Finding the right school to play college tennis is intimidating and scary, with many unexpected twists and turns. Coaches negotiate deals with recruits for a living, players and their families do not … advantage: Coaches. I's not easy to get past the superficial, as my longtime student and friend Howard Endelman, Coach of the amazing Columbia team (they were just ranked fifth in the nation, the highest ranking of any Ivy Men's Tennis team ever) points out, "If the Patriots' Bill Belichick doesn't like his personnel, he can draft, sign a free agent or make a trade." College tennis coaches can only recruit, so they need to be savvy and sometimes aggressive salespeople. Caveat Emptor: Let the Buyer Beware!
I reached out to some of the best college coaches in the country, many of whom I've been fortunate to coach and mentor and asked a simple question: "What are the most important things that a future college tennis student/athlete should know that they probably don't?"
Their advice is invaluable because it values substance over style and helps you make a great choice and you will only want to make this choice once. I've integrated their answers with a few observations of my own.
Along with a great thanks to Howard, I want to acknowledge my gratitude to: Bryan Koniecko, the rising national coaching star of Central Florida; Paul Wardlaw of Brown, the Dean of Ivy Coaches; Tim Mayotte of Harvard, a former number seven in the world; Long Island great Chis Garner of Navy; Ty Tucker of the current number one-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes; Jackie Bagwell of Amherst, winner of eight D3 National Championships; Long Island's Adam Steinberg of the University of Michigan, winner of a D1 National Championship while at Pepperdine; and Andres Pedroso, Coach of the current D1 National Champion UVA, who I am proud to say will coach my club's long-time student Ryan Goetz next fall.
One central theme emerged: Find out as much as you can about the culture of the school, the program, the team member's and the coach and make sure it's a strong match
Your values must align, and you must find out what's it really like to play for the program and what drives it day to day. College tennis is an exciting chapter in your life, but also a major transition. Understand the personality of your coach, because they will be your guide. Realize, however, at some point, they may leave, so it's okay to ask them what their future plans are, especially if you notice they have moved a lot. Also get to know your potential teammates because they can be friends for life and a major part of your social circle. Do they hang out, eat and study together? Is the culture inclusive and supportive? Ultimately, if you close your eyes, can you see yourself spending four years at a school?
Here are some more great practical ideas to consider …
Before you enroll:
►Watch a practice in its entirety to really see what happens on the team.
►Be engaged on a visit, and practice your best behavior. And please, stay off your cellphone.
►Write your own e-mails, as coaches want to hear from the players, not the parents.
►Ask what the team does in the offseason and about the expectations.
►Learn how the coach feels about a semester abroad.
►Find out how scheduling conflicts between academics and athletics will be handled.
►Consider if you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a smaller fish in a larger one. Is playing high in the lineup a priority for you, or could you sit on the bench for a chance to crack the lineup?
►Be honest with the coaches. They do interact with one another and dishonest dealings can come back to haunt you.
►Coaches will ask team members if they know you and what they think of you. Protect your reputation. The tennis world is a small world.
►Find out how vocal the team is. Will you feel comfortable around aggressive teammates?
►Doubles matter in college, so practice your team skills.
►Prepare extensively off the court with fitness, or you will be in for a major wakeup call.
►Playing high school tennis is a plus, but its emphasis is regional. In Ohio, for example, everyone, even Blue Chip prospects, play for their school.
►Have your private coach, friend or recruitment service advocate for you directly to a school coach only if they have a strong reputation in the tennis community. Half of all "I know them, I will put in a good word" offers will be ineffective and likely counterproductive.
►Build a long strong record of participation, commitment and success, and small setbacks will not matter.
►Use the coach and the team to get info on class selection. They know the professors and the school. Use them.
►If you don't make the team, make yourself available to the coach and players. Feed balls, hit serves and be available as a resource. Spots can open up, and if you love the sport and it shows, a spot may be found for you.
►Make contacts with alums. A great school is as much about the people you meet as it is about what you learn in the classroom, and the alumni usually want to help.
►Be careful with social media. Show support and keep conflicts strictly in the personal world, not in the electronic world.
►Get to know the assistant coach, you will likely spend more time with them than you will with the head coach.
►Go out of your way to meet coaches and players from other teams to build your network down the road.
►Be disciplined about you schoolwork and take what you learn in the class to the court, and what you learn on court to the classroom.
►Be involved in the community. Coaches love players who promote the team. Many programs have been canceled in the last 20 years because they were not relevant on and off campus.
►Coaches’ views on home-schooling may vary, but all recognize if you have home-schooled, assimilation back to a classroom environment may be a challenge.
►Compartmentalize and keep your off the court problems, off the court. As a freshman, a long-time student of mine, Sandra Birch of Stanford, tried to write an English paper during the changeovers of a match against UCLA. It didn't go very well. Sandra did learn to use tennis as a safe haven and stress release from her busy day, and went on to win two NCAA Singles Championships.
►Finally, remember the first day a player walks on campus, the Tennis Recruiting Network Rankings and UTR Ratings that seemed so important as a junior player go out the window. Visits try to glamorize and while your day-to-day life will be rewarding, it will also be demanding. College tennis is a fresh start and you must earn your success.
Be brave and choose carefully, be a worker, and a team player and I guarantee, the college experience will be the best part of your tennis career.
Steve Kaplan is the Owner and Managing Director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as the Director of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and Executive Director and Founder of Serve & Return, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that provides free tennis programs to individuals experiencing adversity and struggle. Over the last 35 years, Steve has coached more than 1,000 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 state high school champions, and 2 NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions.He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.