I have tried in vain to convince my Athletic Director – and my colleagues in the Department of Exercise & Sport Studies at Smith College that recruiting is not coaching – I am having another crack at it with this post! Our department chair – Jim Johnson comments: “I have never said that recruiting is coaching. I do believe that one’s won/loss record is related to their recruiting ability but not necessarily success as defined by many.”.
Before I support my proposition, I would like to argue that Talent Identification is part of coaching!
As you can see from this excerpt from the English Institute of Sport talent identification is a “complex blend of scientific knowledge and assessment” – requiring excellent knowledge in all areas of sport science and coaching. When paired with a sound Long Term Athlete Development Plan, and a solid, integrated national health and welfare policy (that includes the role of sport at both the elite and recreational/wellness level – here is Ireland’s – a great example) Talent ID is a worthy pursuit.
The U.S. lacks a coherent strategy that integrates sport and wellness, due mostly to the pervasiveness of the “pro sport” or Division I major sports” philosophy or model – which accounts for their poor relative performance at the international level. The effect of this lack of a comprehensive sport policy can be extended to the college level, where teams are being cut due to the inability of Athletic Directors to associate the benefits of athletics participation to the overall College mission, which includes student well-being (the same could be said of High School Physical Education programs).
U.S. College recruiting on the other hand is not skillful (I suppose salesmanship is a skill?:) and requires almost no sport science knowledge. For example in college squash, U.S. Squash sends a list of all the juniors who compete in tournaments along with their contact information to each college coach – all a coach has to do is be able to write an e-mail. It has been my observation, based mostly on 20 years of summer camps at Princeton university, that for most junior squash players in the U.S. (and more recently foreign players as well) college squash is simply a vehicle to be able to attend the best academic institution possible.
Simply put, everything else being equal, the best junior squash players will attend the best available school (I got a .43 correlation coefficient when I correlated the college squash rankings with the U.S. College news college rankings.). The top academic schools – and some of the ones not so near the top – seem very happy to lower their usually high admissions standards to admit a top player – adding imbalance to an already UN-level playing field (a level playing field being a key component of sportsmanship/fairplay).
What strikes me most is the disconnect between an academic institution’s public statements concerning the role of varsity sports in developing leadership and human potential and the actual communications that take place between Athletic Directors and coaches “you had better win or else” (a Division III comment) – and the current “frenzy” to recruit. The discussions around the success of the Trinity Men’s Squash Program provide a vehicle to examine many of the issues around coaching and recruiting. On one hand the Trinity approach to recruiting has violated the “level playing field” principle for its NESCAC peers, while on the other has in fact redressed the “un-level playing field” that had advantaged the Ivy’s for so many years.
This very American glorification of being #1, and a willingness to put aside related potential ethical issues (e.g., look at the public’s acceptance of MacEnroe’s tennis behavior – or Bobby Knight’s), concerns me. It might appear to be reminiscent of past U.S. Foreign policy (e.g., “the accusation that the United States has striven to single-handedly dominate world affairs.”).
Having coached squash at a Division I college level (University of Western Ontario at a time when they usually finished top three in U.S. College Squash), as well as coaching (and consulting) at the International Level (e.g., Canadian Jr. National Squash Team with Jonathon Power, Graham Ryding; Olympic Gold in Tennis Doubles, etc.), I am unimpressed with rankings of any sort. My respect for Paul Assiante, the Trinity coach, is based on my squash discussions with him, and more recently the coaching values that come across in his recently published book – not his win-loss record. The idea that recruiting success (and the associated win-loss record) equates with coaching ability is a strange one for me. “Recruiting” does not play a role in any coaching education program that I know of – outside of the U.S – talent identification definitely does. Considering that the average age of top performance in squash is 27-28, I would suggest that Athletic Director’s (and in some cases college Presidents) direct their coach-employees to take the estimated 30% of their work week that they devote to recruiting, and better use that time to mentor their charges.
Ironically, the Admissions Department here at Smith has, for the first time in my 16 years at the college, admitted several (2 ED, and possibly two more top junior players) squash recruits – so we are looking at moving up at least 10 spots in the rankings (we won’t get to the #12 spot (21-4 win-loss record) we achieved in 1998 and 1999 with a team with only one player who had played at high school:). As I explained to my team at our season-ending meeting – the new players will make absolutely no difference to our win-loss record, as I will simply schedule more difficult teams in an attempt to play against opponents of similar ability – thereby maximizing their improvement.