Social Media, Team Branding, and College Recruits
As July closes, another school year’s promise looms ever nearer and, with that promise arrives an equally exciting and nerve-wracking period for many high school juniors and seniors: the college application process. This process certainly wears a daunting cloak for many applicants, but presents extra difficulty for student-athletes attempting to match academic and athletic interests. Selecting a school that matches these interests may seem impossible, but rest assured! There is a place for every athlete, regardless of sport or ability level. Countless individuals have successfully found their college home and the entire process has become infinitely easier with social media’s advent. College coaches and prospective recruits alike have triumphantly implemented social media into the recruitment agenda, providing insider insight and helping match players to suitable teams.
Cited above, choosing that ‘perfect’ school appears an impossible feat and it is, therefore, easier to narrow the criteria to three simple items: analysis of a university’s academic offering, analysis of a university’s location and analysis of a university’s athletic promise. Each criterion will be different depending on the athlete. The first of the three is finding a college that provides the appropriate academic rigor for you. Part of the college experience will include your education and future career preparation; after all, most NCAA athletes go “pro” in something other than their sport. It is, on that note, a good idea to target schools offering desired majors (or major flexibility if you seek to combine a few academic interests), field focus, study abroad, internship programs, etc. Additionally, you may inquire into the college team’s GPA, the school student-athlete retention rate, and common majors within the team. This way you may better understand how your academic interest compares to that of potential teammates’ and the relative importance of academia in certain programs (Hyman and Jacobs, 2010).
A university’s location is also extremely important to consider. Do you want to be in a big city? Do you prefer smaller college towns? Do you want nearby family as part of the in-state experience? Do you want a fresh out-of-state experience? These are all questions you’ll want to ask yourself. College is challenging on many fronts; from new locales, new friends, new training schedules to coursework requirements to learning how to take care of yourself without parental help, university will slowly sculpt you into an adult. This can absolutely create stress and influence mental health; you will want a location that best supports your personal interests (whether this support be through university programs, teammate camaraderie, nearby family, etc.) as research shows “positive social support of high quality can enhance resilience to stress, help protect against developing trauma-related [issues]...[and] decrease the...consequences of trauma-induced disorders” (Ozbay, 2007).
The third facet of student-athlete school selection is the athletic program. While you may wish to investigate several avenues personally, here are a few we, at TOPPS, feel should factor: coach bios (how long has the head coach been coaching? Are they fresh-faced or an established figure within your sport? How experienced are they in dealing with athletes of your particular caliber? What is the involvement of the assistant coaches?), length of time coaches have spent with the program (is the head coach ready to retire? If the coach is relatively new, have they at least brought in their own full recruitment classes? In that same vein, is the team a reflection of the coach’s creation?), conference results (how does the team perform against conference rivals? While some great sports teams never win conference titles, it is also fun to be a part of a winning team and worth some thought), and team culture (is the team super focused on sports only or is there room for fun? Does this fun come at the expense of athletic performance? Do you see your personality fitting that of other players? Keep in mind, over the next four years, your teammates will become an ‘extended family;’ they will become your social support, helping you navigate both good and bad times. Again, this list is not exhaustive, but the above points can directly impact your collegiate experience. For example, you would not want to select a team primarily based on legendary coaching staff only to have the head coach retire a year into your collegiate career (Paine, 2015).
As we have mentioned, college preparation is a challenge and, with the advent of social media, may appear even more daunting. You may be overwhelmed by all the channels through which sport team information is dispensed. However, these social media channels have afforded college teams a specialized route into the prospective recruitment pool. Social media allows teams to appear both relevant and visible to today’s youth, a generation (for better or worse) conditioned to social media’s everyday normalcy. Teams also use these platforms to craft easily accessible and recognizable “brands.” For example, hashtags and emojis easily traced to certain programs generate hype and excitement about that program’s existence. Branding also allows coaches a grand stage upon which to present their team’s culture, style of play, staff and athlete information. This way, recruits and fans get a view into their favorite teams and feel more closely tied to said programs. Just as social media breaks down every day life’s geographic boundaries, so, too, does it shorten distance between prospects and coaches (Crabtree, 2016).
On the flip side, recruits may also use social media for many of the same reasons coaches do. Through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, athletes can direct message coaches and coaching staff; they may ask questions or express interest in a program and, often, receive quick responses. High school student-athletes can also track a team’s relevant highlights, stats, player roster, and, conclusively, develop a better vision of the entity. Additionally, social media provides an easy forum through which coaches may contact recruits or track progress, making the process more intimate and familiar. Thus, though intimidating, social media can highly benefit a high schooler’s college selection.
Unfortunately, social media is a double-edged sword precisely because it draws targeted coaches into your intimate circle. Many high schoolers forget friends are not the only individuals’ privy to personal tweets, posts, snaps, etc. Too often we hear about college teams dropping top recruits for profane online language, inappropriate pictures, and even offensive reposts from outside sources. Southern Methodist University’s football defensive coordinator Van Malone has been extremely vocal about heavy tabs kept on potential recruits, sharing online the extensive dossier designed to track athlete social medias. He is not alone; almost all teams across the nation investigate potential players at some level and, while ‘the line’ is drawn differently at each college, it is generally a good idea to maintain a clean-cut online persona. Check out this high school recruitment website's tips regarding social media Do's and Do Not's. Bear in mind, what you post online builds your brand in the same way a college team also seeks to brand itself (Crabtree). Ask yourself: what do your photos, shared articles, and snapchats say about you? What do you want them to say?
Ultimately, the student-athlete recruitment process does seem scary; we see so many boxes to tick under the “perfect fit” header. However, the process is easily broken down and, over the past few years, social media has successfully brought coaches closer to potential new players. Through these medias, coaches lure top athletes to their programs, better present their program’s culture, and kindle an insider’s view. Athletes also use their platforms to update coaches and track targeted potential schools. However, those platforms can be a minefield; athletes should strive to keep social media presence clean and uncontroversial.
In conclusion, TOPPS has created its own recruitment tip list:
Find your Feel: feelings are essential when we look to manage decisions. Remain mindful of how a certain campus and team makes you feel during college visits; be sure to speak with coaches and potential teammates.
Visualize: imagine yourself in your targeted programs; do you see yourself wearing those school colors? Sitting in the classroom? A proud alumnus of that institution?
Communicate: can you speak freely and confidently with coaches, educators, and potential teammates?
These areas are significant when looking for a “best fit,” pushing yourself to reach goals, staying safe, heard, and challenged in a new environment, and accomplishing those aforementioned dreams. TOPPS wishes all those beginning their college process the best of luck- have fun with it!
Crabtree, Jeremy. (Jan. 26, 2016). The ‘social’ science of recruiting. ESPN. Retrieved on July 29, 2017, from http://www.espn.com/college-football/recruiting/story/_/id/14646545/social-media-becomes-powerful-aide-dangerous-connection-recruiting.
Hyman, Jeremy S. and Lynn F. Jacobs. (March 24, 2017). 8 Tips for the Student Athlete. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved on July 29, 2017, from https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/professors-guide/2010/03/24/8-tips-for-the-student-athlete.
Oxbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Chorney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social Support and Resilience to Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35-40.
Paine, Rick. (June 10th, 2015). How to Find a Good College Swim Team. SwimSwam. Retrieved on July 29, 2017, from https://swimswam.com/how-to-find-a-good-college-swim-team/.