from DTS:
"Friending" or "following" can be a good starting point. Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., to expand communication with coaches can be an effective entry to a positive advocacy plan. Doing so shows interest in a program, and if posts include training videos, videos of matches, images or statements about tennis, it can be a way to make a player and his or her game more accessible to coaches. Social media can be used effectively as much as any other resource at one's disposal. Employ many avenues of communication.
Even if a recruit uses social media a lot as his or her most natural form of communication, one has to remember that coaches may not operate in the same way. Some coaches prefer not to engage in social media, and some find it too hard to keep up with the number of recruits that they are interested in. So, duplicate communication in other ways, even if it is uncomfortable. Utilize e-mail, and phone and even "snail mail"! Take advantage of personal meetings on campus visits, too. This makes individual players stand out from the crowd. It used to be that social media was the cutting edge element that could make a recruit stand out. But with the increased and normal usage of social media in so many arenas, prospective student athletes have to consider other ways to be noticed outside of the normal trends.
Be aware of posts and third party posts and direct them positively. Use social media as a way to reinforce your image as a committed and passionate tennis player, a hard-working and responsible individual, and a potential teammate with good character. Pictures, videos and statements of tennis, family and friends in appropriate situations and settings can accomplish that. It is reassuring to know that Cornerstone Reputation found that 90% of coach respondents have seen something online that has given them a positive impression of an athletic recruit and 82% of respondents believe that a strong and positive online presence can give one recruit an advantage over another recruit. On the flip side, other types of content, inappropriate or not, may raise red flags for some coaches by suggesting a lack of focus, or a lack of humility. It is no surprise that 83% of coach respondents to the Cornerstone Reputation survey have seen something online that has given them a negative impression of an athletic recruit. Remember that anyone utilizing social media is a public figure and individuals need to show an ability and responsibility to manage that appropriately.
Keep recruiting personal. Coaches are recruiting players as a potential team member that they are going to spend a lot of time with over four years. Therefore, developing a personal relationship and getting to know each other is paramount and needs to happen in the process. In addition to seeing a recruit "from a distance" over social media, they want to talk to prospects. So, write and answer e-mails; pick up the phone when coaches call and be sure to call them, too; put the phone away and engage in sincere conversation on a visit. Texting, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. do not qualify as "talking" and "getting to know each other" for most coaches. Like everything, use social media in moderation.
Avoid over promotion via social media, hitting coaches with lots of posts and images which could be overbearing or suggest an overly stated desire to be noticed.
Social media is undoubtedly an active part of recruitment that can be used very effectively to show a recruit's, or a program's, best assets. But, as with any avenue of communication or research, there must be an awareness and careful management of what information is being presented, and how it is being presented. All parties should be aware of the potential drawbacks of social media usage and should always employ a variety of personal efforts to learn the true "personality" of a team or prospective student-athlete. If executed well and with some forethought, social media can be a great tool of advocacy for college tennis recruitment.
Contributors: Donovan Tennis Strategies (DTS) has been helping prospective college tennis players and their families navigate the recruiting process since 1997. In addition to consulting services, DTS runs the DTS College Exposure Series made up of three recruiting events to help players get exposure to college coaches. Visit us at www.donovantennis.com. Cornerstone Reputation, offering virtual workshops, blogs and surveys to help students digitally manage their online presence, can be found at www.cornerstonereputation.com.
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About Christine Gray
Christine Franek Gray has worked with
Donovan Tennis Strategies
Gray was the head women’s tennis coach at Wellesley College from
2001 to 2008, where she was the NEWMAC coach of the year 4 times. In
2006 she was named the ITA Northeast Region Coach of the Year. She
was the assistant women’s coach at Auburn University from 2008 to
Gray is a graduate of Brown University where she was a member of
their first-ever Ivy League Championship team in 1991. She received
her Master degree from the Harvard University School of Education is