It happens quickly, from the time that you are enrolled in college and in less than four years and a total of eight semesters, it’s over. You have a diploma in hand and your eligibility to play collegiate sports is complete and recorded. I am a parent of two college graduates, a coach, professional at the grassroots level and at the collegiate level coaching both men’s and women’s tennis. I have experienced a great deal in the tennis and collegiate worlds, and believe I can provide some great advice for parents who are using tennis as a supplemental tool to help their son or daughter get into college. A parent can drive their children to tennis lessons and expensive academies, as well as driving all over the New York metropolitan area and beyond for USTA tournaments. For what? Why do you do this, or better yet, why did I do it? Was it to help your children shine on their high school team, get into college or just be a standout in the sport of tennis? Better yet, was it to give them the sport they can have, enjoy and use for a lifetime? I hope for most, it’s the latter.
Years ago, I wrote about this topic and let it lie dormant as I then wrote a lot about college sports, coaching and exceeding your own expectations. I love writing about those topics, as they relate to sports, and more specifically, our game of tennis. However, “The Sport of Tennis … the Game for a Lifetime” is often used by the USTA when they are on a promotional campaign to promote the sport. I want parents and coaches to not lose sight of the very big picture, and understand there is so much more to our sport than shuttling to lessons and tournaments.
When a student arrives at college as an 18-year-old, they are still growing and maturing, especially young men whose brains are not fully developed until about 23- or 24-years-old. The player I recruit and see when they arrive at college is not the same player that will be on the roster two or three years later. Their game is still in development, they are maturing, learning responsibility and refining their time management skills. When they graduate and finish the four-year athletic experience, that same student is overwhelmingly different in so many ways. As it relates to tennis, it’s light years different. They graduate … now what? Well hopefully, they are on their way to graduate school or a fulfilling career, and tennis is still very much part of their lives. Tennis opens doors businesswise, socially and keeps us all fit as we get older.
Some parents I meet are so laser-focused on the athletic collegiate experience that they lose sight in the blink of an eye of the overall collegiate experience. If you were playing baseball, lacrosse or football, the four-year collegiate career generally brings an end to that sport competitively. But not in tennis. You are just revving up and your game can only get better, not just in the skill-development department, but socially as well. My son, a 26-year-old who played Division III tennis for four years, just moved to Denver. The first thing he did was move his belongings into his apartment, and the next thing he did was go to the local tennis facility in Denver. Within two hours, he had games lined up, joined a club tournament, registered for several high level clinics, and in 48 hours, was asked to be on a USTA team. The best part was, in New York, we pay a small fortune for all of those tennis activities. However in Denver for less than $100 along with his tennis experience/background, bought him a season of competition and access to a social web. This web of socialization without tennis probably would have taken him longer. As a parent of that 26-year-old man and always a parent, the four-year college experience for him was something we were proud of. But I was even more excited about the doors that were opened after his move to Denver just because he knew how to hit a ball over the net. With a little proactivity on his part, he was on his way to a new tennis career in a new city. Dividends to the game paid off well beyond the college experience and will pay bonuses for years to come.
My second child, a recent university graduate who played two years in school, was starved for some exercise and social interaction upon returning home after four years of being away. The lessons, drilling, tournament chauffeuring and my time was not so he could just play in college. That part of the tennis life journey was just a small chapter en route to a full existence where tennis is a staple was always our intention for our children. What did he do? Back to the tennis club where he began his career as an eight-year-old and there he networked his way to several tennis games throughout the week.
I meet many parents in my office at the college where I coach and one of the first questions asked in the recruiting process is, “Will my son or daughter get a starting spot?” My answer is one of these responses: “Will they work for a starting spot? Will they work hard in practice to deserve a starting spot? Will they work hard on academics while they are a member of the tennis squad?” As a coach, I want to provide students with a great experience, while they are on the tennis squad. However, in order to get that great experience, you have to do your share. Come to practice on time, take care of your body, act responsibly, do well in school and make the commitment. With those loyalties, you will become what I believe to be a more complete person. Then comes graduation and your tennis career will really blossom, not in college but for the rest of their life. The tools we provide in college is just one piece of the equation that will catapult the lifetime tennis career.
Get ready for the journey … it has a shelf life that lasts a lifetime. Parents, make sure you are getting your children involved in the game for the right reasons.
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.