I see this all too often in my travels as a collegiate head coach at the State University of New York at Oneonta—many players being trained by academy pros being advised not to play high school tennis. As I also go through the many letters, notes and communication I receive from potential student/athletes wanting to play collegiate tennis at my program, there are certain things that jump out at me. One such thing is if they played on their high school tennis team. If not, there is a lot more vetting that I will have to do to see if a player is suited to play in a collegiate team atmosphere, where teamwork is paramount to success.
It is a fact that high school tennis players tend to perform better in school. In 2013, the USTA did extensive research and found that high school tennis players spend more time doing homework. Forty-eight percent of those students reported an “A” average and more than 80 percent of them will want to attend college. On average, tennis players simply perform better in high school.
High school tennis players can use tennis to improve in other sports having cross-training benefits. With all the endurance, hand/eye coordination and flexibility benefits gained from tennis, those skills provide benefits in becoming all-around athletes.
I like to recruit tennis players who have social skills or have the tools necessary that can be developed to succeed on a collegiate team and in the workforce. A high school tennis player will have a leg up in that area. Throughout the course of the season, there are countless opportunities for the team to build camaraderie and friendships that can last a lifetime. Tennis is often thought of as an individual sport, and in many instances, this is true, but kids who play on their high school team are part of something bigger than themselves. Each individual is a small part of a larger group that is working towards a common goal. This, along with playing doubles with a partner, helps these players develop teamwork skills. Research has also shown that playing high school sports helps to “instill a sense of responsibility.”
Lastly is the mental toughness component. There are few things that are more difficult than standing alone on a tennis court during a singles match and maintaining composure while also having to endure the physical challenges of the game of tennis. As we know, especially in the game of singles, there is no one else out there to pick up the slack … it simply demands the component of mental toughness. This is compounded in a high school team environment when others are depending upon you. Wearing your school colors and being an ambassador of your educational institution is a trait that college coaches covet. Being exposed to big points with your teammates and coaches watching is a true learning experience and can prepare a student to perform in the bigger moments in life.
I am not going to write and say that I discount all high level tennis players who have not played high school varsity tennis. I will say that it is a huge red flag. I can assure you I have had a few players who played only USTA tournaments and did not participate on their high school team. It is a significant minority though. Those who do not come with a team background in high school tend to adjust slower to the rigors of collegiate tennis. The travel, the practice and not playing on your own terms is something that not all players can handle. Certainly those players who have no team background adjust slower.
Some top tier USTA tennis players will say the competition in high school is not as great as in USTA tournaments. In many cases, that could be true. So what? You get to put your school ahead of yourself. If you are good enough, you will play in the individual county and state championships against the best talent in the region with your school colors shown to spectators. Conference championships, and high school individual championships will provide you with the accolades in your community helping you to stand out. USTA tournaments come and go, there are tournaments to register for all-yearlong almost every weekend.
Your high school team activities last but two to three months for just four years of your school career. That’s a blink of the eye in the grand scheme of things. Your school is bigger than you are! Represent your high school with pride! Bring attention to the game of tennis and bring trophies back to the school for your classmates, coaches and administration to enjoy. Your USTA win is yours; nobody else’s, but in a week, people forget about it.
Go represent your school with joy and pride, and do your part to bring attention to the game of tennis in your local community. Give to something that’s bigger than you.
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.