College Recruiting and Humility

One of the most fascinating conversations I had with Dirk Marshall this past weekend was about college recruiting and humility. Humility is an admirable trait, although modesty is often mistaken for it. But does it have any place in the world of college recruiting, where you are explicitly trying to convince young people to choose your school over all other options?

First, let’s get a definition of humility, then some very general notion of how college recruiting generally works before turning to that question.

Humility vs Modesty

I talk a lot about humility when I’m “out on the road”. At the core of humility is an honesty about who you are. To be humble is to resist the urge to exaggerate or fabricate truths about your person.

Modesty is another quality altogether, although as I said it is often mistaken for humility. Modesty is actually dishonest, because it involves underselling some of your best qualities. Many people go to modesty because they believe it will be socially useful- they don’t want to brag and modesty is the opposite of bragging.

But modesty actually has the opposite effect. One of the situations where it can be harmful in a swimming context is if one of your better swimmers produces an objectively good performance, say a time improvement or a league championship winning time. Upon receiving praise, they shoot back with “that wasn’t that good!”.

Now imagine how the slowest person on the team feels hearing that. How should they feel about their own swims when a performance they can only dream about isn’t “that good”?

Humility is about recognizing your own achievements, strengths and skills, but never going beyond. In so doing you can actually help others to do the same, while avoiding the pitfalls of bragging or exaggeration.


College recruiting is perhaps more competitive than the actual swimming it is intended for. It is the lifeblood of any good team.

It works something like this. Coaches either contact swimmers they are interested in or the swimmers contact the schools. Most high school swimmers considering college consider a variety of options.

The schools, if they are interested in an athlete, try to distinguish their school from other options. They tell a story about Southern Montana State and what it means to be a Bighorn. They talk about their excellent Creative Aerospace Fiction department.

There is room for humility in all these parts, and actually it is advantageous to be humble about what your school is and what it isn’t. You will have a very unhappy freshmen when they arrive on campus and find they can’t really study Creative Aerospace Fiction.

When it comes to the sporting angle however, college coaches face immense pressure to present themselves as extremely knowledgable and someone who can take pretty much anyone and make them faster. That’s for sure what I did when I first stepped into a recruiting role at 25, even though that was far from the truth about both my knowledge and ability.

For better or worse, I was just inexperienced enough to be oblivious to what I didn’t know.

Still, I wonder how much room there is for many on the most intense front lines of recruiting to be honest with high school athletes about what they don’t know. Can you really land that top 20 recruit while admitting to them you don’t totally know what you’re doing?

I don’t think so, and the downstream consequences of that are not great for college swimmers. If you cannot be humble about your own coaching ability, then swimmers that do not perform well are a serious problem for you. How can you tell the next crop of incomers that your coaching works when there is evidence of cracks in the system in your lanes every day?

That divide makes for a tough interaction between a lot of coaches and swimmers. Its paradoxically a huge barrier to the kind of relationship that would help the swimmer and coach to feel better and do better. It adds an extra layer of performance pressure, beyond doing well and improving, or scoring the requisite number of points.

Of course, I’ve got enough humility now to admit that there could be some pioneers of humble recruiting out there that I just don’t know about. I hope so.