Many facets of intercollegiate athletics have remained unchanged for a long time. But over the past few years, two elements – the NCAA transfer portal and new name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules – have started prompting significant changes in college sports.
In this article, we’ll explore how both are impacting human performance programs, the professionals who deliver them, and the student-athletes who participate at the NCAA level. We’ll also suggest some ways in which an athlete management system (AMS) can help performance staff demonstrate their value, individualize programming, and even increase player retention.
Student-Athletes on the Move
Transferring between universities used to be a messy process in which coaches could deny their athletes’ request to switch schools, players might have to sit out part or all of their next season, and eligibility was often up in the air. The NCAA sought to smooth out all the sporting and academic complications with the 2018 introduction of its transfer portal.
Yet some critics claim that the pendulum has swung too far the other way and made the process so easy that it’s actually encouraging student-athletes to chop and change as they progress through their collegiate careers. An article for KUsports.com quoted ESPN writer Bill Connelly as stating that in 2021, the typical Big 12 team lost 16.1 players to transfer, and that first-year coaches had an average of 15.9 leave their program.
Since then, the rate of players leaving one school for another has only increased. An NCAA report on transfer trends suggested that an increase in graduate transfers from 1,631 to 3,092 was likely due to the eligibility extension many student-athletes were granted due to the COVID pandemic. Yet during that same period, the number of undergraduate transfers also increased from 5,072 to 6,475. It’s not just the quantity of athletes switching that’s on the rise, but also their profile, as illustrated by 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison switching from Pittsburgh to USC. Multiple media outlets now rank the top prospects who have declared their intention to transfer, and there are entire websites dedicated to the topic.
It’s arguable that some of these transfers have been motivated by student-athletes’ desires to capitalize on the NCAA’s revised NIL rules. On July 1st, 2021, they started being able to profit from their own name, image, and likeness, a result of the Supreme Court ruling in the Alston vs NCAA case the previous month. This has prompted players to start their own businesses selling everything from apparel to NFTs, as well as signing sponsorship deals with third-party companies.
Dealing with a Shorter Athlete Development Timeline
The pluses of the transfer portal and lifting of NIL restrictions include providing student-athletes with greater mobility and revenue sources. Yet there are also potential downsides for competitors themselves and the performance programs that serve them. The first challenge for staff is that the ever-increasing transfer rate offers far less time to work with student-athletes. This cuts a development pathway that used to encompass the entirety of a player’s collegiate career down to as little as a single season.
“I used to think of collegiate athletics as a great opportunity for long-term athletic development,” said Jordan Troester, University of Oregon director of performance and sports science, in a recent panel discussion for The Vanguard Roundtable podcast. “You’ve got these athletes for three to five years, you can take them from point A to point B, and they don’t expect to play right away. But they’re going to learn, grow, and develop physically until they have the opportunity to be a contributor or even a star for your team. That’s all changed. Because if I’m not playing, I’m not getting the opportunities for sponsorship, which means I’m not making money and I need to transfer somewhere where I am going to play right now. It takes that whole framework of four to five years of development and condenses it down.”
Transferring between colleges or universities might offer the promise of greater NIL marketing opportunities, but it often comes at a cost to the athlete’s play on the court or field and their future prospects.
“If you bounce around to two or three different universities, there’s zero continuity in your development, you may have multiple different, completely different philosophies from a strength and conditioning standpoint, and you never actually make any progress, because you’re starting from scratch every time,” Troester said.
One of the advantages of using an AMS such as Smartabase in this context is that it allows student-athletes to be developed as much as possible in a short period of time and reduces the chances of overtraining someone who wants to see as much advancement as possible right away. By combining game statistics, GPS and other metrics from practices, and information from the weight room, a multidisciplinary team can ensure that players are getting sufficient load exposure to prompt adaptation, without risking overload that could increase the chances of injury, compromise performance, or put the student-athlete’s health in jeopardy.
The expectations for the abbreviated development timeline that the transfer era has created are also higher, as a student-athlete who wants to profit from NIL needs as much exposure as possible, which will only come when they’re playing a lot of minutes and continuing to get bigger, faster, and stronger. An AMS such as Smartabase can help meet these elevated expectations by allowing domain experts to highlight which factors contribute to improved output, whether that’s elements of training or lifestyle practices such as hydration, sleep, and nutrition. These can then be maximized in the available time that coaches get with a player, without attempting to rush their progress.
“With the pressure that’s now on, you need to find variables that improve performance the most,” said Dennis Mannion, House of 7 CEO and president and former COO and president of the LA Dodgers, during The Vanguard Roundtable podcast. “Because players are focusing on how much money they could get from NIL by going to another school, they’re not even thinking about the training they’re getting versus what they’re going to get. It’s going to be interesting to see how this levels out.”
Utilizing Athlete Profiles for Recruitment and Retention
Recruiting is another area of college sports that has been shaken up by the combination of NIL and the transfer portal. Scouting and assessing prospects used to be done largely in person by members of the coaching, but with the advent of the internet, most of the grunt work could be done through recruiting websites that collated stats and ranked high school prospects. These are still valuable tools, but with even the highest-ranked student-athletes more likely to transfer, their star ratings no longer carry as much weight.
One way that an AMS could help make more informed recruiting choices is by creating profiles for individual athletes and then grouping them. As they dig into the data, the performance staff could look for trends that indicate the kind of players who stay for multiple years and those that are most likely to transfer after a single season. Doing so would inform how much time and money should be devoted to future recruits who might fit a similar profile.
Such a system can also help on the other end of the process. The likelihood of enrolled athletes staying can be increased by the continuity and consistency that an AMS provides, which leads to more focused attention and enhanced collaboration between the performance team and the student-athletes they serve.
“A program is more than just its people,” Troester said. “It’s also the clarity, the consistency, and the continuity across all sports over time that allows new people to come in, pick up a process, and make it even better than it was before. This also gives the athlete a better experience, as it enables them to better engage with their information.”
In addition to ensuring that their physical qualities are being developed sustainably, a platform such as Smartabase can take into account student-athletes’ mental health. Filling out a daily wellness survey could help staff proactively identify any issues and have a coach check in with the individual, bringing in a counselor or sports psychologist later if needed. The better a school is at taking care of the student-athlete as a whole person, the greater its retention rate is likely to be.
“Psychological profiling has the potential to be all the more valuable in this changing environment because the athlete’s resilience and their desire to work hard to get better all of a sudden become that much more important in a volatile environment,” Troester said in the panel discussion.
“It’s going to grow exponentially,” Mannion agreed. “One team I was with collected biofeedback that can get a read on your anxiety from your brain activity levels. It’s going to explode on the psychological side.”
Delivering Individualized and Sustainable Programs
Strength and conditioning coaches and other performance specialists used to be able to think in terms of team-wide programming and then just make a few adjustments to individual needs. This is no longer viable in the age of NIL and mass transfers, as each player is as mindful of their own personal path as they are of the team’s needs, and in some cases, more so. Utilizing an AMS makes it easier for every SME to tailor their programming to each student-athlete. Whether it’s an overall snapshot displayed in a dashboard or detailed data sets from movement screen scores, benchmark testing, or individual practice and game metrics, the staff can zero in on the exact needs of an athlete and then tailor their preparation and recovery.
This information not only empowers the performance team to provide maximum value, but also has the potential to encourage student-athlete retention. If they can visualize how someone is progressing, it’s easier to demonstrate the positive impact that fully committing to this program is having on the player’s development. This not only increases their current buy-in but might also make them more likely to return next season instead of transferring elsewhere.
“Being able to communicate different data points back to an athlete to show them what happens when they engage with the school and they’re enjoying what they’re doing within a performance program has a lot of value to them,” said Dan Duffield, Fusion Sport global solutions consultant, on The Vanguard Roundtable episode. “Ultimately, athletes care about performing better and better, so they want to know how what they’re doing is improving their performance. The only way to really do that is to put data in front of them.”
Tracking players in real time within a tailored program using Smartabase can also ensure that the training of those who don’t transfer is sustainable enough to encourage continual development without them burning out.
“On the performance side, we have to be that much more precise in our ability to individually assess where that athlete is at and be more targeted in our approach in supporting their performance, instead of having a large, cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all program,” Troester said during The Vanguard Roundtable. “If I recruit 30 of the best athletes in the country as freshmen and I put them through the most grueling training program I can possibly imagine, then two years from now, I’ll have 10 of them left – survival of the fittest – and they’re likely to be first-round draft picks. That doesn’t work anymore; you can’t afford to break anyone or have that attrition. Because the turnover is going to be so high, they won’t last, stick around, or contribute to your program.”
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 Shane Jackson, “KU Football has Lost 2nd-Most Players in College Football to Transfer Portal,” KUsports.com, July 21, 2021, available online at https://m.kusports.com/weblogs/jacksons_journal/2021/jul/21/ku-football-has-lost-2nd-most-players-in
 “Transfer Portal Data: Division I Student-Athlete Transfer Trends,” NCAA, available online at https://www.ncaa.org/sports/2022/4/25/transfer-portal-data-division-i-student-athlete-transfer-trends.aspx
 Adam Wells, “Jordan Addison Says Decision to Transfer to USC from Pittsburgh Was a ‘Gut Move’,” Bleacher Report, May 28, 2022, available online at https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10037140-jordan-addison-says-decision-to-transfer-to-usc-from-pittsburgh-was-a-gut-move