How has the pandemic affected the way Queen’s coaches recruit student-athletes?

Coaches Dan Valley and Christian Hoefler discuss how their recruiting efforts have changed

Dan Valley, left, and Christian Hoefler, right, speak to the The Journal about recruiting during the pandemic.
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If there’s one thing that coaches had to adjust to last year, it was leading their teams almost exclusively through a digital format.

With the entire 2020-21 varsity season suspended and limited opportunities for practice and training, coaches naturally turned to remote platforms as one way of maintaining a consistent and healthy dialogue with their players.

But what about student-athletes that hadn’t enrolled at Queen’s yet?

Almost two years on, amid their third straight recruiting cycle impacted by COVID-19, Queen’s coaches are now well-versed in recruiting student-athletes from around the country without ever attending one of their games or having met them in person—two things that would’ve been practically unheard of prior to the pandemic.

Recruiting at the U Sports level has evolved throughout the pandemic. The Journal’s Sports section spoke to two coaches to find out just how has much this process has evolved and what Queen’s coaches have done to manage the recruiting landscape for the better of their teams.

For Christian Hoefler, head coach of the Men’s Soccer team, it’s been a matter of retrofitting his previous recruiting methodology to fit a virtual context—reaching out to athletes as early as grade 11, gauging their interest in the Gaels soccer program, and maintaining a steady stream of communication as they come to a decision.

But, as Hoefler told The Journal, establishing a personal connection with prospective athletes has been notably more difficult than it was before the pandemic.

“The biggest challenge that I face is just really trying to remain as energetic and as positive as possible over Zoom, where [athletes] can't really get that same vibe if we were to meet in person,” he said in an interview.

Hoefler noted it was even more complicated trying to evaluate a prospect and their on-field characteristics.

“Sometimes I'd go to showcases […] I'd be like a guest coach there. And we'd have a couple of the prospects that we're looking at. And we invite them to those sessions, and they get a sense of who I am in those sessions as a coach or as a trainer. And then vice versa, I get a sense of how they handle my instruction,” he said.

“If I see they're very responsive and they understand the objective for that certain session, that bodes well. [But it’s] tough to do over Zoom. Tough to just go, ‘Hey, show me your footwork.’”

Like every other team at Queen’s this year, men’s soccer had two full recruitment classes worth of athletes on the roster, meaning numerous players who took the field were some Hoefler had never seen play—apart from videos—prior to training camp.

Although he stands by the cohesiveness of this year’s squad, Hoefler said it wasn’t easy to assemble a team partially based on videos and Zoom calls.

“It was great as a coach, you have all these people want to join you at the same time, but to really go through their profile, CVs, and anticipate that they'll have the best potential for program, having only met them through Zoom or really distance situations? Very difficult.”

By and large, Hoefler’s core recruiting practices have remained the same throughout the pandemic: he still focuses on certain clubs and areas which have produced talent in the past, relies on advice and recommendations from scouts about prospects, and establishes a line of communication long before athletes will arrive at Queen’s.

However, there is one key aspect of his methodology that has changed, and it won’t be leaving anytime soon.

“I wasn’t one to do video calls […] before this,” he said. “If I looked at […] my top 10 ranked recruiting list […] I would love to tour them, I would love to meet them in person.”

“[Now, I] just do a Zoom call […] for 30 minutes, get that sense, and it ends up […] saving some time, as opposed to having to set up a tour and visiting and all that.”

For Dan Valley, head coach of the women’s rugby team, Zoom has become similarly indispensable for his recruiting process.

“Having done the number of Zoom calls that we’ve done over the last two recruiting cycles, [...] you almost feel silly not having leaned on Zoom more heavily prior to now,” he said in an interview.

“It’s a very efficient part of the process that I don’t see ever going away from our toolbox.”

While the past two years have also meant adapting his approach, the long-term framework Valley and the team set in place when the pandemic hit gave them an added edge when opportunities to see athletes on the field became scarce.

“We are typically identifying a boatload of athletes as early as grade nine. We're getting out and watching a lot of provincial rugby, a lot of high school rugby […] In a normal situation, we are always building the base of the pyramid to be as broad as possible, and then we start to track those athletes through their high school and provincial rugby careers,” Valley said.

“Part of it was looking at athletes who would have made their way onto our radar a couple of years ago, back when there were opportunities to compete, and there were opportunities to have eyes on them.”

How this approach turned out for the team speaks for itself. In November, with two full recruiting classes on the roster, the women’s rugby team won the U Sports National Championship, beating both the country's No.1 and No. 3 teams ahead of their finals victory over uOttawa.

Now, although opportunities to track athletes early have since decreased, Valley mentioned they’ve adjusted their approach by looking at athletes who have maintained connections to certain rugby organizations like the Rugby Canada Development Academy, which are able to provide consistent updates on progress given high school programs are still uncertain.

Reflecting on the current landscape of U Sports recruiting, Valley said with the expansion of virtual outreach, the geographic separations between players and coaches are perceptibly smaller—, and that’s for the better.

“There’s a rugby academy that operates on Vancouver Island, and I was able to jump on a Zoom call with a couple of our athletes and talk to a group of, let’s call it 20 rugby players,” he said.

“In a pre-COVID world, I don’t know that I ever would have been able to engage in that way.”

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