Dr. John Eatman, Professor at UNC-Greensboro, was my first number one tennis player. Through the years, Dr. Eatman has continued playing and promoting tennis. We talked at length about how one should select the right college to play for. John summarized some major points in this hand out for prospective student-tennis athletes.
The following comments were prepared with input from college coaches. They reflect a general view of the ideas of the coaches rather than the views of any particular coach. They are offered as aid to NCTA junior players and their parents in the difficult process of finding the right college for a junior player to further his or her education and advance his or her tennis.
What does playing college tennis offer me?
College tennis offers the participant a number of things besides just the ability to continue to advance as a tennis player. College tennis is very much a team sport. Much junior competition is clearly focused on individual achievement while college tennis has definite team goals. You will make a number of contacts that are useful in later life as well as demonstrate you can contribute to a team effort in a very competitive environment. College tennis can also contribute a lot to your social life and help you establish you as a member of the college community. Many of the people that you meet as a member of a college team will become lifelong friends.
What are the opportunities for playing college tennis?
Most colleges have men and women’s tennis teams and most of these teams will have between 8 and 12 team members. Thus, while there are many opportunities for playing college tennis, there are also many junior players who want to play. Since the United States is the only nation with well established collegiate competition, US college tennis is very attractive to foreign players. Consequently, there are many persons interested in playing college tennis and the competition for a spot on college teams is quite competitive.
What are things I should consider in selecting a school?
Selecting a college is one of the more difficult things that a young person has to do. There are many factors to consider. Ideally, a person should have a career goal that can help with the decision. Realistically, most students do not have a definite career goal to which they are committed. Assuming that you are interested in selecting a school that offers you the academic and tennis opportunities that you desire, the following factors (shown in order of importance) should be considered:
- Academic Environment of the School
Your purpose in attending college should be to get an education. The odds of any player “making a living” as a tennis player is quite small. Therefore, it is important to select a school that is compatible with your academic goals and abilities. In order to do this, an honest self-assessment is essential to your prospects of making a good choice.
- Social Environment of the School
This is very difficult to consider and many times is given too much weight by a young person. using this as the sole criteria often leads to making an unsatisfactory choice in terms of other criteria. One good way to try to assess this aspect of a school is to visit the institution while it is in session and visit with some typical students. Visits in the summer or holidays can convey a mistaken impression of the real environment. Most colleges will arrange visits if you do not know anyone attending the school. Do not be afraid to visit and find out about the school. This is also a big help in assessing the academic environment.
- Cost of Attending the School
The cost of attending colleges continues to increase and is a financial burden for most families. The base cost of attending college should not discourage you from considering the college since there are many opportunities for financial aid. Basically, a college may offer scholarships (aid not requiring work or pay back) for academic merit, athletic ability and finical need. Often a student will receive some combination of these. It is important for you to explore all three avenues since they will not be the same for all colleges. Athletic scholarships are quite limited. The NCAA, for example, allows for women’s tennis. Many, probably most, colleges offer less than the maximum. Thus, in any one year, a college may have very limited athletic scholarship monies available. This will generally translate into the awarding of partial scholarships. Typically, scholarships are awarded on an annual basis so they are not guaranteed. A lot of players attend college based on a “promise” of future scholarship aid. Since a situation can change in a year, there is usually no real guarantee that a promise can or will be fulfilled.
- The Tennis Coach
The tennis coach will have a major impact on your college tennis. In essence, you are “stuck” with the coach who is at the school you attend. Thus, it becomes important to find out about the coach and his or her mode of operation and ways of dealing with the team. This is difficult to assess. Visiting the school and watching a match or practice session is a help. It is also useful to talk with the players on the team. In dealing with a college coach before attending the school, a player should be open and direct with the coach and expect the same from the coach. Coaches do not like to be misled by prospective players any more than a player wants to be misled by a prospective coach. A coach should be willing to give you an honest appraisal of your chances of making the team and getting to actually play. Some coaches are guilty of inaccurately representing your chances of playing and some players are guilty of misrepresenting their abilities and interest in attending a particular school. The main guide here is to ask a question if you have one and answer questions asked you honestly.Relating to this is the problem of recruiting rules. The rules for collegiate recruiting do limit the opportunities for a player to visit a school and talk with a coach. The NCAA has extensive regulations. For example, a coach has to be very careful in talking with a potential recruit at a tournament. A formal campus visit is usually a key part of the recruiting process. It is often better for you or your parents to call a coach if you have questions when you are being recruited by a college than for a coach to call you. You should remember that a coach’s recruiting priorities are subject to change and that his/her interest in you can increase or decrease during the year as other recruits and current players make their plans known. At any point in time, a coach probably has a priority assigned to his potential recruits. While the coach may not always want to tell you about how you are really rated, you should not be afraid to ask for a clean statement of your status on the coach’s recruiting list.
- The Players on the Team
Obviously, you will spend a considerable amount of time with players on the team if you are a member of a college tennis team. It is also obvious that the team members will change over time as current players move on and new players arrive. Thus, it is very useful to meet the players when you visit a college to try to assess your general compatibility. The quality of the players on the team should be a guide as to whether you can play on a team and at what position. If playing college tennis is important to you, then you should try to honestly evaluate whether you have a realistic chance of making the starting lineup. A lot of players find that they cannot play for a team after they arrive at a school.
- The Schedule
The schedule that a team plays can tell you a lot about what is expected. Some schedules involve a great deal of travel and this can impact your academic pursuits. The schedule can also show you what the competitive aspirations for the team are since most colleges try to develop a team that will be competitive given their schedule. You should look at the team’s recent schedule and their record to see how well they are meeting their aspirations. It has been said that the typical college team should expect in the long run to finish with a record of 50% wins and 50% losses. A team that is consistently under this is probably overmatched and perhaps putting too few resources into its team, while the reverse might be true for a team with very few losses.
- The Tennis Facilities
The tennis facilities can be broadly defined as the courts and the training facilities. Ideally, a college should have enough quality courts to provide practice facilities for both men’s and women’s simultaneously. The courts should be in good shape and many will have viewing areas. While many schools do not have their own indoor courts, a number of schools will have at least some access to indoor courts. This is obviously a more important consideration in colder climates. In addition to courts, it is useful to look at things such as the dressing rooms that the teams use and what type of other facilities (weight rooms, sports medicine facilities, etc.) they have. In some cases, the facilities may be available on only a limited basis because of their use by other teams and the general student population.
- The Operational Budget
The operational budget for a college team is what the school allocates for travel, equipment and other such items. The operational budget for colleges can vary widely. It is a mistake not to understand what the college is going to provide for the team and what that players are required to provide for themselves. The coach should give you details of the operational budget. For example, one team might provide a player with 2 pairs of shoes. Another team will provide no shoes and a third team might provide 4 pairs of shoes. The families of most junior players have spent a substantial amount supporting the player in junior competition and now that family is facing the financial burden of college. Given this, it is best to not have any surprises by expecting an operational budget that is different from that which actually exists.
What are coaches looking for in junior players?
This is a difficult question since coaches do have different perspectives and their needs are not always the same. In general, a coach would like a player who would be a good student, capable of competing in singles and doubles, have good practice habits, have a good on-court attitude, and be dependable and fit.
The academic expectations of the school and the coach will need to match. A coach generally will not wan to recruit a player who cannot (or will not) be able to make the grade academically. Most coaches want to recruit players that they know can graduate, stay eligible for competition and will not require constant supervision.
While junior rankings are important, most coaches are interested in how a player will compete at the college level. Thus, a junior ranking is not a guarantee that a coach will assume that you will be a good player on the collegiate level. Some very good junior players have not competed successfully at the collegiate level and other players have done better at the collegiate level than in the juniors. In addition, junior rankings often do not measure a player’s capability in doubles since many junior players do not play doubles regularly. Doubles at the collegiate level is important since the doubles decides many collegiate matches. Being able to play successful doubles (or not being very good at doubles) can be a real deceasing factor in a school’s level of interest in a player.
College tennis is a tough arena for competition. Players need to work hard each day and “come to play” for each match. The season can be a burden when you are balancing academics and tennis. Consequently, a coach will value very highly a player who will work hard in practice, stay focused in his/her matches and manage his/her academic burdens themselves. Increasingly, coaches are concerned about players who do not have a lot of composure in matches. No coach wants to deal with a “prima donna” and many feel the presence of such allayer on a team is a detriment to the team.
Most junior players have a physical adjustment to make in moving to college tennis. At the college level, most of your matches (in challenges and against other teams) will be against a player who is perfectly capable of defeating you. This makes physical conditioning important. A lot of junior players are not as fit as college coaches require. Thus, getting in excellent condition and staying there is a pre-requisite for college tennis success. A lot o f players have lost an opportunity to make a college team by not showing up for fall or spring practice in good shape. A coach is also less likely to recruit a player whose fitness the coach has cause to question.
Here are some other suggestions for potential college players:
- Check the website for the school’s rosters. These are common now and reflect the number of internationals, the number of seniors, people you may know and their ability level. If possible, find out where people you know play in the lineup-then compare your ability to theirs.
- My golfing pro buddy said: “There are two kinds of people at a golf course, the workers and the players, and all the players are looking for a job.” Tim Wilkison is the only person in the entire history of North Carolina to earn a real living playing tennis. The odds are slim to nothing. Don’t put playing ahead of a degree.
- That said, if you really want to play college tennis, don’t be talked out of it. It’s great for those who are suited to it.
- Go where you can play. It’s your responsibility to find the right “fit”. The “perfect fit” is school, scholarship, coach, teammates and starting position. Sometimes you may have to “give” on one or two of these variables.
- I heard a coach say one time “…most kids gravitate to programs that are one level too high. Then they don’t play.” There has never been a happy substitute. My experience tells me if you can’t start your first year you probably never will.
- Go to a school where you will be happy if injured, etc. and can’t play. Most good kids are happy at most good schools of their choice. But if you make an initial mistake, nobody (kid, coach, parents) will be happy and it can get messy.
The United States Tennis Association produces a document on the same subject. I’d like to emphasize a few points:
- If you really want to play, go where you CAN play.
- Its been said that many athletes gravitate to one level beyond their ability. There’s never been a “happy substitute”.
- In college tennis if you don’t get to play your first year, you probably won’t get to play. This is not always true but do you want to gamble?
- When tryouts were allowed, I’d have my #4 player play a set with the prospect. If the prospect played closely with #4, he had a chance at our school. It was amazing to me how many times a prospect, having just lost 6-1, would tell a parent, “I’m better than that guy.”
- Transferring, if you make a mistake, is not always easy to do.