I spent 4 years competing as an elite collegiate tennis player and another 12 years coaching college tennis in three different conferences, on both the men’s and women’s side. The landscape of college tennis and college sports in general have changed dramatically since I commenced my playing career over 16 years ago. There is more money and resources available to these student-athletes than ever before and it appears that there has never been a better time to be a student-athlete than today. The quality of coaching, the access to medical care, the extra money available from student assistance funds, the ability to showcase their talents via social media, the internet and on cable television. The list goes on and the college experience I enjoyed in the late 90’s looks very different to how it does today.
However, I don’t necessarily believe that nicer facilities, bigger scholarship checks and more support staff is always of greater benefit to these young players. Many NCAA Division I universities have created endless safety nets in order to protect these students from failing, which they believe would negatively impact a team’s success or an Athletic Department’s reputation. My belief is that it will be a difficult path for student-athletes to experience deep growth and make positive changes in their lives if we don’t allow them fail.
It was once understood that being a student-athlete would be a rewarding yet very challenging experience. Personally, I had a difficult freshmen year as I adapted to the college game, a different court surface, a new coaching style, a strange culture, and gaining my independence among other things. However, I endured many small challenges and by the end of my first semester as a sophomore I was thriving and taking full advantage of this unique opportunity. I grew each and every year, and by the end of my 4 years, I felt prepared to take on the real world. The lessons I learned from my athletic experience and coach far outweighed what I acquired in the classroom. I had become tougher, better able to handle any adversity thrown my way, all while developing my leadership capabilities. As a coach, I have had the great pleasure of watching many other players under my watch go through this same process time and time again. I have dozens of letters from former players thanking me for putting them through some of these difficulties and challenging them every step of the way. They did not understand it at first, but they persevered and benefitted greatly from the experience. Today they are applying these lessons in their personal and professional lives.
It appears now that many players, parents and athletic department administrators no longer trust in this four-year process. If players are criticized or challenged early in their career, they want to transfer, quit (but keep their scholarship) or run to the athletic administration to have someone set the coach straight! In recent years, I have seen this occur more frequently in all sports in many athletic departments throughout the country, and it is a very concerning trend for the future of our sport and, quite frankly, the future of our society. How can we develop leaders if they only believe everything should be “fun”, conflict-free and have no interest in being pushed outside of their comfort-zone?
There are many parties to blame for this trend, including the college coaches. We promise these student-athletes the world during the recruiting process and then wonder why they feel entitled when they get on campus! However, players and their parents need to understand that it is an honor and not a right to receive a scholarship to represent and compete for a specific institution of higher learning. Players need to truly understand what it is they have signed up for and look for ways to be better prepared for the realities and expectations of being a student-athlete. I hope in some small way, the following list can help current and future collegiate tennis players:
1. You are no longer paying the coach for their input, like you have done for most of your tennis career. The coach, or more correctly, the University is paying YOU. Understand that one of the reasons your junior coach was probably super positive and encouraging was because you were contributing to their wages. They were willing to hold back their opinions and avoid being completely honest with you so that you would continue to pay them for their services.
2. I hate to call playing college tennis a job, but the process of receiving a scholarship can be a great bridge between High School and the job market. You are being paid for your dedication to the program just like you would be paid for any other job. With that, there will be expectations placed upon you. Don’t be surprised that your “boss” (your coach) has high expectations for you and your attitude towards playing for a team, training and competing. Your college scholarship is probably worth more than the average yearly salary for most people in the U.S.A. There is no perfect job just like there is no perfect collegiate program. There are going to be challenges and difficulties along the way. Embrace them, learn from them and keep persevering.
3. You will either play low in your team’s line-up or will not play at all if you are not performing. You are not guaranteed a spot in the line-up because you believe yourself to be the hardest worker or make some better life decisions than your teammates.
4. Practice match wins rarely count in how the coach determines the line-up. I have a practice match win over former top 10 ATP player, Mardy Fish, it doesn’t mean I believe I should have been Top 10 in the world!
5. Your college coach cares about you a great deal, despite their actions at times. It would mean they did not care for you if they were not willing to hold you accountable for your actions. If they let you do whatever you wanted and never pushed you out of your physical and mental comfort zone then they are not a coach, they are a cheerleader.
6. Understand that the only way to resolve issues with your teammates and coaches is to communicate with them. They may not always agree with you, they may challenge your thinking patterns, but it does not mean they are unapproachable and it should not stop you from keeping the communication lines open at all times. If you have an issue, then speak with that person about it. Your parents, or anyone else for that matter, cannot solve these issues for you. Have the courage to speak your mind; you have to be around these people nearly every day and it won’t be enjoyable if you are harbouring some ill will against a fellow teammate or coach.
7. Understand that you have a role in the team’s functioning and success as much as the next person on the team. Learn to take responsibility for your actions and truly understand what role you are playing in any type of team dysfunction, on or off the court. There are always two sides to every story.
8. The college coach is watching and evaluating you every day in practice, in competition and in the team environment. They often know you better than you know yourself, and they definitely know your game inside and out. Your junior coach probably did not get the opportunity to see you compete as much as they would have liked. Your college coach is sitting on your court for every match you play (which is a lot of matches) so believe me, they probably are not missing much. They know where you belong in the line-up better than anyone else, and it is not even close!
9. If you do play in the line-up, be grateful for the opportunity and don’t complain where you play. Each match is worth the same amount of points so you are playing an equally important role as the person playing No. 1. Put the team first and don’t complain about where you think you should be playing. The coach ABSOLUTELY knows best as to what line-up sets the team up for the greatest chance of success.
10. Stop telling yourself that the coach is putting pressure on you to win. There is inherently some pressure involved with trying to win for something bigger than yourself. But remember that any pressure you perceive is self-inflicted. You can choose not to succumb to that “pressure”. Again, if you don’t perform, you don’t play. That is life, get used to it. Don’t blame someone else for the things you have going on in your head. Take responsibility for your actions and your performances.
11. ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH: you will get yourself into a lot of troubling situations if you don’t own the truth. Your coach will be very understanding if you are quick to own up to any mistakes you make. You are in college: you will make plenty of mistakes. That is to be expected. Own the mistake, learn from it and help your teammates learn from it, too.