For years, accomplished USTA junior tennis players have grappled with the question of whether to play on their high school teams. While they want to support their team and school, they don’t want their level of play to deteriorate over the course of the season. Strong high school teams with 4 and 5-star caliber players and accomplished coaches do exist, but they are the exception and not the norm. Strong players on weak high school teams are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, there’s much to be said for the friendships, camaraderie and school spirit that comes from competing on a high school team; on the other hand, the level of play on many teams is considerably weaker than the tournament training to which these players are accustomed. If high school coaches are inflexible about allowing highly successful junior players to practice outside of the team, the players often feel like their team participation jeopardizes their tennis development.
The dilemma is further magnified during the all important junior year. College recruiting ramps up during the junior year in high school and further accelerates during the summer between the junior and senior years. Players, especially those who qualify for Level 1 and Level 2 nationals in the summer before the senior year, are looking to be in peak form and post strong results in order to garner interest from top programs at all three NCAA Divisions. And while some high school seasons take place in the Fall, in many parts of the country the high school season is in the Spring. So at the very time when a player needs to be peaking, they are coming out of a high school tennis environment that is often less than optimal.
So how important is playing high school tennis? We polled a number of coaches from all 3 NCAA divisions, and as one might expect, their answers varied dramatically. Our expectation was that as the level of the college team improved, the coaches would be less inclined to care whether or not a recruit played for his or her high school team as long as they met the desired standard of play. While this was true to some extent–several coaches from nationally ranked D1 schools said it had no bearing on who they recruit–we were surprised at the number of coaches from D1 teams that we would consider “top 100” programs along with highly ranked Division 2 and 3 programs who felt that a player’s participation on their HS team was important. Some expressed that they value leadership skills and that high school tennis is a good opportunity to learn and show such skills. Others mentioned that the creativity needed to maintain a high level of play in a less than ideal training environment is the type of skill that makes players more successful in the long run, even if there is a temporary decline in the level of play. Others alluded to fact that most junior tennis players are never in a team environment if they forgo their HS program and therefore are lacking the skills necessary to be a good teammate in college.
What should players consider when making this decision? The big question is: can I get better or at least maintain my level of play participating in my high school tennis program? The answer starts with an honest assessment of your own level of play relative to the level of others on the team. As long as the gap is not huge, then the player should be able to maintain their level of play. The proper attitude, however, is essential. With a good attitude and open mind, there is no reason why a 4 or even 5 star player could not get a meaningful workout with a 2-star player. Conversely, with a poor attitude and a willingness to make the excuse that you can’t get better unless you practice and play with others at your level, your game and confidence will no doubt deteriorate.
The importance of having a good attitude is right near the top of every college coach’s list of attributes they look for in a recruit. A frustration shared by all coaches, whether in the juniors, high school or college, is when a player thinks they’re too good to be training with players who they don’t consider their equals. Those players who will only work their hardest when they are practicing with players as strong as or stronger than them display the very attitude that any coach detests. Working hard regardless of the situation is the type of attitude that will endear a player to every college coach… and high school programs are often ideal places to display such positive attitudes and work ethics.
The creativity that some college coaches mentioned could mean improving your serve and fitness during your high school practice by hitting buckets of serves and doing lots of footwork drills, neither of which requires a high level player on the other side of the net. When a player takes the responsibility and accepts the challenge of getting better in a less than ideal training environment, they are learning skills that will make them an appealing recruit.
Some high school coaches may be flexible and allow players to skip some practices and train on their own at certain times if the high school team practices don’t provide a challenging workout. The proper way to see if this is possible is to express to the coach your desire to be on the team and to explore ways where this can happen while still doing some training in your normal environment…and still competing in certain important USTA tournaments. A cooperative approach rather than demanding concessions will likely increase your chance of being allowed some flexibility. This type of approach is the first step along the path of being the team leader.
There are no absolutes when it comes to making the decision to play high school tennis, and each case should be looked at on an individual basis. There are certainly situations where it truly may not make sense for a player to participate in high school tennis. Even so, this is a decision that should be made only after weighing the pros and cons. If a player with a truly weak high school team has ambitious college tennis goals that require improved results during the junior year–and that player is a realistic candidate to reach those goals–then skipping high school tennis probably makes sense. But for most USTA players, participating in high school tennis is the right decision. And instances where a player skips high school tennis during 9th and 10th grade should be rare. If more highly ranked players decided to participate in high school tennis the level might rise to the point where it actually offers the type of environment where top player’s games do not have to suffer.
Playing high school tennis and being a candidate to get recruited by a high level college program are not mutually exclusive. When deciding whether to play high school tennis, look not simply at the level of your teammates, but at the other skills that can be developed by playing on your high school team. And don’t ignore the fact that some of these skills are the very ones that will make you an even more appealing recruit to a college coach.
Donovan Tennis Strategies
Donovan Tennis Strategies has been helping prospective college tennis players and their families navigate the recruiting process since 1997. In addition to consulting services DTS runs two College Prospects Showcases to help players get exposure to college coaches.