By Stephen Gregory
Perhaps the most gratifying reward of coaching cross county occurs when an athlete gives his or her best effort during the race – a full rendering from the soul, mind and body, and an honest exchange for months of coaching effort. And, when a team has successfully met the challenge of racing against itself, coaches walk away from the finish line with hearts full of satisfaction.
Having met the challenge, the kids know they’ve done well, even if they haven’t won. Often, previously ignorant of their own ability to put forth such courage, the runners now become true harriers. Minds meld, trust deepens and friendships evolve out of the coach-student relationship. Moments like this can provide the kids with some of the strongest emotional material many have ever experienced – a few months to work hard, a lifetime to remember.
When coaching student-athletes with a lifetime focus, is it any wonder that we are called upon to write letters of recommendation – the next step to the springboard of life?
The words, “Hey coach, would you write a letter of recommendation for me?” often provide a way for the coach to express gratitude to his or her athletes for their hard work during the season. Also, writing a letter of reference provides the coach with a vehicle to tell others about the development of character the athlete has experienced. And, remember, letters of recommendation make a big difference in acceptance at colleges, and are important for valuable financial aid awards.
Of course, coaches are eager to do a good job, but how can they best perform the task? Some coaches may flinch at the thought of composing a letter that captures four entire seasons in four short paragraphs. Experts at divining athletes’ individualized training needs, the coach must now convey an individualized message to a reader the coach usually never meets! What’s he or she to do?
Following are some guidelines that may be helpful when asked to write letters of recommendation.
Briefly, the general tone of a letter of recommendation must always accentuate the positive, to the exclusion of all else. Type the letter on school letterhead, include your e-mail address and be sure to use spell check. Sign the letter yourself only after you’ve proofed for grammar. The letter should be a single page, and no more than three or five paragraphs. Longer letters will lose the interest of the reader, who is not able to devote more than a few minutes to it.
The Opening Paragraph, the Hook
The opening paragraph must hook the reader and create an interest that draws attention to the body of your recommendation. If your opening words fail to create interest, your recommendation may not even be read! Describe your relationship to the student and why you are uniquely qualified to write a letter of recommendation for this individual. Two or three sentences should do it.
The Second Paragraph, Crux of the Recommendation
The second paragraph, and perhaps third, should provide specific facts. The writer may explain the student’s goals, or provide an evaluation of the student’s qualities and abilities.
Every person has one outstanding character trait that and sets him or her apart from others. The best letters identify the student’s “most vibrant character trait” and tell a short one- or two-sentence story that exemplifies the student and that trait.
For example, “Roy’s most vibrant character trait is his forthright honesty. When others at camp were led into mischievous theft, Roy was seen walking away, clearly able to withstand the duress of considerable peer pressure to join in.” Or, “State Champion Mary Smith’s most vibrant character trait is her willingness to forego personal glory, so that others on her team could obtain recognition. In the newspaper article about her state championship, Mary ‘dedicated her victory’ to a profoundly crestfallen teammate who had also sought the crown.”
As the case may be, it is appropriate to focus on academics, athletics, sportsmanship, self-control or maturity, goal-setting, leadership, self-confidence or the ability to generate confidence in others. In addition qualities such as trustworthiness, coach-ability, dependability, ability to follow rules, pride, humor, awards or honors earned and why, reaction to misfortune, consideration of others or relationships to other team members and loyalty may be highlighted.
Use verbs that describe the athlete’s actions or that convey thoughts about this athlete’s development or character. Some examples often used by coaches are: strives, demonstrates, leads (by example), respects, supports, plans, implements, etc. For example, “In one race he could easily have won, John dropped back to run in the rear and encourage his freshmen teammates who were struggling at that point in the season.”
Closing Paragraph, Don’t Miss This Opportunity
The one guiding star every salesman knows is that “you must ask for the order.” The final paragraph of your letter of recommendation should ask the reader to accept your athlete as their student. Set forth the student’s goals and explain how your athlete will be a credit to the college or program for which they are applying. The final sentence should also encourage the reader to contact you with any questions that may arise.
I’m a contrarian. Letters of recommendation are often presumed to be confidential between the writer and the intended recipient. But, after mailing, I often let my athletes read a copy of the letter I write for them. Written to be read by outsiders, but also seen by the student, the letter of reference may open the door for the student to reflect on the value of what he or she has gained from sports. It is a personal decision, but I see this practice as encouraging my athletes to continue on a path that will promote continuing character development, and it lets them know I care.
Our athletes work extremely hard for us, but we all grow from the experience. By helping them move up to the next level of challenge that life has to offer, the letter of recommendation is a gratifying way to say “thanks” to former athletes for all the effort they put into our program. It’s a great task, so approach it with vigor.
Sample Letter of Recommendation
About the Author: Stephen Gregory started his coaching career in 1965 as a sophomore “student coach” at Marietta College in Ohio after convincing the athletic director to start a team and recruiting the runners himself. By the time he graduated, the cross country program at Marietta was well-established and has since produced All-Americans and high school cross country coaches who are still coaching today. An accountant in Pitman, New Jersey, Gregory coached varsity cross country at Salem (New Jersey) High School until taking a sabbatical to spend more time with his family. He now directs a summer cross country program in Salem. A believer in the motivational power of words, Gregory compiled “Cross Country Quotes,” published by the Cross Country Journal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.