College Recruiting & Transferring
A while back I devoted an episode of the ParentingAces radio show to my take on the recruiting process. I have since learned a bit more about the finer details of college recruiting as well as that sometimes, no matter how well you do your homework, your initial college choice doesn’t wind up being the best choice long-term. Sometimes it is necessary to transfer. And that isn’t a bad thing . . . in most cases.
So, here are some very basic recruiting tips that should serve any high schooler well who is looking for the right fit in a college tennis program:
- Reach out via email to as many coaches as you can, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get responses right away. Top California recruit, Natasha Smith, shares, “While in [sic] high school I looked at the list of top 75 ranked schools online (on the ITA Division I rankings) and sent an email to nearly every coach on that list. I was top 20 in Southern California and top 65 in the nation out of high school, and out of about 50 emails I sent out I probably got 15 responses.”
- Go on unofficial visits at several schools of various sizes, types, and locations. There are so many wonderful colleges out there – Divison I, II, and III – and I’m still convinced there’s a team for everyone who wants to play. By visiting big schools and small, urban campuses and more traditional rural ones, extreme climates and milder locales, junior players can figure out what feels right for them. If you’re having trouble finding schools to visit, TennisRecruiting has a great tool right on its homepage: go to tennisrecruiting.net, click on either “Men’s Teams” or “Women’s Teams”, hover over “Team Directory” then click on whichever division you’re interested in exploring. You can search schools by division, conference, or simply by name.
- Use TRN, UTR, and any other available resources to determine if you’ll be likely to make the lineup. Some kids are okay just being part of the team and never getting any play time. Others are not. Figure out which type YOU are and make sure you choose a school that fits your playing level. UTR makes it very simple to look at the ratings of all the players on a given team or even in a given conference so you can see where you might fall. Go to universaltennis.com then type the name of the school in the search box on the top right of the home page. Click on the school name which will bring up a complete picture of the current team including the Power 6 rating and the ratings of each individual player on the roster. By also visiting the team’s website, you can look at their lineups for each match and easily see whether you’re likely to be an impact player right away. Look at the other schools in the conference, too. If making the big college tournaments is important to you, take that into consideration as well.
- Talk to existing and past team members. This is key. If players are telling you negative things about the program, you may have to dig a little deeper to determine if their complaints are valid. In the same vein, if players are only raving about the program, sometimes there can be a little propaganda going on there as well. One great tip shared by a college coach is to talk to players at other schools in the same athletic conference. They will often shed light – off the record – on what they’re hearing from their buddies as well as how the team and coaches conduct themselves during the dual match season.
- Have your parents talk to the parents of existing and past team members.
- Determine the academic rigor of the school and what type of support you’ll get via tutors, study halls, etc. Make sure that you are prepared in terms of your time-management skills and study habits to handle the workload meted out by your professors.
- Once you’ve narrowed down your list to your top 5 schools, take those official visits in the Fall of your senior year. This is your chance to spend some time with the team and coaches and to get a good feel for their off-court personalities. Ask lots of questions, try to attend a class or two, and definitely spend the night in the dorm if possible. Watch a team practice, both on-court and in the gym, so you know what to expect when you get there the following year. Natasha Smith advises recruits to ask coaches what their strength and conditioning programs are like. “A lot of people cannot handle this aspect of college tennis,” she says, “so make sure you know what you are getting into.” And make sure you feel at home on the campus. You are always just an injury away from going from “student-athlete” to simply “student”.
Trae Young (basketball recruit) via USA Today article: I notice stuff like how the players talk to the coaches when they walk in the room or if they change how they normally act or something like that. I’m watching it all. Just when the coach walks up while they’re just hanging out, I watch that first interaction. You can tell a lot from that. That’s just a good way to tell the real way they feel about each other . . .
- Reach out to other potential recruits. Get to know them. Figure out if you want to spend the next four years with these players.
Here are some additional tips that may be useful:
- Look at the overall cost of the school to determine whether you can afford to stay there if you don’t receive any scholarship money or if you decide not to play tennis.
- Look at the transfer history of the team. The best way to do this is to go on the team website and look through the archived team rosters. It’s not fool-proof but should give you a pretty good idea of what’s gone on historically.
- Look at the coaching turnover, especially of assistant coaches. Frequent coaching changes could be a red flag.
- Look at the team’s playing schedule in both the Fall and during the Spring dual-match season. Does the team stick close to home or does it travel around the country. This will give you great insight into the team’s budget for things like meals, clothing, and equipment. A team that plays only within its geographical region may not have a very large budget which could translate to players having to supplement the clothing and equipment given to them and/or the types of meals and lodging available when the team goes on the road. Conversely, a team that plays all over the country may have a larger budget and be more generous on these fronts. The schedule is no guarantee, so your best bet is to ask existing team members about these various issues. It may not sound important now, but it can make a big difference once you arrive on campus.
- Find out what’s expected of the players during school breaks (Winter and Summer). Will you have an opportunity to have a summer job or internship or will you be required to keep up an intense training/tournament schedule during your time away from classes? If it’s the latter, will your coaches provide you with any assistance in terms of training and tournament play? There are strict NCAA rules regarding coaching in the off-season, so be sure to familiarize yourself with those.
- Look at all the points listed above from the perspective of a non-tennis-player and make sure you would still choose that school. For example, if you get hurt or decide not to play, will you be okay academically without the added support given to athletes? Is the student body one in which you feel comfortable even without the student-athlete label?
Sometimes, though, even the most thorough efforts don’t yield the expected results. Natasha shared that she decided to transfer after her sophomore year because her coach actually asked her to, telling her that he wouldn’t have a spot in the lineup for her the following year and noting that she wasn’t performing well under his particular coaching style. Even though she loved the school, her teammates, and the friends she had made at the University of Utah, she realized that transferring was the only way she could continue to get playing time. If things don’t work out at your school – for whatever reason (academics, coaching changes, program cancellation, injury, etc.) – transferring is always an option. It’s important to read the NCAA rules on transferring to make sure you dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s. There are different rules for Division I, II, and III and for transferring from a 2-year to a 4-year college versus transferring from a 4-year to a 4-year school. Your university’s compliance officer can be a very useful resource, so don’t be afraid to set up a phone call or meeting with him/her if you’re considering a switch.
If you do decide to transfer, here are a few tips shared by some current and past collegiate tennis players:
- The first step in transferring is to get a signed release from your current school. According to Nikkola Wichenko, a former collegiate player from Ontario, Canada, who transferred after her freshman year, “get your release (i.e. permission to talk to other schools) around March/April so it is towards the end of the tennis season and decreases the chance of jeopardizing your current relationship with your team and coaches or affects your playing time.”
- Cast a wide net. Reach out to coaches where you think you’d like to play, but don’t limit yourself to only one or two schools. Most programs don’t know what type of roster availability they will have for transfers until mid-Spring (at the earliest), so be patient if you start reaching out sooner.
I went to Cal State LA (division II) for my first year of college and decided to transfer to receive more athletic scholarship and more playing time. I decided to transfer pretty late in the year in July because my school was on the quarter system and didn’t finish until mid June. Since I didn’t know if I was going to transfer until I was back home in the summer, this really limited my options for schools. No school would talk to me without my permission to talk. Looking back on it, I wish I would have decided to transfer sooner; that way I could have gotten my permission to talk sooner and had more options. With being in a different country, deciding which school to commit to was even more difficult than Cal State LA. I’m not sure what the rules are, but I didn’t visit any of the schools I was talking to in July. This could have been since it was already late in the summer, they didn’t have the money to fly me down, or visits just aren’t allowed when transferring. I wish I had had the opportunity to visit my schools and chatted more with players and students because I had a major culture shock because I transferred from a mid-size school in the busy city of LA to a small school in a small southern town – Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina.
- Take the official visits. I believe, though it’s unclear from reading the NCAA website so don’t rely on me here, a player can take up to 5 additional official visits beginning with October 15 following the prospect’s senior year in high school. As Nikkola advises, though, call the NCAA because it is best to talk to them in person to get answers instead of trying to decipher the wording on their website.
- Ask TONS of questions – of players, of other coaches, of recent graduates – to make sure you’re choosing the right school. You only get 1 do-over without losing a year (or more) of eligibility!
Bobby Knight of the College Tennis Today website keeps a running list of coaching changes as well as student-athlete transfers – it’s a great resource for keeping track of the movement happening around the college game.
- Make a list of the things that are important to you as you choose a new school. That list may look very different from the one you made in high school. Having one year of college under your belt can really change your perspective on what’s important. Nikkola shares, “I basically had to make a choice between a division III school where the program was very new and I would be part of the growth. Or a division II school that had recently won a conference championship and I would play in the line up in positions 4-6 singles and 2-3 doubles. Since I was at school in the United States to play tennis and wanted to do well as a team, I decided to go with the division II school, plus the town in Anderson was bigger and closer to major cities (consideration for flying). Overall, I think I made a good choice. I played my 3 years at Anderson and enjoyed my team and the school. It was a good balance of academics and athletics and I made some good friends and connections for life.”
- Transferring after your sophomore year is much more challenging than making a change after your freshman year. Natasha Smith recommends that you ease the transition by living on campus with at least one roommate and by going to every party, dinner, and study group you’re invited to in order to develop your social network.
My high school coach, Peter Smith (USC Men’s tennis coach), gave me some great advice when I was talking to him about transferring after my freshman year. He said three things are important in college: (1)School, (2)Tennis, (3)Social Life. He said if I’m happy with 2 out of 3 of those things then I should stay where I am. I decided NOT to transfer after my freshman year because I was pretty happy with all 3. Note: Natasha did end up transferring to University of New Mexico after her sophomore year.
Tennis has the highest transfer rate of any NCAA sport at the Division I level, tied with soccer at 14% on the men’s side and holding the lone top position at 11% on the women’s side. Interestingly, international students transfer at a higher rate than US players. Wanting or needing to transfer isn’t the end of the world, though. In fact, it can be the first step of what will hopefully end up being a phenomenal college tennis experience. Just make sure you comply with all NCAA regulations along the way to make the transition as smooth as possible.