Saturday, December 19, 2015

Evolution of Recruiting

This week, as I watched players at the Dixie Am in Florida, a fellow coach asked me what’s changed over the years of coaching.  After 20 years as a head coach, the answer is a lot!  My players from my early years tell me I’ve gotten soft and I smile and agree.  It’s true if you use the things that players hate as a gauge.  I no longer force them to work out at 6 AM, but that’s because I’ve figured out that one of my biggest enemies against excellent performance is sleep and energy levels.  We still work out in the morning most days and players still don’t sleep enough, but  morning now means 7:30 and I keep an eye on the team and grant days off occasionally so they can get their rest.  Compared to my early days, that is definitely soft.  

Coaching is about the relationships you make and continue.  A dad this weekend described recruiting as dating with musical chairs at the end.  Funny and pretty accurate.  Glad I have these two on the team.

One of the biggest differences in my early self versus my coaching now is in my recruiting.  Ann Pitts, the great coach at Oklahoma State when I was a young coach, gave me advice that I wasn’t ready to accept or learn from at the time.  She heard me lament the loss of a player to a third school after outworking the coach throughout the recruiting process.  She told me, “Jeanne, you will get the players you are supposed to get and lose the ones you should lose.  There will always be another player for you if you look hard enough, but you need to focus on what’s important.”  I remembered what she had to say and tried hard to understand it and use it to bolster my confidence and motivation, but I just didn’t get it.  At the time, it seemed to me that recruiting was a zero-sum game.  Someone wins and someone loses.  I was losing a lot!  

As with most things, you have to live and learn and eventually, I understood what Ann was trying to tell me and I was able to put it into practice. The teams we put together were made up of great girls who gave me all they had and it continues today.  When I was a young coach, here is what I looked for in a player:  physical skills, power, ability to score, attitude and ability to putt.  As an older coach, here is what I look for in a player:  work ethic, motivation, attitude, familial support and balance, control and ability to score.  I still love great ball strikers and power, but I’ve learned that great players come wrapped in a lot of different packages.  

Aurora Kirchner was my very first commitment as a new head coach.  What a wonderful person I was lucky to sign.

My first question in recruiting is, does she work hard?  Can she work on her game with no supervision?  Is she focused on goals?  These three questions are all about work ethic and the three answers tell me about different facets of the player.  Golf takes time to learn and a lot of reps.  There are no shortcuts that I’ve seen, so a hard worker will improve more quickly than someone less engaged.  Working hard can mean playing every day. It seems like people today assume working means hitting the same shot over and over, but I love players.  

Players who need supervision or who get it daily from a parent or pro will often struggle in college.  One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that independence is a crucial step to achievement. So many young players have someone standing over them on the range or directing their play on the course and this supervision not only slows down their progress, it also makes the transition to college or the pros tough.  My goal in coaching is to create self-sufficiency in a player, not dependence.  

The final question of goals is important for many reasons.  Over the years, I’ve learned what goals to steer away from and which ones to latch onto.  I run as fast as I can from a player who’s goal is to get a scholarship or a full ride for her golf.  That goal will be fulfilled as soon as you make an offer and I’ve learned the hard way that it might be the last goal that player sets for her golf game.  I listen for goals that include the words team, wins, improvement, process, fun, coachability, degree, etc.  I want players who want to join our team, buy into our system 100%, work hard on the process of achievement and have some fun throughout her time on the team.  

Motivation is a tough thing to figure out, but I would say a love of the game and the desire to improve daily are the two things that strike me as the best motivators or at least the two that I’m most drawn to in a player.  Players who love the game don’t get burned out.  They can have a bad day and bounce back quickly, because of the draw the game has on them.  
The team is always more important than the individual and when you do great things, it's because of the group.  This team did a lot of great things.

The other goal, the desire to improve daily strikes me as coachability.  It’s so much fun to have players on the team who actively seek out ways to improve.  They aren’t defensive about what they do and they don’t talk about skills as “your way” or “my way”.  Instead, they want to learn new skills and improve the skills they brought and be the best they can be.  They ask questions and want to know why on a daily basis.  They know the process of putting new skills into play and learn from their mistakes.  I’m not talking about a player who is chasing perfection or working to hone the perfect swing.  I’m talking about a player who wants to take what she has and make it sharper or learn to use it in new ways.  The essence of greatness in golf is trust and players who think what they do isn’t good enough will never have complete trust.  Players who take what they have and learn to use it creatively to produce shots or work to allow for freedom under the most intense pressure are the players I love to coach.  The greatest players I’ve coached have all had what is now called a “learner’s mindset” but I’ve always called them sponges.  They soak up knowledge and work to squeeze it out under pressure.  

Attitude is what all coaches in all sports are constantly monitoring.  Attitude shows in body language and style of play.  I want a heads up player who looks ahead, stays positive and plays with freedom.  When my players drop their head after a poor shot, that’s my cue to help them lift it and offer support and perspective.  I want players who play confidently to a target, not defensively away from trouble. I want players with the ability to bounce back after mistakes or tough holes.  You can’t see attitude clearly, but you can see the small things that reflect a positive approach both toward the game and toward herself as a player.  

How important is the family to my process of recruiting?  It’s huge!  I want love, fun and balance in the families of my players.  The love has to be unconditional and not based on a golf score.  The fun has to be at another’s expense or in other words, a player can’t take herself so seriously that she can’t laugh at herself or take teasing from a parent or sibling.  Finally, there must be balance.  I want players who excel in school and work to be a good person each and every day.  There must be family qualities of gratitude, faith, education, giving and fun.  I’ve run across so many families who are so driven for their daughter to achieve a golf goal they they will set aside education or look the other way when gratitude isn’t shown.  Golf should be important, but it can never be the most important thing.  

Control is a tough thing to talk about, because we watch players who are so young these days and to expect them to have control of so many things often leads to developing players who don’t make mistakes or push their boundaries.  In young players, the control that I’m looking for is the ability to focus on something positive.  The best players are able to channel their natural instincts into a “can do” attitude.  In other words, they use their best traits to help them play their best.  If a player is emotional, she owns the best fist pump on the course and when something bad happens, she is able to give herself an emotional pep talk to get refocused.  As a coach, I would never ask an emotional person to play unemotional golf.  When I watch recruits, I’m looking for players who have a golf personality that allows them to be at their best.  

The final thing that I’m looking for in players is the abiltiy to score.  That might seem like a no-brainer, but there is more to it than that.  Once again, keep in mind that we are now recruiting players who are 14 and 15 years old.  The players who are winning at that age are often the ones who have a good short game, good wedges and don’t hit it out of play.  Those are all fantastic qualities in a golfer.  Sometimes though, those players don’t develop into the players who shoot 65 for you.  For me, the ability to score means the abiltiy to put a low number on the board, not necessarily the ability to be consistent.  As I write this, I have so many former players who come to mind in each category.  Consistency is often what parents see as important, but from a coach’s standpoint, we figure out what we can teach and coach to rid a player of high scores and tap into that potential we see with the occasional low score.  

Here is our current team at SMU.  In our fifth year here, Dave and I have recruited a great group who are also doing great things, both on and off the golf course.  Pony Up!

This was a long-winded blog and for that I apologize.  It is what happens when you take a month’s break from writing.  In the blog, you got my recruiting philosophy from A to Z.  Will I still make mistakes?  Of course I will.  That is part of the business.  We are guessing which 15 year old will help us win a NCAA Championship in 6 years.  Without a crystal ball, no one will ever be 100%.  However, I do know that if we continue to recruit based on character, love of the game, good families and balance, we will always have a good team ready to compete and who loves one another.  That’s what we have now and our future is bright.


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