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Jun 8, 2011

It was the summer of 2006. I had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin and was back in my hometown of Nashville, TN. I had just completed my journalism degree and I was procrastinating in my job search. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was training with my old swim club, attempting to lose that “freshman 15,” and was entertaining national media publications. I was your typical lost college graduate.

After one of my swim practices, I was approached by a member of our coaching staff, Jeremy Organ, and David Williams, Vice Chancellor of Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt was looking to hire an Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator to help build the reinstated women’s swim team. The original program was terminated in 1990. Organ was already slated to take the helm.

At only 22, I was offered my first professional job as a coach for a major university in a large, competitive conference. This opportunity was too good to be true. Many athletes dream of this, but the reality is limited. According to the NCAA, there are 167,089 athletes and 22,131 coaches, a 13% student athlete/coach ratio. With few openings each year, I knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I was eager and determined to help build the team.

I arrived early on my first day with a smile from ear to ear. I walked straight into my new office (which I shared with Organ), and declared I was ready to get to work. Organ looked at me with a grin, and asked, “Do you know how to recruit?”

I responded, “No, but I was recruited, can’t be that hard.”

“Good,” Organ stated, “Your computer is right there, figure it out.”

How was I recruited?

My smile quickly diminished and panic started to set. I realized that I was hired on my athletic reputation, but I assumed there would be training. It was obvious I had no experience. I immediately went back to when I was a high school senior, and asked myself, “How was I recruited?”

When I was a senior, I compiled a list of my top five college choices (the maximum limit of colleges that high school student athletes are allowed to take an official recruiting visit), and had my coach, John Morse, call these schools to arrange recruiting trips.

Indeed this was a great strategy for well-established universities, however Vanderbilt was a new program and many high school seniors didn’t realize the team was reinstated, let alone recruiting.

Additionally, Vanderbilt was limited on scholarships and the university had rigorous academic standards. Tuition alone at Vanderbilt ran nearly $40,000, and Vanderbilt only admitted the brightest scholars and were held to those same standards.

I surely had my work cut out for me.

I started with the Internet

Around 2002, swimming results were finally starting to be published online. This was huge. I knew I had the ability to look up swimmers via the Internet. Furthermore, in 2006, Facebook had opened its settings to allow high school students to join the site. At the time, there were no NCAA guidelines on interacting with high school athletes on social media sites. NCAA policy limits the amount of contact with high school seniors to one phone call a week. I knew my advantage would be to use social media as an engagement tool.

To kick off the recruiting process, I immediately hit the Internet. Besides college research, I had never done any other research on the web. The only Boolean I knew was to add quotation marks around words to pull up the exact phrase.

I presumed if I can source myself, I can source anyone.

In Google: “Shannon Van Curen” didn’t pull up too many pages. However, “Shannon Van Curen” OR “Shannon VanCuren” produced more results.

This string pulled results from the Tennessee High School State Championships in 2001 (my senior year). I then used that url to view results from additional high school state championships, starting with the most recent in 2006. Judging by the date, I was able to compile a list of current senior swimmers in Tennessee. Luckily the grade of each athlete was listed in the result pages. I did a similar search, targeting every single U.S. state. I then entered the names of all seniors in an Excel spreadsheet.

Cold calling still works!

My first task was done. I had several hundred names. I took each name and entered them into Google. This brought up additional result pages from USA Swimming Club Programs. Club swimming is conducted year-round and is considered more serious than high school swimming. Each club program also had a web page. Once I identified the athlete and the club they represented, I researched the club contact information and cold-called swim coaches for hours a day. I spoke with coaches and tried to get every bit of information I could: parents’ names, home phone numbers, addresses, academic interests, social interests, career goals, anything I could to actively pursue these athletes.

If I couldn’t get contact information, I would use people search engines. & (now powered by White Pages) were two I used. This generally pulled up all the information I needed to contact the athlete.

Now the recruiting fun would begin. I remembered the excitement when college coaches would reach out to me in high school, so I was wanted to play up the same enthusiasm over the phone. Likewise, I was only 22 and I could relate to these swimmers, whereas most coaches were generally older and didn’t have that advantage.

Cold calling was easy. I did whatever I could to contact these athletes. Since these athletes were in school and had practice immediately following, I would make recruiting calls between 7 PM – 11 PM (starting with the East Coast). If I knew a hit TV show was on, like the OC, I would call during commercials or immediately after. I would watch these shows in between calls, so I could relate to the athletes. This made our conversations endless. I would also follow up each conversation with a Facebook request. The athletes could finally put a name with a face and also I could reach them on a more personal level. Additionally, I would use information from their profile to help build our relationship. For example, if I noticed that they liked music from Beyoncé, we would talk about this during our weekly phone conversation.

Engagement and excitement were in place. This also helped grow our reputation. High school seniors are viewed as the top dogs on their team, and many young athletes follow their every move. I wanted to make sure the athletes I recruited always spoke highly about Vanderbilt and its coaches.

Before I knew it, my weekends were filled with recruits visiting our campus, and most at their own expense. One by one swimmers started to commit and we were off to a great start for a first-year program.

I know a lot of skilled recruiters come from competitive athletic backgrounds. Moreover, many brand new sourcers are thrown into sourcing without any training. Does any of this resonate with you as research professionals?

This process took a lot of trial and error. But through it, I learned how to engage and court a recruit. I also learned sourcing and eventually Boolean. I’m blessed to have been able to quickly advance my career in recruiting and sourcing.

My experience at Vanderbilt set the precedence in my career for the most important part of recruiting: engagement. Though I am now more of a talent sourcer, I still use the same engagement principles I learned at Vanderbilt.

How did your initial professional experience help you to be a better sourcer? Please share in the comments below.