Difference Makers: What I Look For In A Recruit or Hire

Mike Deegan Life Lessons Learned Through Sport

Head Coach Denison University

I have heard this question a thousand times, “What do you look for in a player?” Today, I thought I would discuss the nine things that I consider when evaluating.  The first two, academics and skill set, are the basics. Attributes three to seven are separators: family, high aptitude, enjoyable to be around, competitor, and value hard work.  The final two pieces: really caring about winning and being a great teammate can make a player elite.


The Basics:


Academics: A lot of times athletes and families “tune out” when they hear a coach talk about the importance of academics.  Academics equal increased opportunities. When you excel in the classroom you open up options across the country. Poor grades, on the other hand, create barriers to entry.  In addition, there are many more opportunities for academic merit aid then there are for athletic scholarships. It is a simple case of supply and demand. Poor and average students are a dime a dozen; universities are not going to invest their resources.  However, top-tier students are high in demand. Colleges and universities want talent, and they are willing to assist with aid to attract them.


Skill Set: The greater the skills the more attractive the athlete. I’d like to tell you it is all about effort and attitude, but it’s not.  The better players have more opportunities. It may not seem fair; however, many will argue that life works in the same manner. The salesman who is leading the company in producing revenue will have a greater margin of error than the person who is last in sales. Sports are not much different.  If a player possesses tremendous talent they will receive more chances than the player with average ability. In order to play on a team, the skill set must be on par with the other members. The higher the skill set relative to the competition the better. There are literally thousands of players across the country who possess the basics: academics and skill set.  The “next level” attributes then become critical.


Next Level:


Family: here’s a story someone sent me recently.  I apologize, I do not know the author.

“At age 13, I went to complain about a situation (changing defensive positions) where I didn’t think I was being treated fairly by a coach.My dad listened very closely to the whole story and then looked at me and told me something that stuck with me for the rest of my life….He simply smiled and said, ‘Work harder’, and walked away. Lesson learned. Stop whining and get to work. Instead of rescuing, excusing and enabling our kids by blaming others and fighting battles for them, or going immediately to the AD, principal and school board to demand the coach be fired…think about teaching our kids the simple wisdom of taking responsibility for their own situation.”


If a player has a family that will allow him to “own his situation” he has a chance to be a great asset to any team or organization.  Playing in a competitive collegiate program is difficult. Your mettle is tested daily. A student-athlete needs a “healthy” family.


A loving, caring and supportive family is critical. However, loving and caring can easily turn into overbearing and enabling. What a competitive advantage for the student-athlete that has a family that “gets it!”


High Aptitude: A high aptitude for sports is different than a skill set.  Skill set is arm speed, foot speed, power, etc. Aptitude is having the talent to translate coaching into improved results. When you teach a new technique some players have an extremely difficult time figuring it out.  Others, however, have the unique ability to pick it up right away. When I was a less experienced coach I would frequently get frustrated and say the player slow to learn was “uncoachable.” I’ve evolved, I no longer feel this way. More than likely, the athlete doesn’t have the aptitude. Whether “uncoachable” or inaptitude, neither one is desirable at the higher levels.  Everyone struggles at times; however, the highly successful athlete will have the ability to learn quicker than most.


Fun to be around: Yes, coaches want to be around enjoyable people. At certain times of the year we spend more time with our players than our own families. A mopey, gloomy or angry person isn’t someone I want to share time with. An athlete that is quick to smile, crack a joke, laugh at themselves, on the other hand, is quite enjoyable.  Sure, there is a time to be serious but the next level player has a feel for that moment. When a coach sees an athlete competing with joy they are going to want them to be a part of their team.


Know how to compete: I truly believe I can tell a lot about a baseball player by watching them play racquetball. It’s not even the skill, it is the way they compete. Are they slamming into walls, diving to save a rally, sweating, and breathing hard?  Or are they playing it safe or “too cool” to bite down. High level programs are always competing. To win championships the skill has to be there, I won’t argue that. However, there are moments in every game where it comes down to will and compete. You want the person who will stand up when that moment arises.


Aren’t afraid of hard work: The next-level player isn’t afraid to roll his/her sleeves up and get after it.  Any program that is striving for greatness is going to continue to raise the bar. That means there are going to be early morning workouts that are physically and mentally exhausting. It won’t be easy.  Coaches are keeping an eye out for the player’s ability to strain.


Having the academics and the skill set will get the player a “look.”  Possessing “next level” attributes will get them on the team, but having the final two pieces can take a player into the next stratosphere.


Elite Level


They really care about winning: Sports, no different than most things, have evolved over the last 20 years.  A lot of the changes are positive and some are negative. For better or worse, many sports have shifted heavily to training, showcasing and skill development.  Many players are preparing for the future: youth for high school, high school for college, college for pro. The scary thing is the importance of the moment is frequently missed.  While we prepare for the future we lose sight of the wonderful opportunity in the present. Oftentimes the result of the game doesn’t even matter! This format has created a culture where winning isn’t the main objective - it’s about opportunities to “show what you can do.”  Here’s the problem: in college winning does matter. What an opportunity for youth coaches. Winners are in high demand. Show me a young athlete that has won at every level, preferably in multiple sports, and I’ll show you a crowd of coaches that want that person in their program.  What most people don’t understand is that playing “winning baseball” (or any other sport) is completely different than just playing the game. And, winning is contagious; it is like a drug. Once you experience it, you never want to go back.


They are great teammates: Something special is brewing on a team or organization when the stars are great teammates.  When they truly care about everyone in the program. When they have enough equity amongst their teammates that they can challenge them because they have earned that right.  As a coach, you can spot an elite teammate from a mile away. Great teammates, like winners, are an endangered species. We’ve created a “me first” culture. Finding that special athlete who cares more about the team than themselves can elevate a program from great to outstanding.


“What do you look for?”  I hear that question so much.  Sure, talent is necessary but it takes a lot more.  Coaches: I would be interested to learn what you look for in a potential athlete.  Also, I would be interested to hear what skills and traits employers look for during job interviews.  


Have a great week,





About Mike


As a baseball coach, Mike Deegan has won three NCAA National Championships and has mentored numerous all-conference and All-American athletes. As a student-athlete, Mike helped lead his team to two NCAA National Championship appearances and graduated as his college’s top scholar-athlete. In 2018, Mike was inducted into Marietta College's Athletic Hall of Fame.


A father of four, Mike and his wife Lowrie reside in Granville, Ohio, where Mike leads the Denison University Big Red baseball program.  In addition, Mike is a speaker on Culture, Leadership and Sports. Click here to learn more about booking Mike for your next speaking event: Book Mike