Am I good enough for college tennis, where can I go and what can i expect?

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These are some of the most common questions that we get asked a lot here at Play Atlantic and after being asked again this morning from a parent, I thought it was time I put some basic points down that everyone interested in the US pathway should consider before trying to pursue this path for their childs future.

Now contrary to popular belief from a lot of players, parents and coaches that we speak with, it is not easy to answer these because there are many different factors involved.   And it's only after you're able to answer these questions that I'm going to go through for you now, that you'll be able to see whether college tennis is the right fit for you? 

Our Background

First off to give you a little background information about our experience in the college tennis field. Both myself and Charlie (other Director) have been through the college tennis system ourselves as players and Charlie was even an assistant tennis coach for two years prior to us starting Play Atlantic ten years ago.  In that time we've helped place over a hundred tennis players in colleges across most of the states in the US, ranging from top NCAA Division one programmes, all the way through to Division two, Division three, NAIA and NJCAA colleges.   These players have come from countries around the world including New Zealand, Australia, the UK, the US and South Africa and they've all been from varying backgrounds with different financial means, tennis and academic results and future aspirations. 

The average financial aid being awarded to students (from a combination of sports/academic scholarships, work-study, international aid, RA money etc) that we've helped has been in the range of $25,000 USD a year, so over the course of four years of their education that's $100,000 in savings. So when you multiple that by just the number of tennis players that we've helped, you're looking at us having saved over $10,000,000 in financial scholarship aid for our players!

I thought it was important before I get into the details to give you our background in this area, because if your child is a good junior tennis player in your club/region/country you'll have spoken to or be speaking with numerous people in various fields who have all some level of college tennis experience from some point in their life.  And all of these people will be giving you advice with the best of intentions, some talking from their first-hand experience as a player themselves, others because they've helped a few players in the past, but not many with $10,000,000 worth of experience and advice!

Your Aspirations?

So the first question you need to ask is, what are your aspirations? What are you looking for in a college? experience? And these questions are really important!  Mainly because if what you are aspiring for doesn't match your academic grades, recent tennis results and financial family support, we have a problem!   The answer we get from players and parents to this question is always 99.9% of the time "I want to go to California, New York or even Florida, somewhere close to a big city where the tennis is Division one with a great looking schedule, oh and i want it fully paid for!?".  Now whilst this is possible for some lucky players, it's important from the start to be realistic with what you can actually attain in terms of the colleges that you're aspiring to get a scholarship from and this is where these three elements are crucial in this process...

  • Academic results
  • Recent tennis results
  • Financial family support

Recently I wrote a news article on the academic standards that you need to initially even be eligible to play college tennis. If you haven't managed to read it please do because for those of you graduating school in 2016 or later, it's going to be even harder than it is currently! After you've done that you know you're on the right track to meet the minimum requirements, but as a general rule you need a GPA of at least over a 3.0 or preferably 3.5 to receive academic aid and an SAT over 1200 (CR and Math). But like all things the better scores, the more aid you may be eligible to receive, so you need to make sure you study hard for both as early as possible (don't leave it till the last minute!!!).

The ideal scenario for a student to find a good college is a balance of all three of the elements above.  However if one of those elements is significantly higher than the other two, you will probably still be ok, depending on what you're aspiring for!?  For example if your academic grades have been exceptional through your school life, then you could potentially receive significant scholarship aid even though your tennis may not be at a high level.  Or if your tennis is at a very high level (ATP/WTA ranking or top ITF player) but you lack the academic grades, chances are a top college will pay for you to join them. And even if your tennis and grades are very average but your family are able/willing to significantly invest in your education to make up for the other two short falls, you'll be able to find a good college that fits your needs.

You also need to ask yourselves "how much do you really want to play college tennis and what are you prepared to do to get there?".  Now we're talking about a world-class education here, that in a lot of cases is heavily subsidized or fully-funded (upto $60k a year!) and the opportunity to carry on developing your tennis.  Make no mistake this opportunity is in demand from tennis players across the world! The US college pathway has proven to be a great stepping stone for players with aspirations on going pro and is seen by everyone as a fantastic way to get university education funded.  

If you're from a country where the level of tennis is below that of countries in Europe or South America, where they have a strength in depth that includes numerous ATP and WTA players in the top hundred, then you're already behind the game in terms of competing for those top spots because those countries have strong international reputations.  Although a lot of the players that we help do have strong ITF rankings, let's say in the top 200/300, it's the quality of those ranking points that college coaches look at, not simply the number! So they look at the part of the world where those points were picked up and who they competed against to win them. So let's say Joe Blogs won a grade 3 ITF in Paris, beating players from all over the world, that would mean a lot more to coaches than if Joe won a grade 3 in Hamilton against local players that they don't know. So a tip here is if you want to go to a top college, you need to get top ranking points! If you invest in that aspect of your tennis as early as possible, it's guaranteed to repay you back in the future!

What standard do you need to be?

Although it is very difficult to give you an accurate ranking that you need to be to play college tennis due to what I've already discussed, what I can give you is a general guideline.  To play in a top NCAA division one ranked programme the coaches look for players with ATP/WTA or high (top 150) ITF rankings.  We've had numerous players ranked #250 ITF who have played #6 in a team that weren't even ranked in the top 75! So that means the standard is tough and it's getting harder each year!  Personally I think this has to do with the rising tuition fees worldwide now, so a subsidized education in America has started to look pretty good for everyone!?  

However as I said, there are many different levels and opportunities over there if your aspirations are realistic. So if your tennis level is let's say #1000 ITF or just outside you're good enough to play college tennis, but you're not good enough to go to a ranked division one or one competing to become ranked (unless you have a lot of financial support from your family!).  That means lower division ones, division two, three, NAIA or even NJCAA colleges are your better options and which depends on...yes those three elements again (academics, recent results and your families financial support).   

ncaa, naia and njcaa logos

If you are around this level and you have friends playing in division one, or your coach thinks this is the only level for you, then you should prepare your parents to invest in you, because yes there are some slots that you can find on teams where you will be competing for the number six spot on the team, but if you're playing at #6 you'll be paying for the lions share of your education (on guys teams the scholarship amounts given are based on a sliding scale with top three players receiving the most - remember girls get more $$ in div.1 due to equal opportunities rules, so this doesn't necessarily apply to them).

Also another negative for being at a team where you are competing for the number six spot is the pressure you'll be under to perform.  They'll normally be at least 8-9 players competing for spots on every team and if the coach has brought you in as an international to do a good job and you're struggling for form at #6, some coaches will look to cut your scholarship funding for the next year (financial aid is reviewed and adjusted every year).

Recruitment Process

The top colleges start their recruitment up to 2 or even 3 years in advance, so some coaches have already got their roster sorted for students graduating in 2016. Which means if you're graduating in the next couple of years and you haven't started the need to get moving!! We've never had any issues because students and parents were too prepared or started too early. The vast majority of problems with players finding a good college that fits for them is usually because either they have left it far too late (once they have graduated school) or because they've trusted their coach/friend/cousin/uncle to help them with the process but they haven't been very successful. 

We often hear from the student/parent that they need to concentrate on their final year at high school before they can even consider looking into US colleges..."once they finish their exams we'll look into it".  And for some students granted that's ok, they can get away with it, get a bit lucky and find a good college. However for most students all you're doing is drastically reducing your college choices and athletic aid options by not multi-tasking.  Students in the US start this process in their first year at high school, so internationals need to follow suit.


clock is ticking

During this recruitment process what coaches look for more than anything and this will sound obvious, but they're looking at your W's (wins).  It's all about the W's! A college coach assessing you doesn't really care that you played well but lost in three sets to someone who used to have a high ITF ranking, or that you beat a strong player in practice, or even that you beat a fellow local in an ITF.  What they are after more than anything are the wins that you pick up against quality opposition (not locals). This may sound ruthless but in college tennis, especially NCAA division one, everyone is a good player, there are no 'bad' players! So that means everyone is 'talented', but it's often not these players that do well at college (or even on the pro circuit), it's the ones that are dedicated and prepared to work harder than everyone else to get that W!  I'm not saying that they don't work hard to develop you, of course they do, and they have a full team of services and specialists around them to do just that, but be aware that coaches are paid by their college to win and it's those wins that in the end determine their future and therefore yours once you're there.

What can I expect once I'm there?

For most students you should expect to have the time of your life! You're traveling around the country competing against other college teams, in a team environment that is seldom experienced in individual sports like tennis.  There's a reason why most older people you talk to say that their time at university were the best days of their lives!

However if you're joining a strong college that is in a competitive tennis conference, who are searching for a ranking and with a competitive coach, you should prepare yourself to work harder than you have ever worked on a tennis court, so please don't expect a holiday when you arrive! If you are going to a college where they want to compete for a national ranking and have a competitive schedule, the chances are the coach is going to be tough, probably much tougher than you're used to and someone that's going to push your comfort zone past the point where you want it to go.  When you play in the college matches, the competition is fierce, you will get heckled by the opposing teams spectators, you will get shouted at by your coach to run faster, work harder, play get that W.

If what I'm saying doesn't sound too appealing to you then you know a division one college isn't necessarily the right for for you. I'm not saying that they're all like that, but the coaches/colleges that are wanting to compete for titles are looking for players to come over and be soldiers for them, fighting and working hard for the team. They don't want anyone who's not willing to push themselves beyond their limits both mentally and physically, so please be warned!

This is where you need to be honest with yourself on your aspirations and what you're willing to do to make them a reality. We always do our very best to place our players at a college that is the right fit for them, but sometimes the aspirations of the player/parents are not 100% honest to what they are actually willing to give when they are over there. Therefore conflicts can occur in their first year with the player and coach who pushes that comfort zone level. If this happens it will always result in the player losing out, usually in terms of a withdrawal of scholarship aid, which always comes as a surprise to the player/parent because they're not used to this change in dynamic between coach and player (the coach is now paying for the player to be there!).

Be Open-Minded

Unlike what most people think, the NCAA division system isn't based on standard like most people think. So there are lots of division two colleges that have better athletic programmes and stronger teams than a lot of division ones, and numerous division three and NAIA colleges are much stronger academically. In fact some of the most academic colleges in the country play in the NCAA division three, whilst NAIA colleges are usually smaller private more personal colleges.  

So another words be open minded on where you aspire to go to college and don't think of only the places that everyone else says or what you see on the TV.  Unless you've been there and seen it yourself, keep all your options open! I was actually guilty of this myself last October when we were on our US tour visiting colleges and meeting new coaches.  Prior to arriving in Kansas I had a preconceived image on what I thought it would be like but in fact I was totally wrong and Kansas City is now one of my favourite places in the US. 

I hope some of this information has helped you and given you a clearer picture on what to expect from college tennis. If you're still not sure whether you are good enough or whether your aspirations match what is realistically achievable, why not sign up for one our FREE profiles now, complete all the academic and athletic details and we'll tell you :)

By Sheridan