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College Tennis: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

I have been working on this article since last August when a parent first approached me about writing it. Why has it taken me so long to click the PUBLISH button? Because I wanted to be sure to present the truth while also making very clear that I absolutely LOVE college tennis and want every single junior player to have the best experience possible when they step foot on campus. And because I know the recruiting process is so difficult to navigate even for experienced and educated parents and athletes.

I started my research for this article by interviewing parents of current and former college tennis players. Those interviews began to paint a pretty bleak picture of promises made and promises unfulfilled. I know there are almost always at least two sides to every story, so my next move was to reach out to some college coaches themselves to get their perspective on best practices for recruiting. As I started hearing their advice, I realized most recruiting and commitment “mistakes” are made because Prospective Student Athletes (PSAs) and their parents neglect to ask enough questions or the correct questions when they speak with college coaches and current and former players.

So, here is my attempt at helping everyone do a better job during college recruiting. Please note I will be using gender-neutral pronouns (they/them) throughout the article to protect the identity of those who wish to remain anonymous. Please don’t take their anonymity as a way to hide anything but rather as a sign that most of what you’ll read below applies universally across all college tennis divisions.

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly

importance of networking w other team parents

broken promises by coaches to parents & players

neg impact on player confidence & mental health

lack of integrity from coaches/admins

CONS 

 

** Bad coaching. Lack of developmental training for transition successfully to the pro circuit.  Disconnection of short term vs. long term goal once the season begins, discourages player from turning pro, telling him that pros get lonely and depressed, implying in several conversations that player would be letting down his teammates by turning pro, telling him he needs more time to develop his game etc.

**Mental health issue (lack of instilling confidence in players and causing depression).

**Coaches’ lack of integrity and ethical conduct.

**Fraudulent scholarship offers/Ponzi scheme.

**Injuries due to lack of effective recovery/rehab.

**Negative impact to American tennis.

**Lack of effective communication with parents and encouragement for parent engagement for collaboration.

**Broken verbal promises. Constant high promises not being kept. e.g. The coach probes the parents & player to figure out what they want, tells them what they want to hear, and then after the player signs, immediately forgets the promises. Later, the coach tells the parent, Oh, you must have misunderstood me.

e.g. promise the kid a scholarship, then reneg on that if a better foreign player comes along

**Play mind game with the players and undermine the parents/turn the kids against their own parents.

Forcing players to play sick for the good of the team.

Putting their own interests ahead of the player’s interests – e.g. Manipulating a great player’s match schedule during the season such that they don’t qualify for NCAA tourney , so that the player will want to return the following year (when they don’t have to) in order “to do better.” Then tells the player, “It’s just another tournament. It’s no big deal. You can play next year.”

NLI Terms – Change offer from 1 yr to 2 yrs at last second.

Disinterest of AD to do anything about a lying, unethical coach as long as he is winning.

Coach contacts the player’s personal coaches, lies to them and gets the player’s coaches to encourage him to attend their university. Tells them he’ll stay in contact after player enrolls, then doesn’t.

Coach creates fake injuries, asks players to lie to their parents for the good of the team.

Tell girls they will be able to practice vs. the guys.

Puts player in the mindset they can run out the clock in a match the player is losing to avoid a loss – mindset harmful to development of critical mental toughness when players must finish the match in pros

Summary from email: Coach repeatedly makes promises worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that he doesn’t keep, forges signatures, disparages players and their parents behind their backs, drives top recruits into depression, downgrades players in the lineup in order to encourage them to return for another year, creates fake injuries, asks players to lie to their parents and retaliates against players whose parents criticize him

 

 

PROS

**Developing lifelong friendships.

** Buying time for developing physical and mental maturity.

**Developing a well rounded individual.

 

Guy Neff

Son Adam started at UNC but transferred to play for Grant Chen at SMU. When a kid gets into the wrong place, it can be dangerous mental health-wise. Social media has great impact on kids and their mental health. Recommends reading BALL FOUR. College tennis is not about developing players. It’s all about WIN WIN WIN. Adam developed a chronic illness at age 15 and knows he must protect his health. He became depressed while at UNC due to his coach there. UNC coaches get bonuses when they beat top teams. Several of the UNC players are currently on Zoloft. UNC coaches promised Adam playing time but didn’t deliver on that promise. They took away his scholarship Sophomore year. Neither Guy nor Adam reported these events to the ITA. Also has a daughter who plays and will likely go DIII. Colleges need to have someone on campus looking out for the players’ best interest.

Kathy Horvath

Son RJ at UVA. He had multiple injuries from ages 14-18 and was a late bloomer so was late to the recruiting process. He had multiple scholarship offers, however: some full ride, some partial, some Ivies. RJ started talking to Andres at UVA in March of his Senior year of HS. Andres loved RJ and swore he would give him scholarship money after his first year. The family felt bamboozled by Andres who kept calling Kathy to rave about RJ. Andres brought in 4 more freshmen in RJ’s sophomore year and had no money for RJ because “RJ’s results didn’t warrant a scholarship”. In August 2020 (before start of RJ’s sophomore year), Andres called Kathy asking how to best coach RJ. Kathy asked him about scholarship money and Andres claimed not to remember the conversation they had prior to RJ’s commitment to UVA. September 2020 RJ got sick, fatigued. Andres said it was just stress, anxiety, depression. Kathy asked Andres to take RJ for tests. Andres took RJ to the team doctor who gave him medications for anxiety and depression. RJ continued to decline health-wise. Andres told RJ NOT to talk to his mom about it. The semester was all online due to COVID and Andres played the role of doctor. RJ came home for Christmas in 2020 and went to his local doctor in January 2021. The doctor diagnosed him with endocrine system issues including a pituitary tumor. Per Kathy, Andres made a verbal contract with RJ and defaulted on it. RJ did not go back to UVA January 2021. For 5 months, his medications were working great then he started feeling bad again. Now RJ is going through more testing to figure out what’s going on with his health. Andres never offered medical help at UVA – he told RJ to read the bible for help. RJ took off the spring semester his sophomore year. His symptoms returned at the end of Summer 2021 so he’s not in school at this time. They’re still trying to find the underlying cause of RJ’s illness but no answers yet. RJ wants to return to UVA once his health is sorted. Andres wanted RJ to switch racquets but refused to pay for the demos. Andres coaches all the players the same regardless of personal style and technique.

Solomon Liu

Son Robert is currently the co-captain of the Clairmont-McKenna (DIII) team. The coach requires all players to run a 6 minute mile each semester in order to participate in practice and matches that semester – coach is very up front about that requirement during the recruiting process. One player couldn’t meet the requirement his Senior year after a 2nd knee surgery – he ran the mile in 6 minutes 11 seconds and was told he couldn’t practice or play his last semester in college. Robert was injured 3 times his freshman year (not tennis related injuries). He tried to make the mile requirement Spring semester but developed a shin injury while training for the mile. He got to play but had a lasting injury and eventually couldn’t play. Robert is now a Senior after taking a gap year last year along with his doubles partner. Solomon feels the coach jeopardizes players’ health through the running requirement and has antiquated knowledge of appropriate fitness training. This year, the team is very deep and wants to win a National Championship – they have the highest UTR of any team. The players are scared to reveal any illness or injury or weakness for fear of retribution from the coach. Robert had depression his sophomore year and got proper medication. Coach Paul Suttles was supportive during that time.

Cameron Bernhardt

Graduated from Clairmont 6 years ago. He was a 4-star recruit in the Class of 2011. He played at CMS under Paul Settles who had a reputation as a great coach though very strict. Cameron had 3 big knee surgeries his last two years of high school and freshman year of college. Coach told him about the 6 minute mile requirement during recruiting but waived the requirement for Cameron the spring semester of his Freshman year after the 3rd knee surgery (Cameron played Line 5 singles as a freshman). He didn’t make the mile requirement his sophomore year after suffering a heart condition and was cut from the team in the spring of that year. It was his worst semester academically as a result of being cut. The team didn’t support him at all after he was cut even though the team was “sold” as being very cohesive. He played again Fall of his junior year then quit altogether. He had a great final 2 years without tennis. He still plays tennis now, lives in San Francisco and is the top-ranked NorCal men’s open player. “If you have a medical condition, don’t think you’ll get special consideration at CMS on the 6-minute mile.

Jo Zheng

Son Michael recruited by Stanford with a verbal offer from coach Paul Goldstein, then Paul pulled the offer. On his official visit to Stanford, Michael had dinner at Paul’s home and thought things were going well with his recruiting.

Paul Settles

CMS head men’s tennis coach. New mile requirement is now 5 min 50 sec because another D3 program is now using 6 min threshold and his team is 100% on board. Happy to go on record with his name. Doesn’t make exceptions but messaging isn’t “you have to push through injury or pain” but rather “let’s make sure you’re healthy then try to meet the threshold”. Have had players who came to CMS with injuries that wouldn’t get resolved in 4 yrs of college so held them to 6 min standard.  Example: kid came to college after losing big toe as a child and had mobility issues but still worked hard & met 6 min threshold. Expectation is communicated during recruiting process. Paul checks in with players each yr to confirm they still want this threshold. Part of the experience is learning to overcome disadvantages, IF they can be overcome. Meeting threshold is your passport to train w the team. Came about b/c guys would let themselves get out of shape over winter break. Threshold helped incentivize them to train to meet the mile threshold in January. In 99% of fail, that person meets threshold within a week. If someone is really struggling to get it done so they are left to train on their own, coaches lose control of player development – coaches are now revisiting mile requirement. Maybe revamping to affect ability to play dual match or tourney instead of being a passport to practice. If player repeatedly fails and develops anxiety, coaches are there to support him and ensure he is okay. If fail requirement, player can hit with other teammates and/or ball machine as available to stay in tennis shape until pass requirement and can still participate in every other team activity. Remembers only 1 case ever where the player didn’t meet threshold and didn’t think he ever would and chose to leave the team. Paul has 2 kids who are college athletes now and asks himself how he would react if they couldn’t meet threshold. He would ask if they did everything they could to meet it and how important is being a member of the team. Paul recognizes importance of checking in with athletes to ensure requirement is still relevant to team’s DNA. Most imp question for PSA to ask: exactly where do I stand on your list? Am I 1, 2, 3, or 4? Every coach knows how to answer that question but is reluctant to do so b/c they might not want to hurt feelings or make the PSA feel like they’re not valued so they go to another program. Paul has tried to be better about being transparent on this question. Tells PSA if you feel more valued elsewhere, that’s where you should go. If you are down on my list, you may need to be patient as he does his job in recruiting.

Paul Goldstein

Stanford head men’s coach. Communication is very important on both sides. Every recruiting process is different. He can only speak on the experience he’s had at Stanford. Coaches are trying to identify prospects who they think are good fits for the program, good fits for the university, and help them achieve their athletic successes. One of most imp things is helping young people develop, both on & off court. Stanford takes pride in helping players be successful for next 40 yrs not just next 4 yrs. Most imp question for PSA to ask: when a PSA owns the process & expresses interest, that’s most imp thing. Where am I in your process? Coaches have lots of different factors to consider. It’s a challenging process for sure. Looking for good fits for university who are passionate about tennis. No matter where a PSA ends up, every college tennis player is going to experience ups and downs. His 4 yrs of college tennis were some of best yrs of his life even though he had ups and downs. That’s going to happen. PSA should ask: how will you support me when I’m facing challenges? That will happen no matter what. Sacrifices will have to be made at various times in tennis, social, academics. Can’t be successful in all 3 simultaneously. Admissions process isn’t up to the tennis coach, there is admissions dept that determines whether PSA gets into a school. Paul feels great responsibility as families are going through this process. While coaches are going through it for the 500th time, families are going through it for 1st time. Things that are obvious to a coach about the process may not be obvious to a family going through it for first time. As coach, he always needs to remember that and needs to be clear in communication. Sometimes he fails at that. Doesn’t know any coaches who have mal intent. PSA needs to ask coach about admissions process & understand exactly how it works at each school.

Andres Pedroso

Most imp question for PSA to ask: depends on PSA and what their goals are when they walk into college tennis. Someone who’s looking to use college as stepping stone to pro needs to ask different Q’s than someone who wants to play college then get a job. Player has to earn right to play pro tennis then school will support him. Am I going to have to sacrifice academics for requirements of being on team? Most imp aspect of decision is relationship w head coach. Ask if coach has any plans to leave, what year are they in their contract, how’s relationship w athl director, can I speak with AD? Players will give good sense of how grounded head coach is in that school. Parent involvement is based on how head coach recruited them – if head coach says this is a team effort & will keep you involved as needed, then expect that. Parents have every right to know about injury- physical or mental – if coach isn’t willing to communicate w parents about injury/health, that’s just wrong. Andres will communicate w parents as much as possible until parent gives him reason to stop. Except the lineup! Or how he’s coaching the kid to play on court. UVA does 4 yr scholarship deals b/c it’s best for SA, gives them security, guarantees them certain $ amt, won’t take $ away if player doesn’t perform well. Only time to take it away is if player does something behavior wise that doesn’t fit w/in team culture or team rules. UVA won’t offer to hold scholarship for players who turn pro before completing 4 yrs. Role of parent during recruiting: PSA should be running process, parent should help coach better understand how PSA was raised but let PSA drive process, parent can help PSA gather info & answer questions but leave final decision to PSA. If player gets injured, can’t take scholarship money away esp if injury due to tennis. Crucial to talk to current players to find out how coach handles certain issues like injury, grades, etc. Spend time w current players & ask questions – talk to best player, talk to worst player & ask about head coach to find out what types of decisions coach makes in various situations. Coaches have to be careful because word travels fast. There are gonna be times in 4 yrs where coach will disappoint parents – can’t make everybody happy all the time – there are daily tough decisions made as head coach & it’s not utopia – it’s tough for parents to fully understand all variables and decisions if they’re not there all the time seeing what players go through. Important for coaches to be up front & important for parents to ask questions during recruiting. Parents need to feel they can ask head coach anything. If coach gets defensive, that’s probably a bad sign. Recruiting is only time to foreshadow next 4 yrs – must ask tough questions b/c kids won’t ask them. If coach doesn’t like tough quetiosns, prob red flag. College tennis is different sport than ITF jrs & pro sport & it’s b/c of no-ad scoring, on court coaching, environment of college match, how imp it is for players playing for their team. It’s a different sport. it’s a different feeling. Parents & PSAs need to understand that. It’s a variation of the sport that can be incredible prep for pro tennis if you go about it the right way. If you walk into college w same expectations of doing as well as they did in jrs or pro events, that’s a mistake. Parents need to ask coaches how & why it’s different so they understand what they’re getting themselves into. Takes time to get used to college environment. Handling conflict: handle privately w teammate in place where emotions aren’t on display for example later over breakfast; if can’t be resolved, go to team captain then to coaching staff – young, immature team might require coach to take more of leadership role & coach players on how to handle conflict; if w coach, go to coach directly & give him chance to fix whatever it is – don’t go behind coach’s back & complain. Have to figure out if everything is fear-driven – don’t want that for your child! Get as much as possible in writing! DON’T QUOTE ANDRES DON’T MENTION UVA

https://www.thedailybeast.com/college-discipline-is-a-tragedy-waiting-to-happen

Vivi Abraham (can use her name)

majored in strategic communications (journalism dept), just graduated. from hungary. had never been to US before coming to Mizzou. staying at Mizzou for grad school. had problems w head coach & mizzou tennis overall. doesn’t have problem w mizzou athletic dept or academics. 4 intl & 5 us players when she got to mizzou, now only 2 us walkons. intl players have no idea about diff ncaa divisions, conferences, etc. easy for coaches to win over intl players because they have no idea what they’re getting into. new head coach after soph yr. recruited by Cole Gaston, had paid official visit. she liked everything on her visit, fell in love w Columbia & Mizzou. players won’t tell you anything bad on your visit b/c trying to get you there. once she was hosting recruits, tried to get them to consider team as a whole and didn’t tell them it would be all perfect. In 5 yrs, at least 7 players transferred – red flag. Players didn’t have great relationship w Cole, several transferred while Vivi was there. cole had players playing more hours than allowed by ncaa, he didn’t care about academics at all. it was way too much tennis under Cole. Mizzou joined SEC in 2012, overall athletics near bottom in SEC b/c couldn’t recruit top players compared to other SEC schools but players were held to blame and told to practice harder. Had good seasons first 2 yrs at Mizzou but when covid hit and everyone went home, several players discussed transferring then Cole resigned in April 2020. Chris Wooten took over as head coach. both her parents were pro athletes, always loved track & field but she had committed to tennis at age 12. during covid she went back to hungary, tennis courts closed so started running track to stay in shape. had long phone call w chris summer 2020 to make sure she was coming back to team despite her closest teammates were transferring. she asked chris if he was okay with her doing more track-specific workouts b/c she loved it – he loved that idea & put her in touch w track coach at mizzou so she could be dual athlete but keep tennis scholarship. when she got back Aug 2020 she had stress fracture in foot which chris tried to blame on track but really due to overuse from doing track AND tennis. chris pushed her having surgery even though she didn’t want to. she wound up having surgery – 2 screws in foot – recovered quickly & well. had never been injured before. end of Nov 2020, she could start jogging again but also suffered another injury (dislocated right shoulder) in Sept in gym. doctor told her shoulder was fine but she knew it wasn’t. doc wouldn’t do MRI. was supposed to start playing tennis again in Jan 2021 & finally got MRI – found torn labrum 5 months after injury. had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in Feb 2021. being injured one of most challenging things athlete can go through. both trainers and coaches focused on shoulder recovery and ignored her foot injury even though she hadn’t fully rehabed. No full-time PT, rehab done by athletic trainers. never had one-on-one session with PT. can now do whatever she wants on her foot but doesn’t feel it’s fully recovered even now. couldn’t play at all in fall or dual match season of jr year.  wound up redshirting so got extra yr of eligibility. coach never checked on her once she was injured. most teammates did check in on her but didn’t really have time or mental energy to help her other than w basics. she drifted away from team b/c she wasn’t there every day but she wasn’t mad about it b/c understood what they were going through. she would go to home matches and went to workouts w them & did her own thing to keep busy. was at every meeting, every match, every post match meeting. chris’s wife is orthopedic PT and was at courts and in his office every day. wife saw vivi but wouldn’t talk to her about her injury and rehab. chris was USC assistant. when 2021 season ended, had meeting w chris to discuss her rehab, when she could start playing again, told her no more track even though she never even got to try it. she was upset to hear that. told her she wouldn’t be team captain, may not be in lineup even though it was her sr yr & she thought she had earned it. his rule was if you’re not in lineup, can’t be captain. even though she had 2 more yrs of eligibility, he wouldn’t give her extra yrs – he said he wanted his own team. she could transfer and use extra yr. his tone and attitude were harsh and hurtful. vivi went home to hungary in may for 4 weeks but came back to mizzou in june to start playing tennis & training. she had been getting back in shape while home so was ready to train when she arrived in june. chris recruited transfer player (So Carolina) from spain. tried to figure out how this girl was getting scholarship b/c math didn’t add up. chris didn’t show up for practices as he promised. trainer wasn’t there either to make sure she was progressing safely. she had to train with friends instead, unsupervised. she met w chris & head of compliance (who got fired at end of that summer) & they offered her to choose NOT to play for chris but could keep scholarship for that yr (NCAA New Coach Rule) and not be on the team but could still use the courts & hit with the girls. chris pushed her toward doing track instead b/c she had better chance to get track scholarship than tennis for grad school even though she had never competed in track or had results. she met w track head coach who told her track can do partial scholarships but never told her she would get any scholarship even though chris made it seem she would get full ride w track. chris was trying to get rid of vivi and her older teammates so he could replace them w his own recruits. vivi chose to stay on tennis team and work to earn spot in lineup. she asked chris to meet so she could share decision w him but he told her he didn’t have time and for her to call instead. he told her he didn’t think she would choose tennis or ignore “adult advice” she was given by him and compliance. he made it clear he wasn’t planning to play her at all & that wouldn’t change and she was limiting him as a coach b/c he couldn’t put his best team out there. she felt he was disrespectful and asked him if she wins in practice could she be in lineup – he said yes. he texted her next morning to meet in his office and told her new head coach rule allowed him to remove her from roster so he kicked her off team. he had never mentioned that aspect of the rule – she never really had the choice even though he and the compliance officer made her believe she did. transfer player from spain took her scholarship money & spot on team which he knew but didn’t tell her. made her think she could choose to stay. new coach rule can take team spot away but can’t take away scholarship money IF player has signed 4-yr contract w previous coach. team usually had one of highest team avg GPA. vivi graduated summa cum laude. chris didn’t care about that at all. chris told her team had improved so much while she was out w injury that she wasn’t good enough to play w them now, didn’t give her chance to prove she could. compliance officer told her she shouldn’t say anything about what was happening, even if she just stated facts, b/c that would jeopardize her scholarship. she spent sr yr working on an article to tell her story. chris started charging her for stringing, didn’t give her gear even though promised it to her, took away her access to weight room & strength & conditioning coaches – all when he offered the deal to do track. compliance is who told her she no longer had access to tennis facilities. her boyfriend is personal trainer & has been helping her train. she did have access to the trainers & used them to get treatments after workouts. trainers would only treat her shoulder & foot – no new injuries. she asked them for advice but they told her it was illegal to give her advice. new AD came on board Sep 2021. all students have access to outdoor courts but only team members can use indoor courts. she got into transfer portal as grad transfer w 2 yrs eligibility left. schools ranked higher than mizzou reached out to her but she decided to stay at mizzou and throw away eligibility. didn’t want to waste 2 more yrs of her life dealing w negatives of college tennis. focusing more on academics & get GA position on campus so she will have scholarship for grad school – she did get that position. now playing tennis 2-3 times/wk & goes to gym 4x/wk. she would like to play one more itf tourney at least. would like proper close to her tennis career. Getting a scholarshp doesn’t mean you have to give up your sanity.

Allie McCray

Went to Mizzou July before Fresh yr for training. Coach told her he didn’t think she was good fit for school even after recruiting her. Chris didn’t want walk-ons to train or play again scholrship players. Asst Coach Kat told scholarship plyer she didn’t like walk-ons. For Fall Regionals, Chris only submitted 4/12 girls to play even though could;ve submitted all 12. If player was losing match, he would leave their court and leave them to flounder on their own. Several compliance violations regarding practice and court time. Towards end of Fall season, Chilean player was rumored to be suicidal; Chris didn’t address it at all until a month later (right before xmas break), he sends report to compliance & admin that she’s suicidal; psychologist evaluated her and deemed her NOT suicidal – sometimes coaches claim suicidal so they can medicaly retire the player; he never called her parents to alert them to suicide risk but waited an entire month to report to admin – why didn’t he try to help her immediately? In Jan, #1 doubles player (Marta) left the team abruptly after she called him out for giving nutrition advice which is against ncaa rules. in january allie met w chris who told her she would never play, she wasn’t good enough to play in sec. mizzou was playing iowa and allie was scheduled to play but chris defaulted several lines instead of letting allie play b/c he didn’t think she was good enough. he told players they weren’t fit enough b/c they didn’t have six-packs. at sec tourney, every school brings entire team, but he didn’t take them all and didn’t deliver their sec swag. only 2 out of 4 walkons have left the program, 2 scholly players kwit and another is transferring. chris bringing in eastern europeans to replace them. allie has gone to compliance and asst AD who was supporting players but then went silent. chris isn’t good communicator, tears players down bit by bit. administration does nothing to change negative culture. they keep hiring coaches from within.

 

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