Below is a sample of a conversation that would transpire between myself (ME) and many coaches (MR. COACH) around the world while I was recruiting players to play college tennis. Some of the quotes have actually come out of the mouths of many coaches and every college coach has heard this type of thing countless times.
MR. COACH: “College tennis is for players who have given up and have no interest in getting better…”
ME: “Really, why do you think that?”
MR. COACH: “College tennis is where good tennis players go to die, because so-and-so went to college and now they are terrible.”
ME: “But what about so-and-so from your country who has improved tremendously and is now in a much better position to play professionally than when they were age 18?”
MR. COACH: “I don’t care, my player is turning pro and does not want to go to college.”
ME: “You mean this player we are watching here, with no backhand, and is yet to make it out of the qualifying of a $10K event in 13 attempts?”
MR. COACH: “Ahhh, yes.”
ME: “So you truly believe that college tennis is a waste of time for any player with professional aspirations?”
MR. COACH: “Yes, if you go to college your chances of turning pro are very low.”
ME: “Well, is that not the case for almost all aspiring young tennis players coming out of juniors and into the pros? Have you ever thought about all those promising, top 25 ITF juniors that never made a living from the sport and are most likely languishing somewhere in the 200-500 range on the ATP or WTA tours? They are probably spending money they do not have, having difficulty staying motivated, and doing little to help their future career prospects. Has “turning pro” not been a waste of their time and resources? Would you not say that a player who attended college and now has little to no debt, a significant number of college credits, if not a degree to show for their time, not to mention the chance to mature physically and mentally might be a little better off?
MR. COACH: “If you go to college you cannot be a professional tennis player, the coaches are terrible and players don’t improve.”
ME: “Look, I could sit here and rattle off a bunch of names that will disprove your argument. Then you will tell me all the names of the players that did not go to college and are now professional tennis players. I am not arrogant enough to say that any one path is the right path to making a living as a professional tennis player. No one truly knows the correct pathway to tennis greatness, as there are so many different factors and everyone responds differently to these factors. I believe the advice you are giving this young player, and other players you are coaching, is highly misinformed and somewhat selfish!”
MR. COACH: “Really, well why don’t you enlighten me young man.”
ME: “Don’t worry I will, but firstly, have you really questioned your motives behind dispensing such one sided advice to your pupils? Is it because you want them to keep paying your salary? Is it because if they do somehow miraculously make it, you will be lauded with praise, and maybe they won’t dump you for Boris Becker once they get to the top? Will it finally be redemption for all your other strongly held misinformed opinions about tennis development, and show everyone you were right all along, and your way is the best way despite all the other players you coached that never made it? All of sudden you are the best coach out there because one of your 340 students over the last 3 decades finally made it, and YOU should get the credit?? Are you really doing right by your pupils if you are telling them the only way they can possibly make it is if they turn pro at age 16?”
MR. COACH: “College tennis is for losers. How can I tell them they will achieve their dreams going to college?”
ME: “Are they really their dreams, or are they your dreams?
MR. COACH: “Well then, why don’t you tell me why my pupils should choose college over professional tennis.”
ME: “Just to set the record straight, I am not saying that college tennis is for everyone. There are several reasons why college might not be the right fit for an accomplished junior tennis player but ultimately, there is no reason why you cannot have both.”
MR. COACH: “Oh, so now you agree with me that college tennis is not for everyone?”
ME: “Yes, I like to give balanced information and make players aware of all their options and take nothing off the table. If a player has no interest in leaving their hometown and does not believe they would be happy moving away from their family and friends for a few years, then availing of a tennis scholarship might not be for them. If a player has no interest in pursuing a third level education, and does not want to spend another 4 years in a classroom for a few hours per day, then there is nothing wrong with that and they probably should not go to college. Lastly, if a player is consistently engaging in competitive matches and sometimes beating players in the top 300 (in tournament play, NOT PRACTICE) in the ATP or WTA rankings, then they may be ready physically, mentally and technically to play professional tennis on a full time basis. Everyone else, I believe, would benefit greatly from accepting a college scholarship to a university that meets their needs.”
MR. COACH: “Ohh, so college tennis isn’t perfect after all?”
ME: “No, of course it’s not. That is my point, there is no one way for any player. If someone had the roadmap to tennis greatness, then we would all copy it and life would be boring! However, here is why I think college tennis is the right solution for the vast majority of aspiring tennis players:
1. Most players are not fully physically or mentally prepared for the rigors of the pro tour and facing older, more experienced competition week in week out for 30 weeks per year. The average age of a top 100 WTA and ATP player is now in the late 20’s (29 on the ATP Tour!). Do you want them spending money they don’t have, losing early in tournaments, while depleting their confidence in themselves and their games as they flounder at the lower levels of the professional game? What if they could go somewhere for 4 years, all expenses paid and become physically and mentally tougher due to the natural maturation process? What if they also had unlimited free access to world class health care, training facilities, and coaches and are provided with all the equipment they need, as well as support staff and team mates to help them accomplish their goals?
2. Yes, I agree with you, Mr. Coach, that very few players who play college tennis actually make it on the pro tour, but yet again very few players make it on the professional tour, full stop. In fact, I think college is the perfect place to weed out all those players who thought they wanted to go pro, only to find out they really don’t have what it takes, and are not all that interested in spending the next 10 years of their lives travelling from one hotel room to the next, and devoting every waking hour to their tennis. College tennis is doing the pro ranks a favor by letting these players actually determine for themselves if a career in tennis is really what they want after all. There are so many young junior players that come to college who were on the fence about going to college or playing pro. They get to college and they are A) astounded by the level, and B) unable to keep up the work rate and intensity required during training sessions on and off the court. They truly have no idea what it takes to train like a professional because coaches like you have mollycoddled them for so long and not exposed them to the type of discipline, tough love, focus and time management required to be successful in their sport! It was a toss-up for these players whether to declare as a professional or come to college and many of them only came because they knew they could turn pro after one year. That would have been another year of them showing up late for practices, having terrible attitudes, and getting away with the same undisciplined behaviors that they have gotten away with for years.”
MR.COACH: “How dare you, my players are extremely disciplined and work hard!”
ME: “Yes, I am sure they are. This player here without any backhand started tanking two games ago and I have counted her throwing her racket five times. The other player I saw you coaching this morning is over there on his cellphone, eating a KitKat and drinking a Coke, even though he is next court on. Anyway, back to my third point:
3. Players don’t have to come to college for 4 years if they don’t want to. Many colleges will now pay for them to come back after their pro careers. The college year is just 9 months long. The players who want to play pro can play a full professional schedule in the summers. Also, many programs are now taking their better players to pro events, and even hosting pro events in the fall term in order to give their players exposure to the pro level. They can get the best of both worlds! And if it doesn’t work out or they are dominating the competition, then they can make a smoother transition to that next level at any time. They really have nothing to lose and so much to gain. They can test the waters of playing professionally to gauge where they are at without limiting their future prospects.
4. Players have access to great medical care and should they suffer a career ending injury or illness, their scholarship is still guaranteed and they will be able to finish their studies, while receiving some of the best healthcare the world has to offer, all free of charge. That is not the case if they turn pro at an early age and reduce their options. If they get hurt, well, what then?”
MR. COACH: “Yes, yes, ok I understand, but college tennis is still for losers…”
Parents and junior players, please be wary of the coach who is pushing the pro path and making you feel guilty for not committing to a 12-month schedule of practice and competition under their supervision, and telling you that you cannot be a professional tennis player if you go to a traditional school or go on to play college tennis.
Coaches, please do your research and give fair and balanced advice to your students. In my opinion, we need to take our egos and self-interest out of the equation and put our player’s best interests for the future ahead of our own.