The hardest part of networking is also the hardest part about starting a conversation with someone you’d like to ask out on a date…figuring out what you’re going to say to break the ice. Unlike dating situations where it’s difficult to find a common interest in a particular sports team, when you’re networking with a fellow graduate from the same college or university, bringing up your college sports team can be a great conversation starter.
During my years working in career services, I’ve even found this to be effective when meeting new recruiters. You don’t have to be an expert or a sports junkie to use it to your advantage; you just have to know enough to have a brief, yet meaningful, conversation that you can use to segue into other topics. And, don’t assume interest in sports varies by gender. I’ve met some female recruiters and alumnae who seemingly know more about our sports programs than our Athletic Director.
What do you need to know to speak intelligently and effectively about your college sports team?
Name of the school’s mascot. The last thing you’d want to do is refer to the wrong name when speaking with a recruiter or possible networking contact. In some cases, you’ll also want to know what the mascot is…take, for example, Stanford’s tree…I’m still not exactly sure of the back story on the mascot so I wouldn’t be able to talk about it if I were networking with a Stanford grad. The same could be said for the following mascots: Banana Slugs (University of California-Santa Cruz), Catamounts (University of Vermont), and Zips (University of Akron).
Name and stats of the star player(s). Again, you don’t have to be able to recite season and life-time stats of everyone on the team, just be able to know some basic information on their one or two best players. When I worked at UNC, this usually meant talking about Tyler Hansbrough. And, equally important, you need to be able to speak to whether he or she had either a great game or a really bad game. That allows you to start conversations with lead-ins like “Can you believe that shot (insert name here) hit?”
How they’re doing as a team. If they’re doing really well, you can leverage that to start the conversation. If they’re terrible, you can commiserate as a way to build rapport. When I was an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, our football team was…how should I say…not good. So, when I would run into Pitt alumni, I would use the “I feel your pain” approach to start the conversation.
Starting a networking conversation by referencing college sports early in the conversation is an effective strategy for most job seekers, but especially for international students studying in the U.S. Bridging cultural divides, hobbies, and interests can be incredibly difficult. Being able to speak about your college or university football or basketball team can really help break the ice. Over the years, the international students who have fared better at networking are often those who were able to either initiate, or respond to, conversations about the college team.