Student of the Sport

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a USTA College Information Session for high school players and their parents held during the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia.

The panel, led by USTA’s Senior Manager of Junior and Collegiate Competition, Erica Perkins Jasper, included the following heavy-hitters from the tennis world:

  • Bobby Bayliss – Head Men’s Coach at Notre Dame University
  • Christine Bader – Head Women’s Coach at Ball State University
  • Maria Cercone – junior coach in Florida whose daughter plays #3 doubles and #5 singles for the University of Florida
  • Rick Davison – Director of Competition at USTA Georgia
  • Steve Johnson, Sr. – Father of top-ranked D1 player, Steve Johnson, of USC and top junior coach in Southern California
  • Colette Lewis – Creator of zootennis.com and renowned junior/college tennis journalist

Here’s what I learned . . .

Before your child even starts thinking about which colleges he might be interested in, have his tennis skills evaluated by – as Steve Johnson put it – “someone you’re not writing a check to” in order to get an honest opinion of which college programs might be a good fit.  The panelists repeatedly told us that there is a program for everyone; sometimes you have to do a little more digging to find the right one(s), but it IS out there.  You and your child need to be honest about his level of play, though, and make sure you are looking at schools that have open spots in their lineups that match your child’s skill set.

During the college recruiting process – which, by the way, your player should begin thinking about as early as the summer following his freshman year of high school – it is crucial for both the player and the parents to ask a lot of questions.  Ask the coaches.  Ask the current team members.  Ask people familiar with the program.  Just ask . . . a lot!  What questions should you ask?  Well, that depends on what type of college tennis experience your child seeks.  But, all of the panelists agreed that coaches would rather you ask the tough questions up front so your player can cross off the schools that don’t have what he’s looking for and so the coaches don’t waste precious time and resources recruiting if your kid is dead set against their program.  It is important that each player find his fit, and be assured that there is a right fit for everyone out there, whether it be D1, D2, D3, or a Junior College program.

To the players, it is important to start visiting the various colleges as early as you can.  Yes, you can email the coaches, but it’s just not as personal as a face-to-face visit.  You’re allowed as many unofficial visits (i.e. visits that you arrange and pay for yourself) as you would like to take.  On those visits, meet the coaches, meet the players, ask if you can attend the team practice and workout, and get a feel for the team environment.  If possible, go look at the dorms and see where the players live and eat.  Take advantage of your junior tournament travel and visit colleges in the cities and towns where you’re playing.  Figure out if you have a preference in terms of school size (big or small) and location (urban campus or college town) – that will help you narrow down your list of target colleges once you’re ready to start the official recruiting and application process at the end of your junior year.

Familiarize yourself with the NCAA Division 1 recruiting rules as early as possible so your child doesn’t risk his eligibility.  The D1 rules are the strictest, so, even if your child is looking at D2, D3, or Junior Colleges, following the D1 rules is your safest bet.  Then, before the end of your child’s junior year, make sure he registers with the NCAA Eligibility Center so all his ducks are in a row before the official recruiting begins.

After coming up with a list of potential colleges, have your child write down the 5 most important reasons he wants to attend each school.  Some examples might be playing tennis, a high level of academics, a particular academic major, the tennis coach, or scholarship availability.  He should ask himself, “What happens if one of those things disappears?”  For instance, what if he gets injured and can no longer play tennis or what if the coach retires or goes to another school or what if he fails to earn the necessary grades to keep his scholarship – will he still be happy at that school?  If the answer is NO, then cross it off the list.

Once your child does start communicating with coaches via email, make sure he includes a link to his tennisrecruiting.net bio (which he should first make sure is up to date!), his high school graduation year, and his upcoming tournament schedule.  Your child should not be afraid to ask coaches if they’re even interested in him as a potential team member – no need to waste anyone’s time here!  Also, he should ask how many scholarships (if it’s a D1 or D2 program) and roster spots are available and if there’s an opportunity for an official visit during his senior year.

Also (please forgive me, High-Tech Tennis, but I’m just sharing what the panelists told us!), before you spend money having a fancy recruiting video made for your child, make sure your child asks the coaches if they would even like a video and what they want included on it.  In most cases, a 10-minute home-made video, uploaded to YouTube, of some match play will suffice.  The coaches are busy.  They don’t have time to sift through the fluff.  So, keep to the basics – forehands, backhands, serves, volleys, overheads, and footwork.  And, by all means, make sure you only show your child’s best behavior on the video!  [One panelist confessed that several of the coaches have compiled a Top 10 Worst Recruiting Videos list on YouTube!]

During his senior year of high school, your child will probably begin taking official (i.e. paid for by the university) visits to one or more colleges.  This is the time to ask the more pointed questions such as whether or not he can walk on the team if no scholarships are available and whether walk-ons ever get to play in the lineup.  He can also ask about the coach’s influence with the admissions department in case his academics are borderline.  In many cases, the tennis coach does have some pull and will be willing to use it if your child is a desirable candidate for the team.  And, your child should absolutely let the coach know if he doesn’t NEED scholarship money from the Athletics Department – either because he has other scholarship money coming from academic or other resources OR because you have stockpiled money to pay for his college education yourself – it’s a definite plus to coaches to know that they can use their limited funds elsewhere.

I know this is a bit long-winded, but USTA really did share a ton of great info with us!  If you have a chance to attend one of these sessions, I highly encourage you to do so.  Even though my son sort-of fought me about going (it required waking up pretty early on a Sunday morning to make the drive to Athens), I think he got a lot out of it and now has a clearer picture of the work he needs to do.  Besides which, a perk of the program was that we got to watch an incredible day of tennis at the NCAA Championships afterward!

What Are College Coaches Really Looking For?

My son has dreamed of playing college tennis since he was 9 years old.  That’s the summer he first went to tennis camp at the University of Georgia.  That’s the summer he got to be on the court with not only the head coach and assistant coach but, more importantly for him at that age, the guys who actually played on the team!  He came home from that first 5-day experience with a new-found commitment to tennis and a goal that has stuck with him ever since.

So, as any dedicated Tennis Parent would do, I started educating myself about college tennis and what it takes to get one of a very few coveted positions on the team.  I read articles.  I spoke to parents who had already been-there-done-that.  I googled NCAA and read up on the rules.  And, I started paying closer attention when I heard the words “college” and “tennis” uttered in the same conversations.

And, now, several years later, I can honestly tell you that I know very little more than I did back then.  The process is overwhelmingly confusing.  Like everything tennis-related, or so it seems, there isn’t one clear-cut path.

What are the college coaches out there thinking? Are they confused about how to find the best players for their programs?  What do the college coaches want to see from our players?

One parent wrote on ZooTennis.com:  “Personally, I have heard many college coaches repeat ‘We don’t care about the rankings and ratings, we want a player with solid skills, a hungry heart and good work ethics — a player I can develop! AND, they need to be a good student! They should go to regular high school, learn to balance normal life, play other sports growing up!’”

Erica Jasper, Senior Manager of USTA Junior & Collegiate Competition, shared that “in our experience, college coaches use USTA rankings and results as well as the ratings from TennisRecruiting.net and other ratings sites.  They also look at ITF junior results and rankings, ATP/WTA results and rankings.  If they didn’t do that, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs.  Also note that I said RESULTS.  In our experience, college coaches, at least the good ones, look at results much more so than rankings.”

My question is:  How does a kid get the opportunity to show what he can do against the top players if his ranking isn’t high enough to get into the top-level national events?

Coach Manny Diaz, head men’s coach of the Division 1 University of Georgia Tennis Team, says that players shouldn’t worry about playing in the highest level of national tournaments.  He says the player’s goal should be to “win at whatever level you are at NOW. That is the only and true way to show how good you really are.”

Al Wermer, head men’s coach at Division 1 University of Toledo, suggests that alternative events – such as local pro tourneys or Futures events –  for older juniors could provide valuable match experiences and exposure to coaches.  Coach Wermer’s own player-evaluation protocol includes:  1) results on paper in real events; 2)  eye-ball test (how they play); and 3) the intangibles which include traits such as academics, competitiveness, discipline, size, athletic potential, leadership, team-compatibility, motivation, etc.

LeTrone A. Mason, women’s head coach at Clayton State University, a D2 program in the Atlanta area, says, “If I see potential in you, I’ll recruit you.”  He advises potential recruits to be realistic about where their skills will fit in, whether it’s Division 1, 2, or 3.

To find out how our kids are faring in terms of playing college ball, I decided to go to The Source, Patrick McEnroe, USTA’s General Manager of Player Development.  He told me that, of the “top 300 boys and girls ranked nationally by the USTA, an overwhelming number are getting tennis scholarships (85% of boys, 87% of girls).”  And, some of our top-ranked juniors who aren’t getting those scholarships are going to Ivy League or to top D3 schools which don’t have scholarships.  Still others are in college and playing tennis but not getting athletic scholarships because they’re getting need-based financial aid instead.

However, Coach Mason has found that American kids tend to want D1 or nothing, so D2 and D3 schools tend to recruit more internationally.  He told me, “All coaches of course want top 10 players, but they can’t always get them.  If the American players aren’t willing to consider a D2 or D3 school, then the coaches are left with no choice but to start looking outside the US to fill their rosters.”  He went on to say that several scholarships go unused, especially on the women’s side, because players would rather give up playing tennis to attend a bigger-name school than play at a lesser-known one.  So, to you parents of tennis-playing daughters, please do your homework and learn about some of these awesome D2 and D3 programs – there are spots on the teams and scholarships ripe for the picking.

A hot-button issue lately concerns the number of international players on American college tennis rosters.  I asked Patrick McEnroe about that, too.  His response:  “In the 1970’s the NCAA looked into limiting foreign players for track & field teams, and it was deemed illegal.  Neither the USTA nor ITA have any jurisdiction to limit foreign players.”    Patrick says that “99.9% of the coaches out there, when looking at 2 players – one American, one international, who are of the same tennis ability, same academics, and same character – will choose the American player.  So in essence we need more players and better players for our college coaches to recruit.”

All of this advice is very helpful, but to get the inside scoop, I spoke with a parent and player who have very recent experience with recruiting.  Check back tomorrow to read their story.

IMPORTANT LINKS:

NCAA Members by Division

National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)

Active.com Guide to Tennis Scholarships

USTA Collegiate Department

USTA College Guide

USTA College Tennis Facebook page

USTA International Player FAQ

ITA Advocacy Department