Top 7 Things to Get Right

By Bo Hanson – 4x Olympian, Coaching Consultant & Director of Athlete Assessments

Successful recruitment is the life blood of top performing sports teams and organizations around the World. Whilst the intricacies of the actual recruitment process in different teams, colleges and organizations is going to vary, this article highlights what we believe to be seven critical principles to ensure you are positioned to recruit athletes who fit your program’s needs best.

#1: Recruit for Technical Ability or Behavior Style or Both?

When faced with a number of potential recruits, what are your priorities in determining who eventually you offer a position to? Most coaches agree athletic ability (or ‘talent’) is a critical factor, and I too would never overlook this. However, is being good at the sport or having great potential the only reason you would choose an athlete? From my experience working with hundreds of different sports teams across more than 41 sports, recruiting in sport for athletic ability alone is a recipe for disaster.

Consider this. In most successful business organizations, an employee’s performance is based 70% on business outcomes being achieved and 30% on behaving in-line with organizational values. Having a top technical performer who can’t behave costs in more ways than you might realize.

Their in-appropriate behavior undermines the contribution of others and detracts from the overall team productivity, not to mention, the likelihood of creating turn over in your ranks as people leave (physically or mentally), because they do not want to be on the team with this individual. And in some cases, the risk to your brand and reputation or potential financial and legal costs can be considerable too. (Read our article “Why Spending the Big Bucks isn’t Always the Best Bet” for more on this topic.)

Sport is no different as it is simply people trying to perform at their best within a different context. We need to consider more than their athletic ability and take into account how a potential recruit will contribute to the existing team chemistry. Ask the question:  does the individual we are recruiting have a style of behavior which is going to add value to the overall team dynamic (team chemistry)?

To do this, we need to understand what our team dynamic is. (Our article on Understanding Team Dynamics can give you an insight into the current dynamics present in your team, and what type of athletes you may want to consider recruiting for. Read the article here!)

What we know about successful teams, is diversity in behavior styles is critical. Our aim is to create a balance and where this balance does not exist, we need to recruit specifically to fill certain gaps. For example, do we have a very task and goal focused team and we therefore need to recruit players who can add value because they are different as they are more relationship focused? Or is it the opposite?

#2: Understand your own Program: Define your Culture

Having just spoken about recruiting an athlete whose behavior fits with the team, this next principle takes into account your team’s culture. This comes down to whether you feel your new recruit is going to feel comfortable in your team. Can they behave according to their natural behavioral style and therefore is able make a positive contribution more easily?

Every coach has either had the experience or has heard about a great high school athlete who can’t discover their playing ability in their freshman year at college, falling way short on the expectations of the coaching staff and fellow athletes. The same happens on professional teams where a lot of money is spent on the salary of a great player who can’t find themselves in a new team’s culture and environment. (You can read more on “It’s not all about the Money in the War for Footballers”.

Culture is the sum total of the acceptable behaviors within a team. In defining culture, we also must be aware of what the values underpinning the behaviors are. To determine what your culture is take a look at what the behaviors which are performed daily by the most influential members of the team. For example, how does the team communicate? Is that important? How does the team organize itself? What is the team’s focus – is it winning or a more social focus? Does the team accept poor behavior or do team members take accountability for their actions? When poor standards are performed at practice, who addresses this, a player or the coach or maybe no-one? The list of cultural indicators is massive. Your team no doubt has a unique culture which if you analyze it, you see certain patterns.

The question is when recruiting a new player; will they fit in with the current patterns forming your culture? Or maybe you are recruiting some new players because you think they can be the catalyst for creating a new high performance culture. Either way, cultural fit is a vital element to define when recruiting.

For more information on culture and recruiting new athletes, we have an article on How to Select the Best Team in Sport, and a 7-part Video Presentation on Team Culture and Identity.

#3: Define your Succession Plans and Identify Gaps in your Current List

Succession planning is critical in creating sustainable results. By sustainable results, I am referring to success for five or more years. To create sustained success requires ensuring the team roles, both technical and non-technical (of which there are nine different teams roles, categorized into three separate areas) are accounted for each season. Read the article dedicated to Team Roles here.

The three categories of non-technical team roles go beyond just playing positions on the field. These categories are:

  1. Thinking/Planning

  2. Action/Doing

  3. Relationship/People-focus

Each different behavioral style is going to naturally perform well in one or two of these categories. It is important each player or athlete feels they have been recruited onto the team to add value in a specific role and that you as the coach are not making them perform in a role they are not well suited for.

When looking at the roles being played on your team or in your squad, what gaps currently exist? Where you can see a gap in roles, make sure you select a recruit who can fulfill this role without it meaning they have to contort themselves into something they are not.

#4: Use Self-Selection to find out Who’s really Interested

Having recruits self-select your team or program sends a powerful message that they feel they will belong and therefore make a valuable contribution.However, this can only happen if, as stated in principle #2, you have defined your culture and then communicated this to all. What this means is espousing your culture and program (team) values to the general population. When recruits understand and feel certain about what your program or team is about (the team identity) they are in a position to opt in. Rather than actively recruiting players, you get to choose from those who feel they would fit.

As an example, I regularly view our clients speaking at press conferences post matches. This is an ideal opportunity to talk about the team and its values and culture and how they measured up today during play. Coaches can elaborate on what they expect from players who are part of this team and the standards they aspire to. Consistently promoting this message reinforces the team’s identity to anyone who is listening and watching regularly. This obviously includes potential new recruits who are interested in learning as to whether they feel they will fit in if they are eventually recruited. Some naturally will gravitate towards certain program (teams) for their own unique reasons and others to other teams for different reasons. This is creating the opportunity for self-selection.

#5: Continually Look for Recruits Who are Not Looking for You

I know a lot of successful coaches who look for potential new recruits outside of the sport they coach in. Certain sports act as incredibly effective foundation skill sports or physical development sports.

In Australia, we have a sport called Surf Sports and this includes a whole range of different events all of which rely on young athletes having a well-developed physiology, excellent core stability and the only way to participate in Surf Sports is by being a member of a Surf Life Saving Club (collectively, our largest volunteer organization in Australia). There is a strong community oriented service attitude developed in young people. Last year at the London Olympics, the four members of our Gold Medal winning Kayak Four (Men’s K4) were all current Surf Life Saving Members (patrolling our beaches and making it safe for tourists swimming in the ocean). Each of these men learnt their paddling skills in surf sports then transitioned into Olympic Kayaking. The challenge is to create a strong pathway for this opportunity to happen. So the message is to think about the physical and mental demands of your sport and link back to what foundation sports develop this. Often the best athletes have come from outside of their chosen sport.

#6: Define who Reaches Out to the Recruit – Ensure they Represent the Values of your Organization

Creating a great first impression is critical to win over new recruits. Having a person who represents your program in the best possible light is going to ensure your potential recruits are impressed enough to want to be part of your organization. Therefore the person sent to initially recruit, should live the culture of your organization in the most positive manner.

#7: Be Prepared to “Battle” for a Candidate (What is your Competitive Advantage?)

Battling for top recruits is the norm in most sports. Hopefully if you put into practice the earlier principles, you may find the battle is weighed in your favor. This is due to the fact that you are looking for something beyond just initial playing or athletic ability. When you do find the recruit who fits with your team or organization, the process for how you finally get them on board can be a significant advantage over your competitors.

Being able to recognize a recruits DISC Style  and develop rapport quickly can be a vital advantage in this situation. Our dedicated article delves into this topic in more depth.

Some organizations find it hard to make decisions, some procrastinate, some do not know what they are looking for and this is the reason for the poor decision making. When you have clearly defined what you want in a new recruit, make sure you take decisive action. You have done your homework, so put the plan into action and offer the position. This is an important reflection of your overall organization’s culture that it will either make or break the athlete’s experience before it really begins.Make it obvious to the recruit how they fit with your program. Being able to do this is about taking time to get to know them well enough to determine their fit. Tapping into this internal motivation factor for the athlete is fundamental in creating sustained success.

When recruiting based on the above principles, you will have a detailed and objective set of decision making criteria which takes the guess work and gamble out of the equation. This decision making criteria, and the reasons why you are offering a position will also make it clear to the recruit how they can contribute to the team. Therefore they feel more valued immediately which creates a sense of team attachment which starts the cycle of performance.


As a summary, here are our top seven principles to recruiting in sport:

#1: Recruit for Technical Ability or Behavior Style or Both?
#2: Understand your own Program: Define your Culture
#3: Define your Succession Plans and Identify Gaps in your Current List
#4: Use Self-Selection to find out Who’s really Interested
#5: Continually Look for Recruits Who are Not Looking for You
#6: Define who Reaches Out to the Recruit – Ensure they Represent the Values of your Organization
#7: Be Prepared to “Battle” for a Candidate (What is your Competitive Advantage?)

Recruiting the right players or athletes for your team involves a great amount of careful planning then decisive execution of the plan. Ensuring your parameters have been set and selection standards are objective making informed decisions becomes easier.


Where to from here?

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